The Key NFC Matchups to Watch During Super Wild Card Weekend
NFL

The Key NFC Matchups to Watch During Super Wild Card Weekend

If experience matters come NFL playoff time, the Philadelphia Eagles may be in for a short stay.

The lowest-seeded team in the NFC bracket is also the youngest of the seven left standing in the conference with an average player age of 26 years and 79 days old. The Eagles will be flying into Tampa to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a rookie head coach in Nick Sirianni and a second-year quarterback (Jalen Hurts) whose 19 career starts are fewer than half of what counterpart Tom Brady has amassed in postseason games alone.

There have been nine previous teams in the Super Bowl era to reach the playoffs with a first-year coach and a starting quarterback with two or fewer seasons of experience, and a couple of them performed rather well. The 2008 Baltimore Ravens reached the AFC championship game in John Harbaugh’s initial season with then-rookie Joe Flacco under center, and the New York Jets duplicated that feat a year later back when Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez had short-lived runs as the toasts of Broadway.

The four teams that have met that criteria since the Jets’ memorable 2009 run haven’t fared nearly as well, though two did come very close to advancing beyond the opening round:

Playoff Teams With Rookie Head Coaches & First- or Second-Year QBs Since 2012

TeamCoach/QBOpponentResult
2012 ColtsPagano/LuckRavensL, 24-9
2013 EaglesKelly/FolesSaintsL, 26-24
2017 RamsMcVay/GoffFalconsL, 26-13
2018 BearsNagy/TrubiskyEaglesL, 16-15

Those 2012 Colts represent an interesting side note, as they went 9-3 with the offensive coordinator running the team while Pagano underwent successful treatment for leukemia. Pagano’s stand-in was none other than Bruce Arians, whose Buccaneers’ team will be lining up against Sirianni’s Eagles squad on Sunday to begin its Lombardi Trophy defense.

The Bucs own the NFL’s oldest roster with an average age of 27 years, 298 days old and are one of several NFC contenders that dwarf the Eagles in terms of past accomplishments. Five of the conference’s seven playoff entrants have either a head coach or quarterback who’s taken a team to a Super Bowl, and four members of that list (Brady and Aaron Rodgers as quarterbacks, Arians and Mike McCarthy as coaches) have won at least one.

To no surprise, neither the oddsmakers nor the wagering public are giving the Eagles much of a chance with the Bucs holding steady as an 8 ½-point favorite at last glance. We’re considerably more optimistic about the prospects of Philadelphia, ranked sixth overall in EVE, possibly pulling off what would be viewed as a massive upset.

Read on to find out what the Eagles – as well as the five other NFC teams taking part in the opening round – will need to do to advance and enjoy indulging in what’s often the best weekend of the season.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 ET, FOX)

Line: Buccaneers by 8.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Buccaneers 51%

These two teams previously squared off in Philadelphia back in Week 6, a 28-22 Tampa victory that wasn’t as competitive as the final score suggested. Much has changed since that mid-October matchup, especially regarding an Eagles team that won six of its final eight games to secure the NFC’s final wild card.

Philadelphia’s second-half surge was brought on by an increased commitment to the running game that accented the strengths of its strong offensive line and the mobility of young quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Eagles ran the ball on 56.35% of their total plays over that final eight-game stretch, easily the highest rate in the league, and accumulated 185 yards or more on the ground in five of those contests.

Conversely, the Bucs have been the most air-oriented team in the NFL, with passes accounting for nearly two-thirds of their total plays and the 44-year-old Tom Brady becoming the second player in league history to eclipse 700 passing attempts in a season. The seven-time Super Bowl champ’s array of quality weapons has decreased during the stretch run, however, due to leading receiver Chris Godwin’s late-year ACL tear and Antonio Brown’s infamous sideline tirade and subsequent release.

What the Buccaneers Need to Do: Convert in the Red Zone

The Eagles deploy a zone-heavy defensive scheme designed to keep big plays to a minimum, a concept it’s successfully achieved by allowing a league-low 9.72 yards per pass attempt. On the flip side, Philadelphia owns the highest completion percentage against at 69.4% and can struggle in getting off the field, as the unit is tied for 23rd overall in third-down percentage defense (42.9).

