Which quarterback stands between the 49ers and their elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy?
Which opposing quarterback, that is.
Trey Lance, the 49ers’ successor to Jimmy Garoppolo, will start new rivalries with counterparts this coming season. He will be the underdog or the up-and-comer, almost every week.
Once he reaches the playoffs next January or in future years, that is where an arch-nemesis will emerge, a la “Brady vs. Manning.” Or, in 49ers’ parlance, “Young vs. Aikman” and “Montana vs. Simms.”
This season’s schedule offers a mix of proven superstars, middle-of-the-pack QBs and second-chance journeymen. Here is who presents the toughest matchup per category, not necessarily for Lance but for the 49ers’ defense:
SUPER BOWL WINNERS
Category criteria: Those who’ve won a Lombardi Trophy – or seven – and are legitimate threats to add another.
Tom Brady (Bucs, Week 14)
San Mateo’s native son came out of a short-lived retirement to play at age 45. His 23rd NFL season will be in its fifth-to-last game on Dec. 11 at Levi’s Stadium. That’ll be no time for anyone to get sentimental. Brady, by the way, has won 80 percent of his December starts.
Russell Wilson (Broncos, Week 3)
Nothing like their ol’ NFC West rival to humble things. The 49ers should be 2-0 (at Chicago, vs. Seattle) before visiting Wilson’s new team in Denver for “Sunday Night Football” on Sept. 25. Wilson was 17-4 with Seattle against the 49ers, including the NFC Championship Game after the 2013 season en route to his only Super Bowl win.
Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs, Week 7)
Mahomes and Lance won championships in the 2019 season – Mahomes vs. the 49ers in Super Bowl XLIV, and Lance a month earlier vs. James Madison in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title game. If the 49ers lead this game and Mahomes faces third-and-15, he won’t be able to target Tyreek Hill (traded to Miami).
Matthew Stafford (Rams, Weeks 4/8)
He and the Super Bowl champion Rams dispatched the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, but only after a fourth-quarter comeback was kept alive by Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception. Stafford had two passes intercepted in both regular-season losses to the 49ers.
Category criteria: Highly regarded quarterbacks who’ve yet to win a playoff start.
Derek Carr (Raiders, Week 17)
The 49ers’ first visit to Vegas comes in the season’s penultimate week, so a non-conference matchup may not impact the playoff races. Carr throttled the 49ers as a 2014 rookie, then got walloped by Nick Mullens on a 2018 Thursday night, and now he has college teammate and star wideout Davante Adams.
Justin Herbert (Chargers, Week 10)
The 49ers will be coming off their bye, while Herbert and the perpetually overhyped Chargers are coming off a cross-country game at Atlanta. Herbert won the Pac-12 Conference Championship at Levi’s Stadium as an Oregon senior in 2019. His return will be the undercard to the Bosa brothers storyline in this game.
Carson Wentz (Commanders, Week 16)
He’s 3-0 against the Shanahan-coached 49ers, now he’ll try beating them for the third straight season for as many different franchises (Eagles, Colts, Commanders). Yes, Wentz won a Super Bowl but he was on injured reserve in the 2017 Eagles’ playoff run.
Category criteria: Dual-threat quarterbacks whose ability to escape trouble could prove tough to sack, as has been troublesome for past 49ers’ defenses.
Kyler Murray (Cardinals, Weeks 11/18)
A Pro Bowler in two of three seasons, he’s 2-3 against the 49ers. He’s bucking for a new contract after skipping the voluntary offseason program. His Cardinals “host” the 49ers in Mexico City on Nov. 21, then the rematch is in Week 18 at Levi’s.
Justin Fields (Bears, Week 1)
The 49ers bypassed him in the draft, then beat him Oct. 30 with the help of two Garoppolo touchdown runs. This season’s opener in Soldier Field could offer a more dynamic Fields under new coach Matt Eberflus.
Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins, Week 13)
New coach Mike McDaniel, formerly Kyle Shanahan’s top assistant, should know by this Dec. 5 visit how to maximize (or minimize) Tagovailoa, who’s looking more explosive after his 2019 hip injury. Through two seasons, he had only 237 rushing yards, along with 20 sacks each season (23 games). He’ll need to be on the move more against the 49ers’ front.
Category criteria: Journeymen who may or may not be starting once the 49ers come on their schedule.
Geno Smith (Seahawks, Weeks 2/15)
Smith is the starter after two years in Seattle behind Wilson, but ex-Broncos starter Drew Lock is in the wings.
Marcus Mariota (Falcons, Week 6)
Will the Falcons have switched to rookie Desmond Ridder when they host the 49ers, after visiting Brady and the Bucs?
Sam Darnold (Panthers, Week 5)
Will the New York Jets’ 2021 castoff even make it to Week 1, or will the Panthers have traded for Jimmy Garoppolo?
Jameis Winston (Saints, Week 12)
An ACL tear scuttled his 5-2 start last season as the heir to Drew Brees’ throne. The Saints’ backups: Andy Dalton and Ian Book.
Contributed by local news sources