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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

State of the NFC Playoff Field: The Path to Glendale

The Eagles are off this week with a first round bye. How does the rest of the NFC stack up?

We’re talkin’ about playoffs, BGN! A lot has happened since my last post that has put Eagles fans in their natural habitat: a state of distress, wringing their hands about their team. I’ll talk about that a little bit here, but mostly I’m saving that for when we know who their opponent is in a post next week. Today we’ll focus mostly on the other teams in the playoffs. In this article:

  • Some thoughts on the Eagles’ past four games
  • Seeing who’s been “battle-tested” in the NFC playoffs
  • Looking ahead to the Eagles’ possible divisional round opponents

Let’s get into it.

Hot Routes: Eagles’ Quiet December

I’m not too worried about the “December slump.” There has been some fretting about how the Eagles have played since they blew out the Giants in their first meeting. I’m not buying it. Some things to consider:

  • The game in Chicago was freakishly cold which clearly impacted the play on the field.
  • Dallas and New Orleans were with Minshew at quarterback and Jack Driscoll at right tackle.
  • The second Giants game was basically a preseason game with extra juice.

These aren’t excuses, but they are examples of how the game conditions for these matchups do not reflect what we might typically see from a game. Of course, great teams can overcome atypical conditions - the 49ers won 5 games with their third-string quarterback - but that doesn’t mean we will see atypical conditions in the playoffs, where Jalen will be near 100% and Lane Johnson will at least be playing. Hopefully in the meantime the coaches do enough self-scouting to be prepared for possible unusual circumstances as they gear up for a Super Bowl run.

I am worried about how the coaching staff deals with injuries. Generally, there are two approaches to addressing injuries: “continuity” and “chess piece.” The continuity approach seeks to limit disruption as much as possible by plugging in the first backup in place of the injured starter, and leaving everything else alone. The “chess piece” approach seeks to get the “best eleven” players on the field, even if that means moving some uninjured starters around. In general, the continuity approach trusts the scheme to mask deficient backups while the chess piece approach trusts the talent on the roster to make multiple adjustments.

It should be clear by now the coaches favor the continuity approach. When Maddox went down the first time, I thought they might try CJGJ back in the slot and put Blankenship at safety, where he shined in the preseason. Nope! They just tossed Josiah Scott in there and hung him out to dry as he got toasted. Same thing with the offensive line - they could have moved Mailata to RT and put Dillard at LT - but instead left Driscoll up as easy prey against Cameron Jordan. And with Minshew they tried to run their normal offense instead of protect him with a run-focused gameplan, in spite of his limitations.

Neither approach is always 100% wrong or right. But when something doesn’t work the coaches need to be prepared to try something different. Hopefully they are more open to shaking things up should someone go down in the playoffs. It’s at least encouraging they tried out CJGJ at slot in the season finale.

I don’t get the grumbling over the Week 18 win over the Giants. I’ll say it bluntly - being concerned because “the Eagles didn’t put up 50 on the Giants’ backups” is loser energy. This is the mentality the Cowboys took last year in the finale versus the Eagles and promptly got bounced from the playoffs in hilarious fashion. The Eagles did exactly what they needed to do, which was win the game without any major injuries. Credit to Brian Daboll for inspiring his backups to put up some great tape as they audition for jobs next year. But the Eagles’ coaches trusted their starters to win the game with minimal planning, aggressiveness, or general effort - and that they did. There aren’t any style points in the NFL. You just need to take care of business. Everyone on the Eagles understood that, and that makes me even more optimistic they will be locked in for the playoffs.

The NFC Playoffs: How Did We Get Here?

In 2021, the Eagles won nine games, but only one against a team with a winning record (the 9-8 Saints) and zero against playoff teams. Seeing their drastic improvement this year made me wonder how they fared against the same field this year - and how the other playoff teams performed. Here’s what their record against winning teams looks like (record against playoff teams in parenthesis):

  1. Philadelphia, #1 seed: 7-1 (5-1)
  2. San Francisco, #2 seed: 4-1 (5-1)*
  3. Dallas, #5 seed: 6-2 (5-3)*
  4. Minnesota, #3 seed: 4-3 (3-2)
  5. Seattle, #7 seed: 3-3 (2-4)*
  6. Tampa Bay, #4 seed: 2-5 (2-4)
  7. New York Giants, #6 seed: 2-7 (2-6)

*Played the Buccaneers, who are a playoff team with a losing record

Now for some commentary:

  • The Eagles, in spite of having a “weak” schedule where they didn’t face many “top” quarterbacks, nonetheless won the most games against teams with winning records, and are tied with the 49ers for the best winning percentage against playoff teams. They also have the second-best point differential in the NFC (+133), trailing only the 49ers (+173). Oh, and that lone loss? That came against the Cowboys with Minshew in at quarterback. Hurts is undefeated against winning teams and playoff teams in 2022.
  • It’s hard to overstate what a masterful job Kyle Shanahan has done with his third string quarterback, especially when Sirianni couldn’t muster a win with a much more experienced backup in Gardner Minshew. All that said, the 49ers haven’t exactly faced too much competition this season. They’ve played the fewest teams with winning records this season. Of course, they’ve won 80% of those games, but their lone loss came in the form of a 44-23 shellacking at the hands of the Chiefs. When looking at their wins, the most impressive one was a six-point victory over the 10-7 Chargers.
  • The Cowboys’ shaky record against playoff teams includes a loss to the 8-9 Buccaneers, whom they play on Monday night. Will history repeat itself?
  • The Giants gained some notoriety as a team that could punch above their weight with early season wins against the Titans, Ravens, and Packers. That turned out to be something of a mirage, as they managed just two wins against eventual playoff teams (Ravens and Jaguars). They’ll get another chance to record their first win against an NFC playoff team when they visit the Vikings this weekend.

The Road to Glendale

The Eagles - and Eagles fans - have the luxury of a week off, where we can enjoy stress-free wild card football and discuss who we’d like to play in the divisional round. The wholesomely-named Reddit user “Give_me_NATURE” did an excellent job visualizing the odds of each potential Eagles’ matchup based on 538 projections:

To nobody’s surprise, the Cowboys and Giants are the most likely opponents, but the Buccaneers aren’t far behind. Of course there’s still the question of what we want to see happen. People seem to generally fall into two camps: “easiest path possible,” which involves avoiding the Cowboys and 49ers, or “leave no doubt,” which involves both the Cowboys and 49ers.

I have absolutely no shame about being in the “easiest path possible” camp, for two reasons. Firstly, pride is highly disloyal and will make even the best men look like idiots. Secondly, the AFC representative in the Super Bowl is likely to be the Chiefs, Bills, or Bengals. All three of those teams have a legitimate argument of being better than every NFC team right now. If the Eagles face - and beat - any of those teams in the Super Bowl it won’t really matter who they beat to get there.

Of course, I still believe the Eagles can beat any team they face. That was never in question. But I don’t see the point in making the path to glory harder than it needs to be. That’s just me though.

Go Birds.

Poll

Who do you want the Eagles to face in the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Give me the best and leave no doubt
    (119 votes)
  • 57%
    The easier the better - don’t make it harder than it needs to be
    (906 votes)
  • 34%
    I don’t really care, they’ll beat whomever they play
    (541 votes)
1566 votes total Vote Now
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