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49ers Playoff Guide: NFC Super Wild Card Weekend

Chris Wilson
Jan 14, 2024 at 4:31 AM
Updated Jan 14, 2024 at 4:49 AM

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With the NFL's Super Wild Card Weekend in full swing, the outcomes of these three NFC games will play a crucial role in shaping the San Francisco 49ers' path to the Super Bowl. We break down each key matchup and the explore the potential effects on the 49ers' pursuit of postseason success.

After securing the top seed in the NFC the previous week, the San Francisco 49ers entered Week 18 with nothing substantive to gain in their final game of the season – a home matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to rest some key players, including quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey, and then removed starters as the game progressed.

Despite holding a two-score lead as they entered the locker room at halftime, the Niners failed to put a point on the scoreboard in the second half and eventually lost to the Rams 21-20 to close the regular season. The contest raised a few eyebrows when 49ers kicker Jake Moody missed both a field goal and an extra point, and caused a number of furrowed brows when the team's backup receivers failed to haul in a series of key deep passes late in the game.

The most problematic issue from the afternoon at Levi's Stadium was the leg injury sustained by defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who was carted off early in the game. Fortunately, Ferrell appears to have avoided a long-term knee injury, although he is expected to miss a few weeks. Aside from the lineman's injury, the contest did not impact the 49ers' playoff hopes or their firm grasp of the NFC's top seed.

In fact, Week 18 of the NFL regular season was a success for San Francisco in the eyes of oddsmakers and sportsbooks. The 49ers surpassed the Baltimore Ravens as Super Bowl favorites while further distancing themselves from their NFC counterparts in the race for the conference championship.

49ers Pivot to the Postseason

Although the Niners' fourth-quarter loss didn't affect their playoff seed or first-round bye, the game did influence the playoff picture in the NFC, including two of the conference's three games during "Super Wild Card Weekend." Later that evening, the NFL released the schedule for the first round of the playoffs, including the dates, times, and additional specifics for each first-round playoff game.

We also received the opening odds for the wild-card matchups before witnessing a bit of line movement over the course of the week, which will factor into the calculations we will use prior to kickoff to predict which team will most likely be the 49ers' first playoff opponent. And so far, so good, as the top four teams from our Week 18 projections are the four teams the 49ers can potentially face next week.

Here are some key points the 49ers Faithful need to know about the NFC playoff picture as we close the book on the 2023 regular season and look ahead to Super Wild Card Weekend and the games that will impact the Niners' ongoing "Quest for Six."

NFL Playoff Picture: NFC Seeds

Aside from the 49ers' top spot, the remaining six NFC playoff seeds were in play when Sunday's games began. Once the last teams finished the final games of the 2023 NFL Regular Season, the NFC's final playoff seeds were set:
  1. San Francisco 49ers (12-5)
  2. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
  3. Detroit Lions (12-5)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-8)
  5. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
  6. Los Angeles Rams (10-7)
  7. Green Bay Packers (9-8)

In both conferences, the top seed – the 49ers in the NFC – receives a "bye week" for Super Wild Card Weekend, as the remaining six teams will compete to move on to the Divisional Round, which will be held next Saturday and Sunday. The two teams that win their respective divisional games will play for the NFC Championship the following Sunday. The winner of the NFC will then travel to Las Vegas to compete against the winner of the AFC in Super Bowl LVIII on February 11, 2024.

The NFL does not utilize a fixed bracket system for the playoffs like the NCAA. Instead, matchups are determined after the completion of each round, based on each team's original seed, leading to a dynamic playoff format throughout the playoffs.

49ers Fan Guide to Super Wild Card Weekend

Although the San Francisco 49ers won't play this weekend, their first opponent – the lowest-seeded winner from the following three games – will.

Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Sunday, January 14, 2024
1:30 p.m. PT - FOX
Packers (7) @ Cowboys (2)
Line: DAL -7

After a slow start in Week 18, the Cowboys eventually took advantage of the Washington Commanders' flurry of turnovers and mistakes, as Dallas secured the NFC East division crown and the NFC's valuable No. 2 seed. Although they don't receive a first-round bye, the majority of their games will be played at "Jerry World" – seemingly the only place where the Cowboys can defeat a respectable opponent this season – and head coach Mike McCarthy's squad cannot face the 49ers prior to the NFC Championship Game.

This year marks the third consecutive playoff appearance for the Cowboys, who secured the second seed thanks to their infamous Week 17 victory over the Lions. Dallas' prime-time victory was strongly influenced by another officiating debacle – although Detroit head coach Dan Campbell deserves a share of the blame for his subsequent meltdown over the call. With more fuel added to this season's "Officiating in Crisis" fire, the spotlight on the men and women in stripes has never been brighter.

