49ers Playoff Chances: Will San Francisco Emulate 1990 Team of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice?

The San Francisco 49ers' 31-3 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football was a significant moment.

It wasn't just the fact that Cleveland's hype bubble burst yet again or that Baker Mayfield endured his worst game since turning pro, throwing two interceptions and completing just eight of his 22 passes.

It was the fact that the win was the 49ers' fourth in as many games, marking their first 4-0 start since 1990, when they raced to a 10-0 start led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

Back then, San Francisco entered the season as heavy favorite to win a third consecutive Super Bowl and with a roster stacked with talent that included five Pro-Bowl selections and seven All-Pros.

The 49ers reached the playoffs with a 14-2 record, winning a fifth consecutive NFC West title in the process and defeated the Washington Redskins in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

Their bid for a third consecutive Super Bowl, however, was halted by the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game after New York Giants kicker Matt Bahr landed a 42-yard field goal as time expired to stun the fans at Candlestick Park.

San Francisco's winning run—which stretched to 15 games dating back to the previous season—came undone in Week 12, with a 28-17 defeat at home against the Los Angeles Rams.

Incidentally, the Rams are the 49ers' next opponent, with the two NFC West rivals set to lock horns in Los Angeles on Sunday in a potentially crucial divisional matchup for both teams.

Comparing San Francisco's current crop to the 1990 vintage is an exercise bordering on ridiculous. With the win over the Browns, Jimmy Garoppolo became only the sixth quarterback since 1990 to win 12 of his first 14 home starts in the NFL, but he's clearly no Montana and none of the 49ers receivers even comes close to being in the same bracket as Rice.

By 1990 the 49ers had won three Super Bowls in six seasons and two in a row, while they are now searching for a first playoff appearance since 2013.

All the same, optimism in the Bay Area is far from unfounded. Along with the 5-0 New England Patriots, San Francisco is the only team still undefeated in the NFL. The 49ers' four wins so far have been no fluke, but have come on the back of a very parsimonious defense and well balanced offense.

San Francisco boasts the second-best defense in the league after the Patriots and ranks fourth in total offense—at an average of 427.2 yards per game—and first in rushing offense—at a clip of 200 yards on the ground per game.

 Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
George Kittle #85 and Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrate after Kittle caught a touchdown pass against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter of an NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on October 7 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers won the game 31-3. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty

At 4-0, the 49ers lead the NFC West, with the Seattle Seahawks at 4-1 and the Rams at 3-2.

San Francisco began the season as a 5/1 shot to win a first NFC West title since 2012 but is now a 7/5 favorite, ahead of the Seahawks and the Rams.

The Seahawks are 4-1 for only the second time in a decade and for the first time since 2016, when they last won the divisional title, while Los Angeles has stuttered so far.

Both teams have a slightly easier schedule than the 49ers. San Francisco faces three road games in the next four weeks, with a home against the Carolina Panthers sandwiched between trips to Los Angeles, Washington and Arizona. The latter two games are eminently winnable as they come against teams that are currently 0-5 and 1-3.

A three-game home stand against the Seahawks, Cardinals and Packers awaits after the trip to Arizona, before testing trips to Baltimore and New Orleans. Back-to-back home games against Atlanta and the Rams precede the final game of the season on the road in Seattle.

The last two matchups could well decide whether Levi's Stadium hosts playoff football this season but for now the 49ers can party as if it was 1990.

49ers Playoff Chances: Will San Francisco Emulate 1990 Team of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice? | Sports