Cowboys, 49ers, and Other NFC Playoff Hopefuls Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses

The 49ers lost Jimmy Garoppolo for the season, begging the question, "What are each NFC team's biggest strengths and weaknesses moving forward?"

The NFC playoff picture isn’t chiseled in stone yet. Even the Detroit Lions are entering the chat like Randy Orton, ready to RKO everyone in sight. But realistically, eight teams are playing for seven playoff spots in the conference.

According to FiveThirtyEight, three NFC teams have a more than 99% chance of making the playoffs. But when looking at strengths and weaknesses, we’re looking into the future for reasons why each team may be bounced from the playoffs, not necessarily why they may or may not make the dance. However, we’ll get into that with a few Wild Card contenders.

We’ll attack each team by the current conference seeding.

NFC Playoff Hopefuls Strengths and Weaknesses

A few of the teams in the NFC are extremely hard to poke holes in. We must dive deep into some of the numbers to find the answers.

1. Philadelphia Eagles

EPA: Offense (fourth), Defense (fifth)
DVOA: Offense (third), Defense (sixth)
Scoring: PPG (second), PPG against (eight)

Biggest Strength: Versatility of the Run Game

Detractors will downplay the Eagles’ offensive prowess by denying their passing results, which are among the best in the NFL on a per-play basis. They rank sixth in passing DVOA and eighth in dropback EPA, but their rushing attack writes the checks.

In an age where teams are willing to leak yards on the ground, the Eagles can blast through traditional barriers and flat out win games without leaning on their passing attack.

Philadelphia ranks first in rushing DVOA and EPA, thanks to the contributions from two running backs averaging over 4.5 yards per carry and their QB, who is one of the best runners in the game.

A total of 74 rushers have amassed at least 40 carries. Of those, 25 of them average positive EPA outcomes. Jalen Hurts (eighth), Kenneth Gainwell (10th), and Miles Sanders (15th) all produce positive EPA outcomes on average.

Defending the QB run is nearly impossible, and the Eagles seemingly prove that weekly.

Biggest Weakness: Run Defense

Many NFL fanbases probably believe this to be the case regarding their favorite team. Since birth, we’ve been taught that defenses must stop the run. And while the reality isn’t so, it can be a death blow in a one-game sample like the NFL playoffs.

To filter out blowout situations where the Eagles may not care that a team is running the ball well, we’ll look at Philadelphia’s run defense when their win probability is between 30-70%.

MORE: Week 14 NFL Power Rankings

In said situations, the Eagles rank 27th in rush EPA defensively, and teams have a success rate of 47.2% against them, which ranks 28th in the NFL. Dallas (third), San Francisco (seventh), and Washington (eighth) are all good rushing offenses in the same parameters when looking at expected points added.

2. Minnesota Vikings

EPA: Offense (18th), Defense (16th)
DVOA: Offense (20th), Defense (23rd)
Scoring: Offense (11th), Defense (21st)

Biggest Strength: Justin Jefferson

T.J. Hockenson has been an effective pass catcher for the Vikings since his addition, but Minnesota’s offense goes as Justin Jefferson goes. He lacks a weakness to his game in a way other receivers could only dream.

No receiver in football should average more targets than Jefferson, yet he ranks behind Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill in targets for the season. Of the six receivers with at least 100 targets, only Hill and Diggs average more EPA per target.

However, Jefferson ranks first among the highly-targeted group in yards per target, on-target catch percentage, and yards per reception. Minnesota must lean on him to gain an edge over other playoff teams.

Biggest Weakness: Secondary Play

Patrick Peterson is somehow still playing decent football at age 32, but the rest of the Vikings’ unit has struggled. According to Sports Info Solutions, 118 NFL defenders have been targeted 25 times or more. The Vikings have no member of the secondary ranking inside the top 59 (Peterson ranks 60th) of EPA per target against.

In fact, Harrison Smith is 118, but cornerback is as big an issue for Minnesota. Cam Dantzler ranks 103 and Chandon Sullivan is 107. The team struggles to cover, plain and simple. It’s why as a team, they’re 26th in dropback success rate.

3. San Francisco 49ers

EPA: Offense (ninth), Defense (fourth)
DVOA: Offense (10th), Defense (fifth)
Scoring: Offense (13th), Defense (first)

Biggest Strength: Defensive Consistency

There might be more talented defenses in the NFL, but none play as consistently as the 49ers do when Nick Bosa is healthy. They possess outstanding depth on the defensive line, have arguably the best off-ball linebacker in the NFL, and a defensive backfield that is multiple and incredibly well-coached.

The truth is, there is no weakness for the 49ers defensively because they’re so schematically sound. Their performance with Bosa on the field would rank them first in the league in EPA per play (-0.14) and in the top 10 with him off it (-0.02).

They’re multiple in coverage which helps make quarterbacks think post-snap, which helps their defensive line get home. Additionally, they do all this while also being strong against the run.

Biggest Weakness: Quarterback

After Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury, this answer became pretty simple. Brock Purdy played well against the Dolphins, but there is absolutely no guarantee the league’s Mr. Irrelevant will continue on that pace. We’ve seen players flash in the past before coming back down to earth.