It’s a classic “bend-but-don’t break” philosophy that, unfortunately, can break more often than desired.

The Eagles have also struggled defending in the red zone, where they rank 29th of 32 teams with an opponent touchdown rate of 66.7%. When pinned inside its own 30-yard line, coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s group has yielded a 114.5 passer rating to enemy quarterbacks, the third-worst mark in the league.

It’s a system the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history should have little trouble exploiting underneath, and Brady did just that in completing 81% of his 42 throws while totaling 297 yards and two touchdowns in the teams’ previous meeting.

The Bucs present a potentially very bad matchup for Philadelphia defensively. They’re second in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (47.1) and touchdown percentage within the red zone (66.2), where Brady has produced a stellar 30-to-zero TD-to-interception ratio and a 107.4 rating for the season.

The loss of Godwin, Tampa Bay’s best red-zone receiver this season, would theoretically make the Bucs less formidable in that area, but they’ve scored seven touchdowns in 10 trips in the three games since his injury. Tight end Cameron Brate has helped fill the void with two red-zone scores in that span, and Mike Evans has nine touchdowns while having hauled in 12-of-18 targets inside the opponent’s 20 for the campaign.

Including the postseason, Tampa Bay is 25-0 when scoring 28 points or more since Brady’s arrival in 2020. If the Eagles can’t force the Buccaneers’ methodical trips down the field to result in field goal attempts, they’ll have a hard time keeping up.

What the Eagles Need to Do: Get an Efficient Passing Day out of Jalen Hurts

The Eagles ideally want to control the clock and keep Brady on the sidelines while grinding out long, sustained drives behind their potent ground attack, but that’s only going to work if there’s at least some balance. Tampa Bay has allowed a strong minus-0.511 yards under expected on running plays when a run is expected, but it’s dead last in EVE against the run in expected passing situations.

In other words, the Eagles will have to throw the ball with a reasonable level of effectiveness to allow their running game to operate at or near its maximum capacity.

They didn’t do that in that Week 6 meeting, in large part because the offense was one-dimensional in the opposite direction. After producing a touchdown on its opening drive, Philly’s next six possessions resulted in five three-and-outs and a turnover as the Eagles fell into a 28-7 hole they could never dig out of.

The Eagles seemed to go into an early panic mode after falling behind 14-7 after one quarter, as they largely abandoned running the ball while putting the game on the shoulders of Hurts. The second-year quarterback wasn’t able to deliver, as he completed just 3 of 12 passes for 22 yards with an interception over the course of the offense’s aforementioned midgame dry spell.

When taking a glance at Tampa Bay’s four losses this season, two of them came at the hands of division-rival New Orleans behind superlative performances by a defense that’s routinely given Brady fits since joining the NFC South. The Bucs were beaten by terrific quarterback play in the other two, with the Rams’ Matthew Stafford throwing for 343 yards and four touchdowns in Week 3 and Washington’s Taylor Heinicke having the game of his life with a 26-of-32, 256-yard, turnover-free display to spark the Football Team’s Week 10 upset.

For reasons we’ve already outlined, it’s hard to anticipate the Eagles coming up with a similar shutdown effort as the Saints managed. Hurts won’t have to match Stafford or Heinicke’s numbers to give Philadelphia a chance to win, but he’ll certainly have to be better than he was in the previous matchup.

Chances are, he will be. Though Hurts has had some bouts of inconsistency expected from a 23-year-old quarterback still in the process of mastering his craft, he’s put together an overall solid sophomore campaign with well-thrown and pickable pass percentages slightly better than the league average and a yards-over-expected number on expected passing plays (0.674) that actually trumps that of Brady (0.544).

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:30 ET, CBS)

Line: Cowboys by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Cowboys 54%

Two of the NFL’s most improved teams from a season ago will lock horns in this one, with the Cowboys having doubled their win total from their injury-ravaged 2020 campaign and the 2019 NFC champion 49ers bouncing back from a similarly compromised prior season of their own.

Most Improved NFL 2021

This also has the makings of one of the most competitive matchups of this Super Wild Card Weekend, and oddsmakers agree with the game having the smallest point spread of the six on tap. And San Francisco has rightfully earned that distinction as a dangerous road underdog, as the 49ers are sound from top to bottom as one of only three teams to rank in our top 10 in EVE in both total offense and defense (along with the Buccaneers and Patriots).

