NFL Power Rankings: Intriguing 49ers will be the NFL's 2018 offseason darling

A few wins late in a season don’t make Jimmy Garoppolo the next Tom Brady, and a nice streak doesn’t make the San Francisco 49ers the next New England Patriots either.

But in the midst of Jimmy-mania, Brady has noticed how well his former backup is playing.

“It’s really a credit to him,” Brady told WEEI. “You do what you can with the opportunities you get. I think it is great for any player and anyone who has been in the Patriots system to watch how the coaches prepare the players. There is obviously a high standard and high expectations for us every time we take the field. Anytime you’re in a winning environment, that definitely helps and I think guys really enjoy that. You take what you can and use that in other places if that is where you go.”

Most bad teams are playing out the string in December and offering no hope for the future, just giving signs that they can’t wait for the season to be over. Every once in a while we’ll see a losing team come on strong at the end of a season and become everyone’s offseason darling. Let’s just say, you’re going to hear a lot about the San Francisco 49ers before next season kicks off.

Jimmy Garoppolo has given 49ers fans a lot of reasons to be excited for 2018. (AP)

The 49ers are 4-0 since Garoppolo took over as starting quarterback. They validated all of the positive steps on Sunday when they destroyed the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were 10-4 coming in. Jacksonville rallied late to make it interesting, but most of the game was clearly in favor of the 49ers. They looked like the superior team on Sunday. And it wasn’t all Garoppolo.

The 49ers are starting to resemble a team that could come along fast. Defensively there are some good young players. Linebacker Reuben Foster looks like the next Patrick Willis/NaVorro Bowman. DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas are two talented defensive linemen. Offensively, young players like receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor and tight end George Kittle are intriguing, and have emerged with better quarterback play. Coach Kyle Shanahan will get the most out of the talent on hand. Unlike teams such as the Colts and Giants, who are having horrendous seasons without many young potential breakout players to point to, the 49ers have some intriguing pieces in place. Perhaps general manager John Lynch can continue that momentum in the offseason.

What might make the 49ers really dangerous is the amount of salary cap space they have. According to Spotrac, the 49ers have a projected $117 million in cap room. The Browns have $118 million, and nobody else has more than $89 million. A big chunk of that cap space will go to Garoppolo, which is OK. There will be plenty of money left over to add some impact players. They’ll get a good player in the first round too. Although the winning streak has hurt San Francisco’s draft position, they’re guaranteed a top-12 pick.

The good vibes could continue for one more week. Depending on how much difference the Rams think there is between the No. 3 and No. 4 seed (the Rams get No. 3 with a win and will probably be No. 4 with a loss), the 49ers could end up facing an L.A. team resting starters in Week 17. No matter what happens in the final week, the 49ers have gone from facing an 0-16 question to the buzziest team for this upcoming offseason. That doesn’t always work out (see: Buccaneers, Tampa Bay) but there’s a good reason for excitement.

After some rough years in the post-Jim Harbaugh era, with almost no stability in the front office or coaching staff, the 49ers are on the right path. They have a general manager they believe in, a good young coach and an exciting quarterback who looks like a franchise guy. How many other teams picking in the top 12 next April can say that?

The 49ers might not be a punch line anymore since Jim Harbaugh left town. (AP)

It has been a few years since the 49ers mattered much. It’s easy to credit one fortunate trade for a quick turnaround, but it’s deeper than that. The 49ers are showing signs of life everywhere, not just at quarterback. Get ready for a lot of 49ers hype over the next nine months.

Here are the power rankings following Week 16 of the NFL season:

32. Cleveland Browns (0-15, Last week: 32)
Since the Steelers have to play hard because there’s a possibility they get the No. 1 seed, the Browns are going to have to pull the mother of all upsets to avoid 0-16. And don’t forget, last season Cleveland needed the Chargers to miss a last-second field goal in Week 16 to avoid 0-16. Pathetic. Also, if Josh Rosen and/or Sam Darnold and any other quarterback prospect refuse to play for the Browns, I’m not sure what Cleveland does. It needs to draft a quarterback and not give in to threats. That’s a bad precedent. But it would be the worst moment in new Browns history (and that’s saying something) to draft a QB first overall and basically lose the pick because the player sits out a full year.

31. New York Giants (2-13, LW: 31)
Will this be Eli Manning’s last start for the Giants? It would be cool to see him go out with a bang, but it’s also hard to see him or the Giants pulling that off. They’re really hard to watch.

30. Indianapolis Colts (3-12, LW: 30)
Expect to see a fine effort from the Colts on Sunday. From all accounts everyone respects Chuck Pagano, and it seems this will be his final game as Colts coach. I’m not sure a good effort will lead to a win, even against a terrible Texans team, but they’ll play hard.

