The NFL season is all about trends. In a schedule that lasts 17 games, a streak of great or poor play can quickly define things and change the trajectory of what has happened in the past.
The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals are perfect examples of that phenomenon, and it was on display during the Bengals’ 31-17 win in Santa Clara on Sunday. Joe Burrow looks to have completely returned to form after an early season calf injury, at one point completing 19 straight passes while Purdy struggled to lead a 49ers comeback, turning the ball over multiple times and knocking the 49ers to their third straight loss after starting the season 5-0.
The story of the 2023 season has yet to be finished for these teams, but there has been a shift in the tales tone.
San Francisco has to be sweating right now. Purdy is getting a lot of flak and rightfully so. He ascended past the plane of being just good for a Mr. Irrelevant, he’s now the starting quarterback for a team with Super Bowl aspirations — and those come with Super Bowl expectations. When the 49ers have needed Purdy to make a play to push them across the finish line in recent weeks, he hasn’t stepped up to the occasion.
“Obviously I want to be better for this team for this organization, just taking care of the ball in some crucial parts of the games,” Purdy said. “Thats the NFL man. It comes down to it, youre not just gonna blow teams out every week. Youve gotta take care of the ball, and youve gotta play good team football.”
This could just be the growing pains for a young quarterback, who was in concussion protocol as recently as Saturday (Purdy said afterward he “felt 100%”). Or it could be a troubling trend that indicates the 49ers need to make another move at quarterback this offseason. The final nine games of the season will be telling for the 49ers and their future with Purdy.
However, this losing streak is not all on Purdy, even though he has had some ill-timed turnovers. The 49ers defense has regressed over the past few weeks, making life easier for offenses than projected. Over the past three weeks, the 49ers defense ranks 25th in expected points added per play (0.065) and 16th in success rate (43.9%). That’s not good enough for a defense that’s filled with some of the best players in the league.
The 49ers are successful because of the infrastructure around Purdy, which includes weapons like George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey, and the defense is also a big piece of that. If they aren’t going to be able to play up to their standard, they’re putting more pressure on Purdy and he might not be ready to handle that just yet.
On the other side, the Bengals are cruising in the right direction after starting 0-2 this season. They now sit at 4-3 and have everything right in front of them as far as the season goes — which is wild after how they looked to start the season.
A big reason for that is the resurgence of Joe Burrow and him slowly working his way back to full strength after a nagging calf injury to start the season.
“Its feeling really good,” Burrow said about his calf. “It felt pretty much back to normal. It was nice to get back to moving again, making plays for my team.”
The Bengals are a different team when Burrow can make use of his mobility to extend plays and hunt big chunks of yardage down the field. Burrow completed 28 of his 32 passing attempts for 282 yards and three touchdowns. Ja’Marr Chase was a beneficiary of Burrow’s improved health as well with a 10-catch, 100-yard day on 12 targets. Even though the 49ers defense has been slumping, this is still a unit that has forces of nature on the defensive line. Burrow’s health was almost an imperative for the Bengals to have this type of day through the air.
There’s still another half of the season to go, but the Bengals and 49ers are headed in opposite directions. Purdy hasn’t been able to carry the 49ers in crucial spots while Burrow repeatedly put the Bengals on his back in their win Sunday. Both of these trends will play a huge role in shaping how the season ends for these teams, and the 49ers need their quarterback to start growing into a playmaker in a hurry.
“Whats football,” Kittle said, “without a little bit of adversity?”