The Cowboys’ turnaround can be attributed to two factors: Quarterback Dak Prescott’s healthy return from a fractured ankle that limited him to five games in 2021, and the addition of coordinator Dan Quinn to oversee an upgraded defense that topped the NFL with 34 takeaways.

What the 49ers Need to Do: Protect the Ball, Jimmy Garoppolo!

Expect the 49ers to utilize the formula that got them to the Super Bowl two years ago, when they overpowered the Vikings and Packers in the NFC playoffs with a punishing ground onslaught that amassed 471 rushing yards over those two wins. And there’s potential for a similar outcome here, as the Cowboys have been for the most part mediocre in stopping the run, sitting middle of the pack in EVE rushing defense and just 24th in our individual matchup rankings with a 76.5% win rate (San Francisco ranks ninth in run blocking win rate).

Where Dallas really excels is in the turnover game. The Cowboys’ have scored a league-high 119 points off opponent miscues, while the 35 points they’ve surrendered off their giveaways are the second-fewest in the league.

Points off Turnover Differential

The Cowboys will surely place a high emphasis on preventing San Francisco from running at will and forcing the 49ers into obvious passing situations where they can do what they do best – pick teams off. And if recent form is any indication, Jimmy Garoppolo may be ready to oblige.

Garoppolo isn’t entering the postseason at his sharpest or healthiest. He’s tossed two interceptions in each of his last two starts, with an injury to his throwing thumb he incurred in the first of those outings a possible alibi.

San Francisco’s somewhat maligned quarterback has been particularly vulnerable on throws over the middle, where eight of his 12 interceptions in 2021 have occurred and his pickable pass percentage when targeting that part of the field is an unsightly 10.42%. More troubling is the fact that the 49ers work that area with great frequency, as their 111 pass attempts over the middle are the most of any team.

Only four of the Cowboys’ 26 picks have come across the middle, though that low total is due to opponents not challenging them there often. Dallas has a 6.6% interception rate within that zone which is the third-best in the NFL, trailing only fellow playoff participants Arizona (7.4) and Tennessee (7.1).

Turnovers are always a key variable in any game, but they may be even more critical to the result of this one. Dallas is 11-2 this season when recording at least one takeaway, with the two losses coming to the powerhouse Buccaneers and Chiefs. The 49ers, meanwhile, are 7-0 when Garoppolo hasn’t been intercepted and 2-6 when he’s had one or more.

What the Cowboys Need to Do: Keep the 49ers’ Big Plays to a Minimum

Quinn’s aggressive defense has specialized in creating splash plays, but it’s also yielded more than its share. The Cowboys surrendered 42 passing plays of 25 yards or more during the regular season, just one less than the downtrodden New York Jets’ league-worst total.

Opponents haven’t been hurting Dallas with deep balls, but they’ve done a lot of damage underneath as 53.7% of the total passing yards the Cowboys have allowed have come after the catch. That’s a troublingly high number surpassed by only two teams (Seattle and Kansas City) this season, and Dallas’ average of 6.4 yards after catch allowed per reception is also near the bottom of the NFL (31st).

It’s a weakness the 49ers are fully capable of exploiting with a system that emphasizes getting the ball to their playmakers, most notably the ultra-versatile Deebo Samuel, in space.

San Francisco is the only team with three players (Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk) with 50 or more receptions who average at least 10 yards per catch and six yards after the catch. Samuel has been the undisputed 2021 king of the YAC category as the only wide receiver this season to average more than 10 yards after the catch per reception.

Dallas has been burned by receivers with somewhat comparable skillsets to Samuel over the course of the season, with the Giants’ Kadarius Toney (10 receptions, 189 yards, 93 YAC in Week 5), Carolina’s D.J. Moore (8-113, 69 YAC) and Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin (9-105, 57 YAC) among those generating big performances.

The 49ers’ defense has been mostly lights-out over the season’s second half, and their Nick Bosa-led pass rush (our No. 1 ranked unit in terms of individual win percentage) can be absolutely lethal. But the Cowboys pass protect well, and their line is really good when Tyron Smith is a part of it. The perennial Pro Bowler’s 93.7% win rate in pass blocking scenarios is the second highest mark among tackles with at least 100 one-on-one matchups, and he’s seemingly over the ankle issues that have sidelined him for five games this season.

