49ers shine, reach Super Bowl in Sports Illustrated predictions

It’s prediction season on the NFL calendar, and the 49ers are once again in the mix to be one of the league’s best teams despite an offseason that didn’t snag many headlines.

Sports Illustrated’s Connor Orr jotted down 100 bold predictions for this NFL season. Four of them involved the 49ers and they’re all mostly positive for a club that’s finished one win shy of the Super Bowl in each of the last two years.

Here’s a quick list of his predictions:

  • The Bengals will defeat the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII

  • Christian McCaffrey will become the first back since 2006 to surpass 20 rushing touchdowns

  • 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga will lead the NFL in interceptions

  • The 49ers will lead the NFL in yards per play

Let’s dive into each prediction and figure out the chances Orr is correct:

Super Bowl loss

Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 49ers face a familiar scenario heading into 2023. They’re coming off an NFC championship game loss and they have some uncertainty about what their quarterback room is going to look like. That hasn’t stopped them from deep playoff runs before, and Orr still likes their chances in the NFC.

The Bengals and the 49ers have, by my estimation, the two rosters that best embody the hallmark of a Super Bowl team: talent and depth at almost every position. The 49ers have enough options at the quarterback position to make sure they aren’t stuck in the title game with Christian McCaffrey in the Wildcat. Deebo Samuel believed this team was better than the Eagles last year, and, even after Philadelphia’s superb draft, I agree that the 49ers have just as strong of a roster.

San Francisco might have been able to do more along the margins in the draft that would’ve given them higher marks for their offseason, but Orr’s point at the end of the blurb makes sense. The 49ers do still have a very good roster and the questions at QB haven’t stopped them from making deep playoff runs in 2019, 2021 and 2022. Winning or losing the Super Bowl could come down to a bounce of the ball or two, but it’s entirely possible the 49ers get over the hump this year and get to the final game of the season to face another team in Cincinnati that’s in a similar situation.

Verdict: Good call

Christian McCaffrey's 20-plus TDs

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

A 20-touchdown season for a running back would be pretty wild. Only 9 players have reached the 20 rushing TD threshold (Priest Holmes and Emmitt Smith both did it twice), and none since LaDainian Tomlinson posted a record 28 in the 2006 season.

McCaffrey’s career-high in that category was 15 back in 2019 when he was a First-Team All-Pro and finished third in the Offensive Player of the Year voting. Last year in 11 games with San Francisco he posted six rushing TDs, which puts him well short of the 20-TD pace.

However, McCaffrey was getting acclimated to the offense after. arriving in Week 7, and he dealt with some knee soreness that left him without a rushing TD between Weeks 11 and 13. In the final five games of the regular season he had four rushing scores including one in each game from Week 14 through Week 17. That’s a full-season pace of 14 TDs.

The end of last season is why 20-plus rushing TDs for McCaffrey isn’t an insane prediction. A 14-TD pace at the end of a season where he’s still learning the offense while dealing with a knee issue is reason to believe the arrow is pointing up.

McCaffrey would need to go for just over one TD per game (1.2 to be exact) for a full season to hit 21 touchdowns. It’s a long shot, but it isn’t completely outrageous.

Verdict: Not likely, but plausible enough to be fun

Talanoa Hufanga backs up breakout

While McCaffrey shines on the offensive side in Orr’s predictions, Hufanga is doing the same on the other side of the ball where he’s projected to lead the league in interceptions.

Last year in his first season as a full-time starter he posted four INTs. That was two shy of tying for the league lead. Hufanga is predicted to have a really nice year, but there are other reasons Orr believes the 49ers’ strong safety could be the league’s interception leader.

My guess is that a few quarterbacks will think twice about testing Tariq Woolen after his exceptional rookie debut, meaning fewer picks for the second-year Seahawks standout. Patrick Peterson and Minkah Fitzpatrick will be in the same Steelers secondary in 2023, which means fewer pickable balls to go around.

Hufanga’s instincts and aggressive playing style will likely put him in the mix for takeaways. Not to mention he plays behind one of the league’s best defensive lines which makes quarterbacks susceptible to throws into traffic. Combine all of that with new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who is an accomplished secondary coach, and there’s a recipe for Hufanga to have another All-Pro season where he’s consistently getting hands on footballs. Even if he doesn’t lead the league – another year where he’s up near the top would be massive for the 49ers defense.

Verdict: Definitely possible

49ers offense outdoes the Chiefs

Any team other than the Chiefs leading the NFL in yards per play seems impossible. They were at 6.4 yards per play last year, putting them 0.3 ahead of the Bills and Dolphins. They were a full 0.5 yards better than Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco.

For the 49ers though the McCaffrey factor matters, and their offense soared once he was firmly in the mix. Assuming San Francisco has a healthy quarterback, their array of offensive weapons in Kyle Shanahan’s system will give them a real chance to be the league’s most efficient offense regardless of the QB under center.

Verdict: Another good call

Story originally appeared on Niners Wire