1 major storyline for each NFC Super Wild Card Weekend game
The NFL playoffs kick off with this weekend's super wild-card round. Let's take a look at one big storyline for each of the three NFC games. The AFC storylines can be found here.
Eagles at Buccaneers
Philadephia's rushing attack vs. Tampa Bay's run defense
Philadelphia's midseason shift toward a run-heavy approach - which allowed quarterback Jalen Hurts to use a ton of run-pass options behind one of the league's best offensive lines - is the biggest reason the Eagles made it to the postseason. Now they'll face a Bucs front seven that's getting healthy just in time for a run at a title repeat.
Inside linebacker Lavonte David (foot) and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) missed Tampa Bay's last three games, while edge rusher Shaquil Barrett (knee) was out for the last two. All are expected to play Sunday. Philly should be at full strength as running back Miles Sanders is expected to play for the first time since injuring his hand in Week 16.
Keep an eye on how frequently Philly leans on its run game. When these teams met in Week 6 - a 28-22 Bucs win - the Eagles were still pass-happy, particularly on early downs. In fact, 27 of their 40 first- and second-down plays that day were throws. But from Weeks 8-17 (Philadelphia rested its starters last week), the Eagles passed on early downs at the third-lowest rate in the league.
How aggressive will Tampa Bay be in response? Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, as per usual, dialed up blitzes at a rate of 40.8% during the regular season - the highest mark in the league. But Hurts is fully recovered from a late-season ankle injury, and his 368 rushing yards on designed runs were second only to Lamar Jackson. That means the Bucs will likely have to change their approach to rein him in.
One other key factor: The Bucs' Devin White posted PFF's third-worst run grade among inside linebackers. The Eagles certainly have their work cut out for them because of some dude named Tom Brady, but Philly has a shot at staying in this one if it can get that run game going.
49ers at Cowboys
San Francisco's unheralded defense vs. Dallas' explosive offense
Head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense gets most of the attention, but the 49ers quietly had a terrific defensive season under first-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The outcome here ought to be determined by a chess match between that unit and a Cowboys offense that's alternately dynamic and capable of disappearing.
Unlike in 2020, the 49ers benefited from having edge rusher Nick Bosa healthy this season. San Francisco blitzed just 19.8% of the time - the NFL's fourth-lowest mark - but Bosa nonetheless tied for fourth among edge rushers with 75 pressures, per PFF. As a team, the Niners were fifth in ESPN's pass-rush win rate. These are signs that San Francisco can get to the quarterback without having to sacrifice coverage personnel.
The 49ers won seven of their final nine games, and their improved defense was a big reason why. From Weeks 1-9 - culminating in a disastrous loss to Arizona Cardinals backup Colt McCoy - the Niners' D ranked 26th in expected points added per play (0.109) and 18th in successful play rate by the opposing offense (45.6%), according to Ben Baldwin's database. In the nine games that followed, San Francisco was fifth in EPA/play (minus-0.112) and seventh in success rate (40.7%).
Dallas' offense - with Dak Prescott flinging the ball to Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb in offensive coordinator Kellen Moore's whizbang scheme - finished sixth in both total DVOA and passing DVOA. But it was also 23rd in variance, a measure of consistency. The Cowboys were penalized 14 times in a loss to the Raiders and 10 times in a loss to the Cardinals, and nothing went right in their bizarre blowout loss to the Broncos. Which version of the offense will show up against San Francisco?
Cardinals at Rams
Can Arizona stop Aaron Donald?
Wouldn't everyone love to stop Rams all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald? The Cardinals actually did it the first time they met L.A. back in Week 4.
In that meeting - a Cardinals victory - Donald accounted for just two pressures on 39 pass-rush snaps, according to PFF. But when the teams met again at Arizona in Week 14, Donald totaled a season-high 14 pressures. The Rams won.
That loss, incidentally, was the first of four defeats in five games to end the season for the Cardinals - a run that included getting blown out by the Detroit Lions.
An Arizona offense that hummed along for the season's first 13 weeks, when it ranked third in EPA/play and second in both dropback EPA/play and dropback success rate, has cratered. Starting with that Week 14 loss to L.A., the Cardinals have fallen to 20th in EPA/play, 22nd in dropback EPA/play, and 19th in dropback success rate.
The trend of those struggles - plus the presence of Donald - spells trouble unless quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury can find a way to get the most out of their RPO- and play-action-heavy approach.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.
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