Saints, Cowboys among pack of NFC challengers hoping to knock 49ers off

Josh Schrock
NBC Sports BayArea

The 49ers are the kings of the NFC. But heavy lies the head that wears the crown.

Kyle Shanahan's team returns most of the loaded roster that went 13-3 last season and was within seven minutes of winning the Super Bowl. Franchise pillars Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner are gone, but Trent Williams and rookie Javon Kinlaw were brought in to fill the holes.

While the 49ers' "Revenge Tour" will provide plenty of juice for the defending NFC champions, there are several teams who are a threat to San Francisco in the conference.

Tuesday on NFL Network, Kurt Warner, Steve Smith and David Carr were asked to give their biggest threat to the 49ers in the NFC. I'll go over there's before offering some alternatives.

For Warner, it's a no-brainer. Drew Brees and the Saints have been knocking at the door for years. After some brutal playoff losses, they are primed to threaten the 49ers.

"When you look at their roster, they didn't really lose anybody, they pick up Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins, two guys I believe leadership wise will add to this football team," Warner said. "We know they are a desperate team, too. Not only hungry because they have been knocked out in some crazy ways the last couple years, but hungry because Drew Brees has only been to one Super Bowl. ... I love the way they are positioned, the game-changers they have: Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Drew Brees."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

As for Smith, he went a different route, tabbing the Minnesota Vikings as the biggest challenger to the 49ers. Smith believes new Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and his run-first scheme could lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl if the Vikings' defense holds up.

"That is the only thing that can stop them, which is themselves," Smith said of the Vikings.

Carr went with a team that loaded up in the NFL draft and now looks primed to be one of the best teams in football: The Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas paid Amari Cooper and added CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, making them the prohibitive NFC East favorite and an apparent threat to the 49ers.

"What they've done on defense -- bringing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, bringing in Gerald McCoy to solidify that three-technique inside, take a chance on an Aldon Smith maybe he can get after the passer," Carr said. "I've been kind of a proponent of giving Amari Cooper another guy next to him that can take some pressure off him from matchup standpoint and they went out and they grabbed CeeDee Lamb. CeeDee Lamb for me is a dynamic player, he's going to pair perfectly with Amari Cooper and he's going to give ... if not Dak, Andy Dalton's going to roll in there and throw for 5,000 yards it seems like."

The Saints and Cowboys -- health depending -- certainly will be in contention for the NFC crown. The 49ers and Saints played in an epic game last season, with George Kittle's catch-and-run setting up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal. With time running out for Brees to win another Super Bowl, the Saints should be motivated to make sure their season doesn't end in heart-wrenching fashion as it has in the previous three seasons.

Dallas' Jason Garrett problem is gone as Jerry Jones turned America's Team over to Mike McCarthy. Armed with a bevy of offensive weapons and a defense that made important additions in the offseason, the Cowboys clearly are the best team in the NFC East. As long as they can avoid falling on their face, the Cowboys have the talent to give the 49ers a run for the conference title.

I can't buy the Vikings. After watching the 49ers pummel the Vikings in the divisional round last season, I don't see a way that team led by Kirk Cousins can get past the 49ers. The 49ers gashed them on the ground and their defensive line harassed and tormented Cousins all day. The Vikings very well could win the NFC North, but it's hard to view them as a legitimate threat.

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There are two more teams who certainly will have a say in who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LV.

As long as Russell Wilson is wearing a Seahawks uniform, Seattle has a chance to make noise. Despite the 49ers having the superior roster in 2019, the Seahawks still were 1 yard away from winning the NFC West and sending the 49ers to the wild-card round. The Seahawks have a favorable December schedule which should help them in their quest for the NFC West title. Even if they once again are doomed to a wild-card spot, there's no reason to think Wilson can't will his team to the Super Bowl.

Apologies to Aaron Rodgers, but the final threat to the 49ers lies in Florida. Tom Brady bolted New England for the sunshine of Tampa Bay. Now paired with Bruce Arians, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and old friend Rob Gronkowski, the 42-year-old quarterback is out to prove he can win without Bill Belichick. The Bucs are loaded on offense and return a defense that wasn't as bad as you might think from a season ago. As long as the Bucs can keep Brady upright, they can challenge for the NFC title.

Of these challengers, the Saints certainly are the top dog. They are loaded on offense, have an innovative head coach and raucous home-field advantage. I'd put the Bucs closely behind them. Brady's numbers were down last season, but a lot of that was due to the lack of offensive weapons around him. I'd have the Seahawks third just because of the greatness of Wilson and then the Cowboys, who need to show me they can live up the hype.

The 49ers have the inside track, but the NFC is loaded and the road back to the Super Bowl won't be easy.

Saints, Cowboys among pack of NFC challengers hoping to knock 49ers off originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area


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