49ers beat best defense in NFL, dreams of future Super Bowls follow

SANTA CLARA — After Sunday’s masterpiece, there’s no such thing as hyperbole when it comes to the Jimmy Garoppolo era.

The 49ers exposed the best defense in the league, winning 44-33. In the matter of weeks, a team that started 0-9 has claimed four-straight — knocking off two playoff contenders in the process — and is already counting the days until the 2018 season.

Just ask a couple guys who aren’t even under contract for next year.

“Next year, we’re going to the Super Bowl,” Carlos Hyde said, half-jokingly, after the game.

“We might be the best team that’s not in the playoffs,” Eric Reid said. “I look forward to next year.”

Either of those statements would’ve been ridiculous on Dec. 1, but after seeing Garoppolo go out and prove that he’s special against the stiffest competition yet, they don’t seem that out there anymore.

Pick any throw you’d want from your quarterback and Garoppolo delivered it. And he did it early and often, marching the Niners 79 yards for a touchdown on the first drive of the game. It set the tone that the Jags weren’t going to stop Kyle Shanahan’s offense and that didn’t fade as the game went on.

Garoppolo finished with 242 yards and three total touchdowns. He confirmed his confidence isn’t a fluke. His teammates continued to rave about his leadership.

You can stop managing expectations. He’s the real deal and the 49ers should be incredibly aggressive this offseason to ensure they’re in the postseason next year.

Just look at how bitter he made the Jaguars.

“He’s very good for their system,” Jalen Ramsey said. “They found the right quarterback to go with their system.”

The key word there is “system,” of course. Tom Brady has had his play diminished for years by critics claiming he’s a product of the scheme his team uses.

Garoppolo isn’t on that level yet, but having his opponents compliment the system is a development 49ers fans should relish. Because it obviously isn’t just the system. (Just ask Brian Hoyer or CJ Beathard if you’re not sure on that.)

Opponents killing Garoppolo with faint praise should be exactly what the Niners want to hear at this time of the year. Even if the quarterback isn’t thrilled with Hyde’s plans for next season.

“I’ll have to talk to him about that,” Garoppolo said about the running back’s prognostication. “We’re dealing with the Rams next week and we’ll look at everything else after that.”

If you read between the lines, he just gave the perfect “On to Los Angeles” response that would’ve made Brady and Bill Belichick proud.

Turning point

Sunday’s game took a similar pattern to the 49ers’ Week 15 win over the Tennessee Titans: Garoppolo led the offense to an early lead before momentum shifted and the visitors piled on a few unanswered scores.

After falling behind 16-0, the Jaguars scored 19-straight and it appeared the natural order had been restored. After all, the top seed in the AFC had claimed the lead from the 4-10 team. Surely, the first half had been an aberration.

But the 49ers defense ensured that wouldn’t happen.

K’Waun Williams, a nickelback who Shanahan targeted in free agency, made a spectacular one-handed interception — setting up the offense just outside of the red zone.

Garoppolo cashed it in with an eight-yard strike to tight end George Kittle.

The pick was the watershed moment in the game.

Jacksonville’s next three offensive possessions: punt, interception, punt.

Santa Clara’s next three offensive possessions: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.

“When the defense does that … momentum of the game changes,” Garoppolo said.

And when the offense follows those plays with touchdown strikes, it makes for a lethal football team.

The most impressive part of this group is how much it’s improved at every aspect week after week. A couple weeks ago, the offense wouldn’t have finished those drives with touchdowns; they wouldn’t have been fearless against an opponent that hadn’t allowed 44 points in a game all season.

“I think we have a tight group who believe in each other and they feed off each other,” Shanahan said. “I always feel having a tighter group is a huge advantage in this league. You’ve got to execute. You’ve got to be talented. You’ve got to make plays, but when you have guys who believe in each other, it helps overcome adversity.”

Football is a strange game in that individual players have one job to do, but the energy throughout a locker room affects everyone’s performance.

The last time the 49ers were great, it was because they had a head coach in Jim Harbaugh who had an infectious personality that inspired an incredibly talented roster.

Now they have Garoppolo, who has unleashed their head coach and his creative play designs. And seeing positive results is permeating throughout the organization and it’s realizing the culture change that CEO Jed York has talked about around Jan. 1 of the last three years.

Quick hits

Jackson-where? The Jaguars have a league-best 51 sacks this season. Their prowess of getting to the quarterback has resulted in the cringeworthy nickname “Sacksonville.” On Sunday, playing against a patchwork offensive line, they had one (1) sack. “I held the ball for a split second too long and they got to me,” Garoppolo explained, taking the blame. “I think the O-line as a whole just did a great job today. That’s as good of a pass rush as we’re going to face all year and in the future. Answering that test, it’s nice having guys like that in front of you that you can trust play after play.”

Winning time: The Niners finished 10-for-15 on third down. That kind of efficiency allows them to extend drives and get their defense adequate rest, something the team flatly couldn’t do earlier in the season.

Youth movement: The 49ers’ impact rookies showed out. Ahkelllo Witherspoon had an interception. Trent Taylor and George Kittle caught touchdowns. Matt Breida put the game away by getting around the end on a crucial third-down conversion, running it all the way in for a score with less than two minutes to play. The future is bright.

MVP, MVP, MVP: Levi’s Stadium was filled with more 49ers fans than it has been all season. They were fired up and loud. After Witherspoon’s interception, the Faithful rained down an “MVP!” chant on Garoppolo. “Robbie [Gould] told me it was for him,” Shanahan said.

Contact Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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