The San Francisco 49ers have practically everything a team could want in today’s pass-heavy NFL.
A kickass run game, led by a run-game wizard of a head coach whose scheme teams will be racing to copy this offseason. A strong defense, led by a coordinator who will likely be a head-coaching candidate before long. And a relentless pass rush, especially in nickel, which is useful against the plethora of three-wide sets offenses are using.
For as good as these 49ers are, they don’t have everything. While all their pluses bore fruit in a Monday night showdown against the Seattle Seahawks that somehow lived up to its billing — it was a masterpiece, the verifiable game of the year to this point — some of their minuses shone through, too.
Those shaky areas contributed directly to a 27-24 overtime defeat that solidified the MVP case for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, dropped the previously undefeated 49ers to 8-1 — pop those bottles, ’72 Dolphins — and left San Francisco with significant questions, starting with this one:
Can the 49ers win big, like Super Bowl big, with $137.5 million quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo?
The question may seem unfair. The 49ers’ passing offense struggled Monday as Garoppolo barely completed half (24) of his 46 passes and finished with 248 yards, a touchdown and a pick that wasn’t his fault. It must be noted that he was missing his top target, cyborg tight end George Kittle, due to knee and ankle injuries while his next best target, recently acquired receiver Emmanuel Sanders, was forced to leave in the second quarter with a rib injury.
Here’s what’s also true: while Garoppolo has been solid this season — he was on pace to complete 71 percent of his passes for 3,612 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions entering this game — in today’s NFL, where passing rules the day, being merely solid at quarterback makes winning in the playoffs harder.
Monday night’s game was played in a playoff-like atmosphere, with playoff-like intensity from the players. Yet we still don’t know how Garoppolo, 28, will fare in these games in January.
Beating Seattle and Wilson would have been a nice signature win, of course, one that would have shut up doubters, at least for a week. And hey, it must be noted that if new 49ers kicker Chase McLaughin hadn’t shanked a game-winning 47-yard field goal in overtime — the kick landed somewhere in San Jose — San Francisco would still be undefeated.
Even if that kick had sailed through the uprights, the questions about Garoppolo would have lingered, just like they did right up to and ultimately through last year’s Super Bowl for Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff, another West Coast quarterback who served as more of an offensive caretaker of sorts for an otherwise loaded team.
(Garoppolo’s 100.6 passer rating entering this game was eerily similar to Goff’s 101.1 mark last season. Just sayin’.)
Now, here’s the part where fans will point out Garoppolo’s 16-3 career record as a starter, for a team that went 3-10 without him a year ago due to a knee injury. That’s impressive, and it shouldn’t be ignored. But the pressing question at the moment, especially in light of Monday’s home loss, is how far he can take the 49ers in the playoffs. This will linger, especially after one of the biggest differences between the 49ers and Seahawks on Monday proved to be the quarterbacks, despite the fact Garoppolo and Wilson finished with similar stats.
Both players were repeatedly under duress, as they were each sacked five times. Overall, Garoppolo was hit 10 times, three more than Wilson. While each threw a pick, Wilson repeatedly made things happen with his legs, rushing six times for 53 yards, including one Houdini-like 18-yarder in overtime that set up the winning field goal. Garoppolo was repeatedly flustered by Seattle’s 31st-ranked pass rush, throwing multiple near picks and losing two fumbles (including one that resulted in a scoop-and-score).
All this was by Seattle’s design as the Seahawks focused on taking the 49ers’ potent zone-run game away, effectively putting the game in Garoppolo’s hands.
And while Garoppolo made some throws — flashing accuracy and looking decisive at times — he didn’t make enough, especially downfield. On pass attempts that traveled 10-plus air yards, he finished a miserable 3-of-18 for 59 yards and a pick (that again, wasn’t his fault), according to Next Gen Stats.
It’s a revealing statline, one that in addition to the fumbles, wide receiver drops, quarterback hits, missing studs and a brutal shanked field goal, sums up why the 49ers couldn’t topple the Seahawks on this night.
With the win, the Seahawks improved to 8-2, just a half-game behind the 49ers in the NFC West race. It also cemented the Week 17 rematch as a monster showdown, one that could determine the division crown, playoff seeding and even a first-round bye.
That game — and looming dates against the Vikings, Rams and Panthers — will offer additional opportunities for Garoppolo to show he has the goods to be a big-time, big-game quarterback come January.
To do that, he’ll have to be more accurate downfield, not to mention less turnover-prone than he was Monday night. If he isn’t, he may prove to be just like Goff was for the Rams last year — good enough in flashes, incredibly tempting to believe in, but ultimately not good enough to lead a super-hot team to a Lombardi Trophy.
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