Why Sean Payton thinks the San Francisco 49ers are going to the Super Bowl

San Francisco's Christian McCaffrey runs for yardage against the Rams.
Christian McCaffrey add a dimension to a San Francisco 49ers offense already loaded with weapons.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells is fond of saying, you are what your record says you are. By that measure, at 4-4, the San Francisco 49ers are positively average.

But if there’s one NFL team poised to punch the accelerator over the next nine games, it’s the 49ers, who play host to the Chargers on Sunday night.

With running back Christian McCaffrey even more familiar with the playbook, and the ultra-versatile receiver Deebo Samuel back in the fold after a week off, the 49ers are suddenly one of the league’s most explosive offenses, as the Rams discovered in losing at home to their NFC West rival two weeks ago.

Yes, the 49ers already have lost four games, but they were 3-5 at this point last season and wound up getting all the way to the NFC championship game before the Rams edged them out down the stretch. This is a San Francisco team that knows how to finish strong.


“The 49ers are the team that I think ends up in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs-Bills winner,” said former New Orleans coach Sean Payton, now a Fox analyst.

Christian McCaffrey has been with the 49ers a little over a week but has learned fast, throwing, running and catching for touchdowns in blowout of Rams.

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Payton said he would have picked the 49ers to represent the NFC even before the trade for McCaffrey, but is especially confident in the wake of that blockbuster deal.

“The unique thing about Christian going there, which I love, is he doesn’t have to be what he was in Carolina,” he said. “They overused him there. It’s a little bit of a sports car here. It’s not an everyday SUV. …

“He’s going to extend his career there. He’s going to be a lot more efficient there. We’ve seen that already. And he’s going to be with someone [in coach Kyle Shanahan] who is going to create and come up with some unique ideas there.”

The NFC, in particular, is an interesting place this season. Some of the teams who have been good in recent years already are starting to circle the drain — the Rams, Green Bay, Tampa Bay — while there has been a surprising resurgence by others.


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Pete Carroll is squarely in the conversation for coach of the year, with the 6-3 Seahawks winning five of six heading into Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers in Germany. Quarterback Geno Smith has redefined his career, and looks especially good in light of the way Russell Wilson has fizzled so far in Denver.

Although the 49ers swept the Rams again this season, as they did last year, they don’t have that iron grip on the other division rivalries. San Francisco was swept by both Seattle and Arizona last season, for instance.

On the opposite side of the country are the Philadelphia Eagles, 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. There are no glaring weaknesses on that team, and the mobility of quarterback Jalen Hurts makes them particularly dangerous.

“I wouldn’t want to play Philly, because I think that quarterback uniquely adds to the run game,” Payton said. “There’s the addition of the receivers outside, they’re taking the ball away at a high rate … and their formula for scoring and taking the ball away is a little bit like ours was in New Orleans in 2009. We took it away at a record rate.”

 Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts runs against the Arizona Cardinals.
The scrambling ability of quarterback Jalen Hurts makes the Eagles’ offense very dangerous.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Minnesota has won six in a row, with the Vikings’ only loss coming in Week 2 at Philadelphia. Hurts had a phenomenal game in that 24-7 win. Since, the Vikings have proven they’re an NFC contender, and first-year coach Kevin O’Connell is the latest in a growing line of former Rams assistants to thrive with teams of their own.

The next two games will be a big test for the Vikings, who play at Buffalo on Sunday before playing host to Dallas in Week 11.

The Cowboys are yet another team elbowing for position at the top of the NFC, especially with the way they can pressure the passer. Dallas is light on receivers, but linebacker Micah Parsons and running back Ezekiel Elliott are trying to recruit their friend Odell Beckham Jr. to sign with the Cowboys. Beckham, formerly of the Rams, hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury in the Super Bowl.

It’s all part of an increasingly interesting churn that should make the NFC especially interesting in the second half of the season.