Move over, Patriots: 49ers are now the NFL’s scariest team


As the Niners have emerged from their early Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch cocoon this year, I point to the patience the team had. When CEO Jed York recruited coach and GM, he dangled six-year contracts to both as a show of (very) good faith. So if going 10-22 in the first two years tested York’s resolve, he didn’t show it. Nor was the NFL information superhighway abuzz with rumors of Shanahan’s demise. Even when the quarterback gets hurt, as happened here, impatience in the fan base is usually a thing. There was some of that on the outside, but never internally.

Shanahan paused a half-hour after the game Sunday night to consider his good fortune.

“That’s why I’m happy where I’m at—it’s the organization we have,” he said. “We went through some tough times in our first two years, especially starting 0-9. I think the next year was 1-7. When you start that way, it’s very hard for a place not to splinter. That’s what was so different here in our first two years. Going 0-9 and finishing 6-10 helped finish with some momentum. Last year, never once throughout the year did you ever feel like the defense was against the offense or vice versa. Never once did I have an owner crushing me with, ‘Hey, we gotta change this guy.’ I mean, everyone here really just believed in each other. That was really tested with some of the times we went through but I think that was the neatest thing about it. We knew we had the right people around. We just had to get a couple difference-makers and stay healthy.”

Jimmy Garoppolo making all 11 starts after missing 13 last year (knee) has been huge. But I view five pieces either new or just rapidly ascending as being huge here. Nick Bosa, the second pick in the draft, and trade acquisition Dee Ford gave the Niners the best defensive-line depth in football. In 41 pass-drops Sunday night, Rodgers was sacked five times, pressured six times and hit twice more, per PFFThe most significant hit was probably the first—and that brings us to the third relatively new guy who’s exploded for the Niners: middle linebacker Fred Warner.

“I’m a San Diego kid,” Warner told me, gripping his post-game NBC player of the game football in his arm like he didn’t want to let it go. “I loved Junior Seau. I was a Shawne Merriman fan.”

He did his best Seau on the fifth play of the game, blowing up the Green Bay protection in the middle of the line on third-and-10 at the Packer 25-yard line, sacking Rodgers, forcing a fumble and setting up the first Niner touchdown. Since San Francisco lost playmaking linebacker Kwon Alexander with a torn pectoral a month ago, Warner has taken over his explosive playmaking. He’s led the team in tackles in each of the last four games, recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles. And he’s smart, running the defense in his second year out of Brigham Young. “We’ve got a bunch of checks we had to make all game, and Fred didn’t miss one all night,” Shanahan said. “We love the guy. Love his talent. Love his brain. And then our coaches, who really know linebackers, [defensive coordinator] Robert Saleh and [position coach] DeMeco Ryans, could really tell us how he fit in our scheme, and I think it was great for John Lynch to go get him in the draft.”

Two other newbies: Free safety Jimmie Ward’s a six-year vet, but he’s been hurt so much the Niners couldn’t rely on him. This year, he’s joined the fast-rising secondary as a big hitter who excels in coverage. He made the play of the game in the secondary, going up with Jimmy Graham to break up the pass. Graham looked to come down with it, but Ward fought with him coming down and the ball came loose a split-second after Graham landed. (If the Packers challenged the play, called an incompletion, they might have overturned it.) “It was basically who wanted it more,” said Ward.

Finally, Deebo Samuel’s been a godsend to the offense. The rookie second-rounder (must have been a tremendous draft for this guy to go in the second round) broke up the game just before the half with a 42-yard streaking touchdown that left the Green Bay defenders in the dust. “I was worried I’d never learn the offense when I first got here—the playbook is so big,” Samuel told me. “But I’m good with it now. I love this offense.”

The team’s got a little bit of the Shanahan ethos. America doesn’t know him yet. He’s not as polished as his dad, veteran coach Mike Shanahan, was. Then again, he’s 39. He’s got time. What he is, is tough and an excellent play-designer and play-caller. He won’t say it, but he’s the kind of a just-try-to-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder coach who players respect. And they respect Shanahan because they know he puts them in the best position to win.

All opponents can be beaten. All opponents we respect. We can find something in everyone we play to exploit. Who does that sound like? “I’ve never met a coach who reminds me of Bill Belichick as much as Kyle,” said former Patriots and Falcons front-office man Scott Pioli, who has worked with both.

“Assume you’ll be watching Lamar Jackson against the Rams,” I said to Shanahan on Sunday night.

“We won’t have a fun Monday/Tuesday preparing for him,” he said. “But we’ll be ready by Sunday.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here

NFL Week 12 key takeaways: Josh Jacobs is extraordinary


This Josh Jacobs is a fabulous player. We’ve got 15 more pennant-racy things to talk about today than the 4-7 Raiders—the 49ers haven’t allowed a second-half point in five weeks, no one wants to win the NFC South, here comes Deshaun Watson, here come the Dolphins, Jalen Hurts could seriously challenge Patrick Mahomes for MVP, the NFL can’t be serious in keeping Denver on Sunday night in two weeks, Washington could dump the Giants into last place in the NFC East next week, what should we think of the North Little Rock Jerry Jones?—and I will get to every one, and more. But what happened in Decibelville Sunday, that 40-34 overtime win for the Raiders in Seattle, was extraordinary.

“It all started before the game,” Jacobs, the hero of Week 12 in the NFL, told me from the Raiders’ giddy locker room in Seattle. “This fan, when we came out of the tunnel, held up a sign: ‘3-7. NOT BAD FOR A TEAM WITH NO TALENT.’ And he was screaming at us, all this bad stuff. I just looked up at him and said, ‘Thank you for that. I needed that today. You turnt me up.’”

