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NFL primer: The 49ers have quickly gone from invincible to vulnerable

The San Francisco 49ers looked practically unbeatable in their first five games. They’ve looked rather ordinary in their past two games while being plagued by injuries, inconsistent play, one curious defensive play call and some kicking misadventures.

Now the 49ers must find a way to begin resembling a leading Super Bowl contender again. They’ll try to end their two-game losing streak when they host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

They practiced last week without knowing the playing status of quarterback Brock Purdy, who went into the NFL concussion protocol after Monday night’s defeat to the Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers announced Saturday that Purdy had been cleared and no longer had an injury designation for Sunday’s game.

That clears the way for him to play against the Bengals, barring a setback. The 49ers originally listed Purdy as questionable after he returned to practice in a limited fashion Thursday and then practiced fully Friday.

The 49ers need a turnaround.

They arrived in Cleveland for their game against the Browns two weeks ago seeking what would have been a franchise-record 16th straight regular season victory. Purdy was unbeaten in his 10 regular season starts and had gone from being the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2022 draft to an MVP candidate. The 49ers had a long list of standouts on both sides of the ball and were, to that point, the league’s best and most balanced team.

But then things began to unravel. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tailback Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Trent Williams suffered injuries against the Browns, with only Williams managing to finish that game. Purdy struggled under pressure against the Browns’ relentless defense, playing for the first time like the final player chosen in the draft. Rookie Jake Moody missed a 41-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds as the 49ers lost, 19-17.

McCaffrey played and scored a touchdown in his 16th straight game during the 22-17 loss to the Vikings. But the negatives far outweighed the positives.

Samuel and Williams were on the game-day inactive list. McCaffrey lost an early fumble at the Minnesota 12-yard line. Moody missed a 40-yard field goal try. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks dialed up an aggressive blitz in the closing moments of the first half that resulted in a 60-yard touchdown pass from Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison, who took the ball right from the grasp of 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward. With time running out in the half, such a defensive approach carried far more risk than reward. Purdy also threw two late interceptions.

Purdy began experiencing concussion-like symptoms on the team’s flight home, according to the 49ers, and was placed in the protocol. It was an unsettling week all around for the 49ers. Neither Samuel nor Williams practiced. Wilks said Thursday that he accepted “full responsibility” for the blitz call and should have been more cautious, given the circumstances. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday that he should have called a timeout to keep the play call from taking effect.

This is an NFL season without a super team. Each team had at least one loss by the end of Week 6. The 49ers still lead the NFC West by a half-game over the Seattle Seahawks. They’re only a game behind the Philadelphia Eagles for the top seed in the NFC. They face the Eagles in early December in Philadelphia, giving them an opportunity to avenge their loss in last season’s NFC title game and reclaim conference front-runner status.

But their aura of invincibility is gone, at least for now. The 49ers are just another contender at this point, featuring plenty of promise but also riddled with vulnerabilities. They are merely among the handful of teams with a chance to separate themselves as the season progresses. Purdy remains a remarkable success story. But even that wondrous tale now comes with a caveat. He is capable of being very good but also is prone to struggles when the supporting cast around him is not so overwhelmingly superb.

The NFL has no super team this season. So what?

Backup Sam Darnold had been in line to start Sunday if Purdy had not been cleared. The No. 3 selection in the 2018 draft by the New York Jets signed with the 49ers in March after two seasons with the Carolina Panthers. He beat out Trey Lance for the backup job, leading to Lance being traded to the Dallas Cowboys. Now Darnold will take the field Sunday only if Purdy’s symptoms return or if he suffers another injury during the game.

Samuel was ruled out Friday and will miss a second straight game because of the shoulder injury he suffered against the Browns. Williams was listed as questionable because of his ankle injury.

The task Sunday is formidable. The Bengals are coming off their bye week. They’ve won two straight and three of four to even their record at 3-3. Quarterback Joe Burrow seems to be getting healthier after being plagued early in the season by a calf injury suffered during training camp. The Bengals are beginning to resemble the team that reached the past two AFC championship games and made a Super Bowl appearance over that span.

It’s not a win-or-else game for the 49ers. Not yet. Not in October. But in a season in which they have upped the stakes in their bid to get back to the Super Bowl and recapture the franchise’s glorious past, it’s about time for them to get back on course.


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