Why 49ers' postseason passing woes spell trouble for title hopes

Patrick McDermott / Getty Images Sport / Getty

If we've learned anything from this wild, record-setting postseason, it's something that's felt like an unavoidable truth for years now: the NFL is a quarterback's league, and it's harder than ever to win without a top-flight passer.

Three of the four starting quarterbacks left in this year's playoff field - Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Burrow - ranked in the top six in passing yards and top eight in passing touchdowns this season. All three flirted with MVP consideration at points during the year, and all three threw for at least 345 yards in the divisional round to carry their teams to the conference championship game.

The lone outlier is Jimmy Garoppolo, who ranked outside of the top 10 in both areas in the regular season and has long been viewed as a liability for an otherwise title-worthy 49ers roster. That's the narrative once again ahead of this weekend's matchup with the Rams (-3.5), even as San Francisco keeps winning in unprecedented fashion.

With last week's 13-10 win over the Packers, the 49ers became the first team in at least 20 years to win consecutive playoff games without a passing touchdown, per Sports Database. They also became just the sixth club in that stretch to win back-to-back playoff contests with fewer than 175 passing yards.

All five of those previous teams lost their following game by at least seven points - including the 2019 49ers, who followed a similar script to this squad but were foiled by Garoppolo's late collapse in the Super Bowl. Can San Fran finish the job this postseason, or will the team's limitations through the air prove to be its undoing?

Plight of the game-manager

In case you haven't noticed, what the 49ers are doing this postseason is historic, especially in the midst of the NFL's passing boom.

On Saturday, San Francisco became just the fourth team in the last 20 years to win a playoff game without an offensive touchdown. The Niners threw for just 106 yards in that contest, the fewest by any team in a playoff win since ... the 49ers, who leaned on their elite pass rush and relentless run game to beat the Packers in the 2020 NFC championship.

The parallels to this year's team are tantalizing, but they also hint at an untimely end. Both San Francisco clubs are among 13 teams in the last 20 years to win consecutive playoff games with fewer than 200 passing yards in each. The results in the following contest haven't been pretty:

SEASON MATCHUP RESULT ATS SU
2019 49ers (+1.5) vs. Chiefs 20-31 L L
2019 Titans (+7.5) @ Chiefs 24-35 L L
2013 Seahawks (+2) vs. Broncos 43-8 W W
2010 Steelers (+2.5) vs. Packers 25-31 L L
2010 Jets (+4) @ Steelers 19-24 L L
2009 Jets (+8.5) @ Colts 17-30 L L
2008 Ravens (+6) @ Steelers 14-23 L L
2007 Giants (+7) @ Packers 23-20 W W
2004 Patriots (-7) vs. Eagles 24-21 L W
2001 Steelers (-9) vs. Patriots 17-24 L L
2001 Ravens (+6.5) @ Steelers 10-27 L L
2001 Eagles (+2.5) @ Bears 33-19 W W

Those previous 12 teams went 3-9 against the spread and 4-8 straight up in their next game, including 2-6 ATS/SU in the conference championship round. The last two teams in this spot were downed by double digits, and seven of those dozen teams lost by six or more points.

The biggest issue, unsurprisingly, came on offense. Five of those 12 teams scored 17 or fewer points - all five lost - and only two scored more than 25 points. Even that's a little misleading: the '01 Eagles had more field goals (4) than touchdowns (3), while the '13 Seahawks enjoyed two touchdowns and a safety courtesy of their defense and special teams.

And what about the passing game? Again, little surprise there. Here's a list of those 12 teams' starting quarterbacks and their stat lines following those two previous low-yardage efforts:

SEASON QUARTERBACK YARDS TD INT RATING
2019 Jimmy Garoppolo 219 1 2 69.2
2019 Ryan Tannehill 209 2 0 108.1
2013 Russell Wilson 206 2 0 123.1
2010 Ben Roethlisberger 263 2 2 77.4
2010 Mark Sanchez 233 2 0 102.2
2009 Mark Sanchez 257 2 1 93.3
2008 Joe Flacco 141 0 3 18.2
2007 Eli Manning 251 0 0 72
2004 Tom Brady 236 2 0 110.2
2001 Kordell Stewart 255 0 3 45.2
2001 Elvis Grbac 153 0 3 26.1
2001 Donovan McNabb 262 2 1 89.8

Nearly all of them were asked to do more in this spot than they were in their previous two playoff wins, but few rose to the occasion. Those 12 passers averaged a combined 223.8 yards per game with a 59.7% completion percentage and 76.0 passer rating, all worse than the collective league average over the past two decades.

None of them threw for more than 265 yards or two touchdowns, and five threw multiple interceptions - including Garoppolo's two-pick showing in the Super Bowl. He's one of six quarterbacks in this spot with a passer rating well below league average for that respective season.

His performance a week ago is especially concerning ahead of Sunday. Since 2001, only 13 teams have won a playoff game with fewer than 110 passing yards. Those previous 12 teams went 5-7 ATS/3-9 SU in their next game, averaging a mere 19.3 points and recording a collective eight losses by double digits.

A historic outlier

Of course, all of this comes with a bit of irony: Garoppolo already has an NFC title game under his belt with a remarkably similar approach. He attempted just eight passes for 77 yards in the 2020 title game, and the 49ers won handily.

It's not as if Garoppolo can't sling it, either. The former second-round pick finished second in yards per attempt (8.6), sixth in completion percentage (68.3%), and ninth in passer rating (98.7) during the 2021 regular season. He nearly managed a perfect rating (141.7) in a Week 10 win over the Rams, then he threw for 316 yards against Los Angeles in the regular-season finale.

Still, San Francisco is at its best when it takes the game out of Garoppolo's hands. Since he joined the team in 2017, the 49ers are 8-3 ATS/9-2 SU in Garoppolo's starts when he throws for zero passing touchdowns, including 3-0 in the postseason. By comparison, all other teams in that stretch are 32.8% ATS with a 29.8% win percentage outright in games without a passing touchdown.

Unsurprisingly, coach Kyle Shanahan has tried to limit Garoppolo's impact when it matters most. Since his first full season as a starter in 2019, Garoppolo has averaged 28.6 passing attempts in the regular season. In the postseason? That drops to 20.4 throws per game.

The only time he's ever attempted more than 25 passes in the playoffs came in the Super Bowl, when San Francisco was nursing a late lead and needed just a few timely throws to win it all. Garoppolo couldn't deliver: in the final 10 minutes, he went 2-for-10 with 24 yards and an interception - his second of the day - on the 49ers' final play from scrimmage.

Can the 49ers win with Jimmy G?

There's reason for optimism that Garoppolo can step up this weekend. He torched the Rams' secondary in two meetings this season, extending San Francisco's win streak to six games against its division rival. Also, it bears repeating: this team nearly won the Super Bowl two years ago with an eerily similar game plan.

Still, Garoppolo's career playoff passer rating (70.3) is jarring in contrast to the remaining field, and the 49ers have managed to win two games this postseason in spite of their starting quarterback, which becomes increasingly harder with each passing round. Even that 2020 title run was a major statistical outlier, which eventually caught up to that year's group.

While it's reductive to say that Garoppolo needs to play well for San Francisco to win Sunday - that hasn't been the case in any of his team's playoff wins to date - it's tempting fate to try to win in today's NFL without production through the air. Just ask those other teams that reached this spot without it.

C Jackson Cowart is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on Twitter (@CJacksonCowart) or email him at cjackson.cowart@thescore.com.

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Why 49ers' postseason passing woes spell trouble for title hopes
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