29. Houston Texans (4-11, LW: 29)
There were a few curious moments on Monday. With less than a minute left, trailing 20-0 with all three timeouts, the Texans ran the ball and were content to let the clock run. Then, with the score 27-6 after DeAndre Hopkins’ unbelievable touchdown the Texans got a break on a taunting penalty from the Steelers and could kick off from the 50-yard line, which made it the easiest onside kick call you’ll find. And the Texans pooch kicked right to the Steelers. Bill O’Brien was dealt some tough breaks this season with injuries, but his decision making has been strange at best.

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11, LW: 27)
Lost in the weird tantrum at the end of Sunday’s game and all the Bucs losses, Jameis Winston has had a nice finish to this season. The last four weeks: 72 completion percentage, 1,221 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a 114.5 rating. This season hasn’t been the step forward that should have come, but the finish provides some much-needed optimism.

27. New York Jets (4-11, LW: 25)
We know what Bryce Petty is by now. The Jets do too. If Christian Hackenberg doesn’t play for the first time in Week 17, after two full seasons of preparation, that will be astonishing.

26. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9, LW: 28)
Joe Mixon returned from a concussion, and suffered an ankle injury. If that’s it for Mixon’s rookie season — and at this point, there’s no reason to risk further injury for him — it’s a disappointment. He had a few moments that reminded us of his talent, but overall it was bad. If the Bengals improve their offensive line this offseason, maybe then we’ll see some steps forward from Mixon.

25. Chicago Bears (5-10, LW: 26)
The Bears have five wins this season. Four of them came against the AFC North. I don’t know what to make of that, other than it’s really odd.

24. Denver Broncos (5-10, LW: 22)
C.J. Anderson has played very well the past few weeks, and he is 54 yards from his first 1,000-yard rushing season. You have to assume the coaches will try to get him there.

23. Oakland Raiders (6-9, LW: 21)
Derek Carr’s regression this season has been troubling. He has thrown twice as many interceptions as last season and his rating has dropped more than 10 points. Perhaps he never fully recovered from a back injury early in the season. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing might be to blame. Whatever the reason, next season will be a crucial one for Carr.

22. Miami Dolphins (6-9, LW: 19)
The Dolphins were surprised Ndamukong Suh wasn’t a Pro Bowler, and they’re probably right. Suh dominates games in ways that don’t always show up on a stat sheet. Suh probably isn’t worth the contract he got because it would have been impossible to play up to that, but he has been very good for the Dolphins. It will be interesting to see what happens when Suh’s base salary jumps from $9.985 million this season to $16.985 million next season. That’s practically quarterback money.

21. Green Bay Packers (7-8, LW: 17)
Brett Hundley threw 162 passes at home this season, with no touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 50.6 passer rating. That’s so bad, you have to wonder if the Packers feel like upgrading their backup quarterback spot will be an offseason priority.

20. Arizona Cardinals (7-8, LW: 20)
Given all the injuries, having a chance to finish the season at .500 isn’t too bad. It shows there’s still a good core in Arizona. The problem is all the uncertainty at quarterback, with Larry Fitzgerald and with Bruce Arians too.

19. San Francisco 49ers (5-10, LW: 24)
Niners Nation talked about the possibility of extending receiver Marquise Goodwin, who has another year left on his deal. It makes sense. Goodwin has been a great find. It’s worth it to invest now rather than pay more later. He should have a fine 2018 with a full year of Jimmy Garoppolo throwing him the ball.

18. Washington Redskins (7-8, LW: 23)
Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller on Kirk Cousins: “We couldn’t get any pressure on him — quick passes. He was connecting. He was on fire. . . . Kirk is a great quarterback. I’ll say that every day of the week … I’m with everybody else [on Cousins]. . . . A lot of teams would kill to have a quarterback like that.” It makes you wonder why Washington let his situation get to this point. Cousins just has to make it through one more game healthy and an interesting offseason will begin.

17. Tennessee Titans (8-7, LW: 18)
The Titans’ poor play down the stretch has one benefit: The Jaguars have already clinched the AFC South, are locked into the No. 3 seed and it would be crazy for them to play starters in Week 17. The Titans need to win to make the playoffs, and they might be going against the Jags’ backups to do it. And, if they’re honest behind closed doors, the Jaguars should prefer a rematch in wild-card weekend against the Titans in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 game, rather than play the Chargers. If the Jaguars are smart they’ll do everything they can to lay down in Week 17 and let the Titans win.

16. Detroit Lions (8-7, LW: 15)
That was a terrible loss for the Lions on Sunday. The Bengals spent a couple weeks looking like they couldn’t wait for the offseason, then the Lions lost to them. Even worse, Detroit never looked like it was going to win; the Bengals controlled it throughout. Detroit is in a tough spot, as far as decisions on the coaching staff. I’m not sure it’s the best move to start all over again, yet I don’t know how the Lions just stick with the status quo either.

15. Buffalo Bills (8-7, LW: 16)
So, the Bills seem likely to miss out on their first playoff berth since the 1999 season because they gave away a loss in the Nathan Peterman game to the Chargers. That’s a tough, dumb way to have that awful streak continue.