Dallas’ line should provide enough opportunities for Prescott and the formidable receiving trio of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Dalton Schultz to attack San Francisco’s softest defensive spot – pass coverage, where the Niners rank an ordinary 19th in EVE despite their prowess at pressuring the quarterback. The Cowboys are more than capable of scoring enough points to win, provided the defense avoids the breakdowns that have crept up from time to time.

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams (Monday, 8:15 ET, ESPN)

Line: Rams by 4
The Analyst Win Probability: Rams 72%

The Cardinals are the NFC’s other entrant with playoff neophytes at coach and quarterback, as well as the team our models view has having the greatest challenge ahead this week. Still, don’t expect them to be the least bit intimidated for the first-ever postseason game at the glorious SoFi Stadium, a venue they left with a 37-20 victory over the NFC West-rival Rams back in Week 4.

Going on the road hasn’t been a problem at all for Arizona, which boasts the NFL’s best away record at 8-1 and has beaten three other 2021 playoff teams (Titans, 49ers, Cowboys) as a visitor.

The Rams got a measure of revenge with a 30-23 win in Phoenix last month, a result that helped earn them the NFC West crown and the perhaps unenviable distinction of hosting this rematch, as they too have been more successful on the road (7-2) than at home (5-3).

Quarterback play was a determining factor in both matchups between these two. Kyler Murray outdueled Matthew Stafford in the first with a crisp 24-of-32, 268-yard, two-touchdown and turnover-free effort, but threw a pair of interceptions that helped seal the Cardinals’ fate in the most recent. Stafford was brilliant in the desert that evening, hitting on 23 of 30 throws for 287 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

What Both Teams Need to Do: Protect the Quarterback

Protecting the quarterback will be vital to each team’s chances of advancing, as both Murray and Stafford have been prone to mistakes when under pressure. Stafford has the second-highest pickable pass percentage when pressured in the NFL among quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes under pressure, and Murray had the fourth-highest percentage.

The Cardinals did a good job of giving Murray a clean pocket in the first meeting, limiting Los Angeles’ often fierce pass rush to a relatively low 12 pressures. The Rams racked up a season-high 27 in the rematch, with 14 of them coming from Aaron Donald as the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year wreaked havoc all night long.

Arizona was a bit depleted along the interior offensive line for that second game, as left guard Justin Pugh didn’t play any offensive snaps while recovering from a calf injury. Pugh has been a quality pass protector this season with an above-average 83.8% win rate in individual matchups.

Still, Donald, the NFL leader with 109.5 pressures this season, is as close to unblockable as any player in the league, and keep in mind that first game between the teams came before the Rams’ midseason trade for renowned sack artist Von Miller.

The Cardinals haven’t been nearly as proficient or consistent at pressuring the quarterback as Los Angeles, as they stand 25th in individual pass rush win percentage (the Rams are second). There’s hope for considerable improvement in that important area, however, if the other three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year involved in this game can make a return to the field.

Arizona played its final 10 regular-season games without the services of J.J. Watt, who initially was feared to have sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in late October. The difference-making interior disruptor has progressed well ahead of schedule, however, to the point where it’s become a viable possibility he can contribute in some form for Monday’s showdown.

Watt produced just one sack in seven games before getting hurt, but his pressure rate of 20.4% is well above the league average of 13.7% for an interior lineman and most importantly, the Cardinals’ pass rush had more bite in the games he was available.

Arizona registered pressures on 40.2% of opponent passing attempts over its seven games with Watt in the lineup, but that number has dipped to 36.5% since his injury. Watt’s absence has also seemed to have an effect on Chandler Jones, whose pressure rate over the 10 games his teammate has missed has been a below-average 16.2% compared to his 22.2% rate during the Cardinals’ 7-0 start.

In all likelihood, Watt’s snap count figures to be very limited given the nature of his injury and the extended layoff. Still, Arizona’s chances of pulling off yet another signature road win increase substantially the more times it’s able to make Stafford, who’s slumped significantly down the stretch with seven interceptions and 10 pickable passes (both league highs) over the Rams’ final three games, uncomfortable in the pocket.


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Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.