MORE: Potential Landing Spots for Baker Mayfield

Maybe Kyle Shanahan has finally built a QB-proof offensive system after years of losing productivity after Garoppolo’s injuries. Maybe that group of YAC monsters can make any QB look good. History simply isn’t on Purdy’s side.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

EPA: Offense (21st), Defense (ninth)
DVOA: Offense (17th), Defense (seventh)
Scoring: Offense (27th), Defense (fifth)

Biggest Strength: Receiving Strength/Depth

Honestly, it’s difficult to come up with any true strengths for the Buccaneers, given how underwhelming their season has been to this point.

Even though they struggle to score — and we’ll get to their biggest weakness shortly — their receiving corps is talented and deep. With Tom Brady commanding the offense, it still feels like just a matter of time before they turn it on for their playoff push.

Mike Evans, Julio Jones, Chris Godwin, and Russell Gage are a diverse and talented group, especially when paired with the league’s best-ever QB.

Biggest Weakness: Rushing Attack

The Buccaneers can’t run the football to save their lives. They’re last in the NFL in rushing EPA and are 30th in rushing DVOA. They’re also dead last in yards per carry (3.3) and yards per game.

5. Dallas Cowboys

EPA: Offense (12th), Defense (second)
DVOA: Offense (15th), Defense (first)
Scoring: Offense (fourth), Defense (third)

Biggest Strength: Pass Rush

The Cowboys average nearly a sack more than the next closest team in the NFL. They sack the quarterback 11.1% of the time. The Patriots are the next closest at 8.6%. The Cowboys’ pressure rate also tops the league at 40.6%.

Their 11.1% sack rate would be the highest in the NFL since 2015, when SIS started tracking sack rates. Dallas has an extensive blitz package that they use about 25% of the time, and have as much depth and top-end pass-rushing talent as any team in the league.

Biggest Weakness: Defending QB Runs

Many fans believe the Cowboys’ run defense in totality is an issue, but they actually rank eighth in run DVOA and are sixth in success rate. Where they falter is in allowing explosive runs, and those have largely come against opposing quarterbacks.

Only the Lions and Dolphins defend the QB-rushing attack worse on a per-play basis. It’s particularly bad against scrambles, most likely because they use a lot of stunts on the defensive line with man coverage behind.

When a defensive line game doesn’t go as planned and the secondary has their backs turned, it creates massive hallways for opposing QBs to scamper to.

6. New York Giants

EPA: Offense (11th), Defense (25th)
DVOA: Offense (16th), Defense (28th)
Scoring: Offense (22nd), Defense (12th)

Biggest Strength: Daniel Jones’ Legs

Daniel Jones wasn’t the main focus of my mobile QB piece, but he was part of it. And his legs should be used more in the Giants’ offense, given the positive outcomes the team sees when he does.

The option run game should be more of a feature in the Giants’ offense, particularly because of Saquon Barkley’s big-play ability and the added gap option runs create. Getting players like Barkley and Jones in space is imperative.

Biggest Weakness: Injuries in the Secondary

Losing Darnay Holmes and Adoree’ Jackson is a death blow to a secondary that already lacked depth and has Wink Martindale as a defensive coordinator. Martindale puts a ton of pressure on his cornerbacks in a blitz-heavy, man-coverage defense. At least, that’s how he wants to defend.

New York’s backups fought valiantly against the Cowboys and Commanders, but it will be their downfall if they can’t get healthy before the playoffs commence.

7. Seattle Seahawks

EPA: Offense (eighth), Defense (26th)
DVOA: Offense (eighth), Defense (19th)
Scoring: Offense (fifth), Defense (28th)

Biggest Strength: Passing Attack

Geno Smith isn’t quite an MVP contender, but that doesn’t mean his name shouldn’t at least be brought up in the conversation. Smith has the highest CPOE (7.7%) in the NFL and ranks fourth in the EPA + CPOE composite.

Efficiency is the name of the game for Seattle’s passing attack. They have the second-best dropback success rate in the NFL and rank seventh in dropback EPA.

Biggest Weakness: Allowing Explosive Plays

The Seahawks rank fourth in success rate against the run and are 15th in dropback success rate, which are respectable numbers. However, they allow too many explosive plays against each, which is why they rank 21st in rushing EPA and 29th in dropback EPA on defense.

8. Washington Commanders

EPA: Offense (27th), Defense (seventh)
DVOA: Offense (26th), Defense (11th)
Scoring: Offense (24th), Defense (10th)

Biggest Strength: Defensive Front

Per SIS, the Commanders trail only Dallas in pressure rate. Their pass-rush unit ranks seventh in points saved per play, and they’re first in the league with 59 QB knockdowns.

Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, and Daron Payne all have over 30 pressures this season, and Washington will get Chase Young back for their playoff push shortly.

Biggest Weakness: QB Play

Taylor Heinicke has been a better option for the Commanders than Carson Wentz. Heinicke has a lot of Ryan Fitzpatrick in his game. He’s got the magic in him, but he’s not necessarily a “good” quarterback.

MORE: Washington Commanders Tie With New York Giants Proves Taylor Heinicke Can Lead Playoff Run

He’s simply limited. He’s smaller in stature and in overall arm talent. There’s no denying Heinicke’s competitive nature, it was on full display as he defied physics on his 4th-and-4 throw to extend the Giants’ game. But overall, the Commanders’ offense doesn’t have the juice some other NFC playoff teams do.

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