Jacobs needed it because he entered the game with a sore calf, and the Raiders didn’t know how long he’d last. Oh, he lasted. Never in his college or pro career had he touched the ball 39 times in a game. Never had he gained 303 scrimmage yards in a game. Never had he rushed for a touchdown as long as 86 yards. He did all of those things Sunday, the final winning one on his last touch of the day in overtime.

But there were losses for Jacobs too. This was a gnarly, feisty game. You think when a guy rushes for 229 yards and walks off in triumph that it was a game of joy with few trials. Not so. Seattle’s got a puncher’s defense, a physical Joe Frazier-type of D that makes you earn every inch. Jacobs was waaaay down when he failed to convert a fourth-and-one run with nine minutes left, leaving Seattle a short field; that touchdown gave the Seahawks a 34-27 lead. But the Raiders came back to force OT. And on the first play of the Raiders’ second overtime drive, the call was a Jacobs burst over right guard.

“We were running outside zone a lot, and I saw the linebackers pointing outside. So we ended up running inside zone, and I knew if I got through the line, it was a foot race after that,” Jacobs told me.

I asked Jacobs if he thought he was the best running back in football, and he demurred, saying he loved watching and learning from Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry. Let’s compare the three men who lead the NFL in rushing entering December:

Jacobs: 1,159 yards, 5.4 per rush, nine touchdowns.

Henry: 1,048 yards, 4.2 per rush, 10 touchdowns

Chubb: 1,039 yards, 5.2 per rush, 12 touchdowns.

Yes, Jacobs has a 111-yard lead for the rushing title with six games left. On Sunday, he cared more about the win. He also cared about the fan with the sign.

“He’s the first one I wanted to find after we won,” Jacobs said. “I went over to him and said, ‘Thank you.’”

The 10 stories in the NFL that interest me the most entering the home stretch of the regular season:

The NFL’s Denver problem. With the Broncos locked into one high-profile stinker in a standalone Christmas-afternoon game at the equally moribund Rams, the league has till tomorrow to flex out of the Week-14 Sunday nighter, KC at Denver.

Should Jerry Jones be publicly flogged for a 65-year-old photo? Jones, thanks to some digging by The Washington Post, is smack dab in the middle of a story of race and culture and the NFL’s bad head-coach hiring practices.

Did Odell Beckham wreck his chances to be a rare late-season playoff vaccine for a contender with his weird Florida airplane story Sunday? Probably not. The Cowboys, Bills and Giants will be the judges of that.

Doug Pederson and Brandon Staley made ballsy calls to go for two instead of playing for OT Sunday—or did they? Our sporting society is so messed up. Pederson and Staley are geniuses for going for two and converting and winning Sunday. If they’d failed? My guess is Stephen A. Smith and the Mad Dog would have them on the public grill today for bad calls.

Mike White did Robert Saleh a solid. In seven days, the Jets’ coach went from saying he wasn’t even thinking about a quarterback change from Zach Wilson, to benching Wilson for White, to watching White play the best-quarterbacked game by a Jet this season. Controversy over. There really never was one.

Well now, Jordan Love. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined by thumb and oblique injuries, and the 4-8 Packers out of any realistic playoff contention, the more-than-encouraging performance by Love should earn him a start next week at Chicago. And perhaps four more after that.

Lord, San Francisco’s defense over the past month looks like something out of the Noll days. The Niners had the league’s fourth shutout of the season Sunday. How great a clash of styles would it be to see the Niners against Dallas or Philly or the Vikes in the playoffs?

Matt Rhule’s coaching Nebraska. Mike Rozier’s not walking through that door. But the King of the Reclamation Project should have a chance to make the ‘Huskers competitive. If you can win at Temple, you can win in Lincoln.

Deshaun Watson’s back. With his mates off Monday and Tuesday after the Browns stunned Tampa Sunday, Watson will be in the facility digesting and contributing to the gameplan for next Sunday’s game in Houston. Weird and somehow fitting: Watson’s first NFL game in 700 days will come in NRG Stadium Sunday at high noon CT.

Justin Jefferson cracks my MVP top five. Part of the reason is what he does without the ball.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

What Deshaun Watson return means for Cleveland Browns


The Browns are 4-7. They’ve lost six of the last eight, but the return of Deshaun Watson gives them a prayer that, if he hits the ground running (certainly no sure thing), they could be a factor in the playoff race. Cool thing that coach Kevin Stefanski gave Jacoby Brissett, who has kept the seat warm for Watson, a game ball for engineering the comeback to beat Tom Brady and the Bucs in overtime.

Brissett’s been an excellent leader and okay player, and 4-7 is about what the public thought the Browns would be when Watson returned. “Y’all feel like I’m about to die or something,” Brissett told reporters Sunday. “I still have a job to do.” But that job now morphs into helping Watson win six games down the stretch. I still think asking Watson to play great after 23 months out of the saddle is a huge ask, but we’ll see. Who sits for two years, then has to play the most important position in the game for the six most important games of the season, and can do it at a winning level week after week?

The players are off till Wednesday. Watson will be in the building Monday and Tuesday working out and getting a start on the gameplan. He’ll take over the offense Wednesday in a 10:45 a.m. walkthrough practice, then a real practice at 1:15 that afternoon. Will the circus be around for the game in Houston—protests or vociferous booing? Likely. And with Cleveland being on the road for four of its last six games (also at Cincinnati, Washington and Pittsburgh), Watson can expect road crowds to remember exactly why he was suspended for 11 weeks in the first place.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column