14. Dallas Cowboys (8-7, LW: 13)
I know the SEC model of constantly wanting to fire the coach permeates the NFL at times too, but I’m not sure I get why so many people want Jason Garrett gone. After going 12-4 in 2014, the Cowboys went 4-12 but it was understandable when Tony Romo got hurt. Last season Garrett led Dallas to a 13-3 record with a rookie quarterback and running back. This season wasn’t pretty but it also might have turned out differently without Ezekiel Elliott getting suspended. What does firing Garrett accomplish, other than appeasing fans who just want to see a coach fired?

13. Seattle Seahawks (9-6, LW: 14)
It’s unclear how they won at Dallas, given how awful the offense was, but it was the kind of win expected from a champion like the Seahawks. Seattle still might end up on the outside of the playoff picture, but Seahawks fans should be proud of that win.

12. Atlanta Falcons (9-6, LW: 9)
The Falcons don’t catch a Week 17 scheduling break. The Panthers are still alive to win the NFC South and you have to assume they’ll play to win. The Falcons are in the playoffs with a win, but that’s no guarantee. The Panthers are the better team. We’ve practically gone from “the Falcons will be dangerous if they get in” to “at least the Falcons can save a little face by getting in.”

11. Baltimore Ravens (9-6, LW: 12)
The Ravens aren’t going to produce a playoff classic, but they’re the type of team that will be a tough out in the playoffs. It seems inevitable they play at Kansas City on wild-card weekend (probably on Sunday, since that early Saturday game seems destined yet again to be the AFC South showcase, this time with the Jaguars), and it’s far from an easy out for the Chiefs.

10. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7, LW: 11)
When Hunter Henry went down with an injury, the team asked Antonio Gates to do more. And the old-timer came up big, with six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in a 14-7 win that kept the Chargers’ playoff hopes alive. What a fun story for the 37-year-old tight end.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (9-6, LW: 10)
The Chiefs are locked into the fourth seed, and it’s a great benefit to rest starters. Assuming Andy Reid does that, it will also be nice to get a glimpse of Patrick Mahomes in a regular-season game. It’s a big spot for Mahomes, considering Alex Smith might not be back in 2018. A terrible Week 17 game by Mahomes might give the Chiefs some pause.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5, LW: 6)
The Jaguars couldn’t have looked much worse on Sunday. It’s hard to get too down on a team that was 10-4 coming in, but there’s always going to be skepticism about this team — and specifically, about Blake Bortles — until they do it in a playoff game.

7. Carolina Panthers (11-4, LW: 8)
There are no easy games in the NFL, and while it’s not ideal that the Panthers struggled with the Buccaneers on Sunday, they got the win in the final minute. Getting a tough test like that is not the worst thing for the Panthers as they head into the playoffs.

6. New Orleans Saints (11-4, LW: 7)
In a perfect world the Panthers would have lost last week and the Saints could rest starters in Week 17, but that wasn’t meant to be. A Week 17 game at the Buccaneers is tricky, especially since Tampa Bay played pretty well in Week 16, but the Saints understand a win there and they’re back in the Superdome for their playoff opener.

5. Minnesota Vikings (12-3, LW: 5)
The door almost opened up wide for the Vikings to grasp the No. 1 seed, but the Raiders couldn’t get out of their own way against the Eagles, and Philadelphia clinched the No. 1 seed. Still, the Eagles looked vulnerable, especially on offense. That had to pique the Vikings’ interest.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2, LW: 2)
Now what do we make of the Eagles’ offense? One very good game with Nick Foles, and one really bad one on Monday night. Coach Doug Pederson has the option to rest his starters in Week 17, with the No. 1 seed clinched, but he needs to get the starters some work in the finale and let them regain some confidence.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3, LW: 4)
The Steelers showed they can win without Antonio Brown. But realistically they need Brown back to win a Super Bowl, and all eyes now turn to his health. ESPN’s Adam Schefter said last week that Brown wasn’t expected to be ready for wild-card weekend, so one has to wonder if he’ll be 100 percent for the divisional round either.

2. Los Angeles Rams (11-4, LW: 3)
In the final 12 minutes of a 27-23 game, the Rams defense got three stops in three tries against the Titans in a win that clinched a division title. Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Sean McVay’s play-calling get a lot of the attention, but the Rams have a good defense too. This a team without a real weakness.

1. New England Patriots (12-3, LW: 1)
We’ll all remember how the Steelers game ended, but don’t forget Sept. 24. Trailing Houston 32-28 in the final two minutes, Tom Brady converted a third-and-12 to Rob Gronkowski and a third-and-18 to Danny Amendola, then threw a touchdown to Brandin Cooks with 23 seconds left. Without that, the Patriots wouldn’t be in position to get the No. 1 seed. It’s a reminder that the big moments in September are just as important as the ones in January.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!