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49ers’ slump exposes a wide-open Super Bowl race and a critical NFL trade deadline for top teams

Twice, Brock Purdy had his chance to summon his inner Joe Montana for the San Francisco 49ers.

Twice, he channeled Jimmy Garoppolo.

And just like that, the 49ers find themselves in the midst of their first losing streak of Purdy’s career as a starter, having dropped back-to-back games against the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings. If nothing else, each loss was instructive for San Francisco — the first coming against a dominant defense and a backup quarterback, the second suffered at the hands of a solid quarterback and a mediocre defense. That tells us at least two things about the 49ers: that they are capable of losing games in different ways; and that they are not quite the dominant Super Bowl certainty that we thought only a few weeks ago.

Welcome to the NFL’s parity party in 2023. It’s officially a wide-open race for the Super Bowl and the 49ers are in a growing fraternity of very good, but still reaching for elite. Just like the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and a handful of other franchises that legitimately could put it all together down the stretch. All showcasing reasons to believe they have the recipe to beat anyone, but all knowing there is a varying list of requirements still outstanding. Perhaps it’s an element of health, or stringing together enough wins to galvanize a locker room. Or maybe it’s just a matter of identifying a helpful piece and adding it to the mix.

With the NFL trade deadline looming on Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. ET, the window to achieve that latter objective is closing. Which means division leaders or teams with realistic playoff hopes have to strike as soon as possible. We’ve seen two of them plug holes already in the last week, with the Chiefs acquiring wideout Mecole Hardman from the New York Jets and the Eagles making a huge addition to their secondary by dealing for Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard. Both were significant need-related deals, filled with good players who will almost certainly make an impact down the stretch.

They were also done before the trade picture could get more complicated — especially the Eagles deal.

As an NFC general manager noted to Yahoo Sports after the Eagles deal was announced on Monday, the best window to get deals done is right now — and even now might be too late.

“[Eagles GM Howie Roseman] did the trade before anyone could have second thoughts,” he said. “I know that went through his mind. Obviously part of it is that you don’t let someone swoop in and get your guy. But if you wait and [the Titans] win before the deadline — trade partners winning into a deadline can kill conversations. When you win, you find a reason to keep good players. … Four 1-win teams all won [last] week. I can’t remember that ever happening in one week. Now that’s four conversations about whether things are turning. Or now it could be four owners that now don’t want to look like they’re waving a white flag on the season.”

The four teams he was referencing: the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and New England Patriots. All were (or are) potential sellers at the trade deadline.

“If a couple of them win again this week, they won’t trade good players out,” he added. “I’d bet whatever on it — just watch.”

The Vikings seemingly entered Monday night as surefire sellers at the NFL trade deadline. After a big upset of the 49ers, now it’s not so clear, which underscores a truth about both this season and acquiring players midseason. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It’s a fair point. One week ago, the Broncos looked like a surefire team that could be raided for assets. But after beating the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, there have now been flickers of hope on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Maybe not enough for Denver to mount a run to the playoffs, but at least enough to churn out a solid season of measurement and growth that could actually salvage quarterback Russell Wilson in the process. That kind of season might be the ceiling for the Bears, Giants and Patriots, too. But it’s realistic that all three keep their limited talent bases together for the sake of the culture. After all, Matt Eberflus has to believe he’s coaching for his job in Chicago, and neither Bill Belichick nor Brian Daboll is going to punt a season in favor of draft positioning.

Interestingly, the “selling” Vikings might now be a part of that “holding” collection, too. Considered to be a franchise in the midst of a soft rebuild, Minnesota has one of the league’s biggest trade targets in edge rusher Danielle Hunter. For weeks, it has looked like Hunter was almost sure to be the big fish landed at the deadline by a team pushing all-in on a Super Bowl run. But after Monday night’s win over the 49ers and with a soft portion of the schedule unfurling in front of them, Hunter’s availability is less certain than ever. And even if he remains available, the Vikings have more mental leverage at the table, knowing that if a deal falls through, it just means Minnesota gets to see if it can mount a run with its best defensive player still on the depth chart.

That’s problematic for the good teams looking to make an “ignition addition” — guys plucked to make some difference in an area of weakness, or added to pile strength on strength and send a message to the locker room that ownership and the front office are supplying everything for a Super Bowl shot. The current 49ers regime has taken those deadline swings a few times, adding wideout Emmanuel Sanders to a needy receiver room in 2019, and piling on running back Christian McCaffrey to an already-loaded team last season. In 2019, Sanders helped propel the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Last year, the McCaffrey addition was undercut by an injury to Purdy in the NFC title game.

Sometimes it works wonders (the Los Angeles Rams’ addition of edge rusher Von Miller at the deadline in 2021), other times it’s simply not enough (look up any year in the last decade and take your pick). But the effort is hardly ever seen as a totally futile act, even when hindsight reveals most trades never quite bring it all together. Especially in seasons like this one, when the deadline arrives and every single team has suffered some kind of loss that makes it clear there is an Achilles heel that can be exposed.

Right now, you can mount a convincing argument that every single good team in the league still needs at least one more difference-maker on the roster to maximize a 2023 Super Bowl window. Even the Eagles after landing Byard — and even the Chiefs after bringing back Hardman. That’s how wide open the championship picture is right now, with the best teams just one mini-slump away from showcasing their fallibilities.

If you don’t believe that, you weren’t watching a trade deadline buyer in the 49ers lose to a trade deadline seller in the Vikings on Monday. But that’s OK. All you really need to know about that game is that it’s that kind of season for the elites — where Joe Montana dreams can turn into Jimmy Garoppolo nightmares in one quarter of prime time. And with it, turn Super Bowl assumptions upside down.

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