However, you'll hear no complaints from Dallas, who had the most to gain by locking up the second seed in the NFC. Given their play during the regular season, home-field advantage is paramount for a Dallas Super Bowl run, and given the two teams' postseason rivalry, being sent home by San Francisco for the third consecutive postseason would be far from ideal. Also of note, McCarthy has never defeated the Niners in the playoffs; His four losses place him in the NFL record books as he shares the record for the head coach with the most playoff losses to one opponent:

The Cowboys will host the Green Bay Packers, who snuck into the NFC's final playoff spot with a one-score victory over the Chicago Bears. McCarthy's history with Green Bay runs much deeper, as the Packers fired him during the 2018 season despite 13 years of success, allegedly due to differences between the head coach and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. McCarthy has likely been waiting for this opportunity for some time, bringing extra intrigue to Sunday's Cowboys-Packers matchup.

The Packers' road to the No. 7 seed was somewhat complex. Although the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks also finished with identical 9-8 records, the Saints tallied one fewer victory in the NFC, which left the Packers in position to win the tiebreaker over Seattle based on Strength of Victory (SOV). If not for the Rams' touchdown drive and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter last week, the Packers would have faced a familiar Lions team they defeated in Detroit in Week 12 instead of the Cowboys. As the final seed, Green Bay's difficult playoff road now runs through Dallas, and if victorious, then San Francisco.

Los Angeles Rams @ Detroit Lions

Sunday, January 14, 2024
5:00 p.m. PT - NBC
Rams (6) @ Lions (3)
Line: DET -3

If you're looking for a game with an interesting backstory, look no further than the Rams' matchup against the Lions on Sunday night. Just three years ago, each starting quarterback was the "Franchise QB" of their respective opponent. This weekend will be the first time that both starting quarterbacks will face off against their former teams in the history of the NFL Playoffs.

When the Rams sent two first-round draft picks and another third-round selection to the Lions for the opportunity to switch QBs, it appeared to be a desperate yet understandable move for a team in "win now" mode. One year and a Lombardi Trophy later, the trade paid out for the Rams. A full and healthy year of quarterback Matt Stafford, in the best form of his career, played an instrumental role in Los Angeles' successful Super Bowl run – which former Rams QB Jared Goff was never able to complete.

The Rams then proceeded to have the worst "Super Bowl hangover" season in the history of the NFL – a feeling I assume Stafford is quite familiar with from his younger days, but a phenomenon – in football terms – that is normally reserved for the loser of the Super Bowl, not the winner. However, in 2022, Stafford reverted to his usual injury-prone form, and finished perhaps his worst season in the past decade with a meager 3-6 record. Meanwhile, Goff had a Pro Bowl year and ended the season with a rare winning record for the Lions, as well as a top-5 offense – a feat Stafford only managed to attain once in his 12 years in Detroit.

In 2023, Stafford started off slow again but continued to improve during a respectable season, as he recorded nine victories and only missed a limited amount of playing time. Stafford's play was certainly strongest over the latter portion of the year, but overall, his season paled in comparison to his first year in Los Angeles.

Goff had a similar season to the one prior, and given an extra year with the team and an improved supporting cast, he led the Lions to a 12-5 record and the franchise's first division title in the past 30 years – a pipe dream for Stafford during his Detroit tenure.

So, who "won" this massive trade? The debate continues, as there are legitimate arguments for both positions; Stafford did help the Rams win the ultimate prize, but his future remains in question, and his best years are behind him. When the Lions obtained Goff, they planned to use him as a bridge quarterback during what was supposed to be a significant rebuild. Not only did they receive a bounty of draft capital in exchange for Stafford, but the Lions may have obtained the better long-term quarterback as well.

Goff is still in his 20s, while Stafford turns 36 early next month – albeit an "old 36" with limited tread remaining on his tires. While only time will tell, Sunday night's contest will play a pivotal role in determining which side received the better side of the deal in this blockbuster trade.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Monday, January 15, 2024
5:00 p.m. PT - ABC/ESPN
Eagles (5) @ Buccaneers (4)
Line: PHI -3

Despite the intrigue surrounding the teams facing off in the NFC's first two contests, the third and final game of the weekend contains the most unknowns. After a season of highs and lows, the jury is still out on whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a legitimate playoff contender. On the other side of the ball, the Philadelphia Eagles are trying to figure out who they really are after first flying high, and then falling apart in historic fashion over the latter portion of the season. It's anyone's guess which versions of the Buccaneers and the Eagles show up to play on Monday night.

The Buccaneers began December with a 4-7 record before proceeding to win five of their final six games to clinch the fourth playoff spot in the NFC. Tampa Bay is likely the second-best team in the worst division in the NFL, but they will host a playoff game thanks to a strong finish combined with their record-among-common-teams tiebreak advantage over the Saints.

The Bucs are far from an elite football team, but they have a good defensive unit paired with a streaky offense led by resurgent quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has excelled this season despite playing on his fourth team in the last three years. Unfortunately, Mayfield is also dealing with injuries to both his ribs and ankle, which haven't prevented him from suiting up, but have negatively impacted his play on the field in recent weeks.

Tampa Bay may have the NFL's worst run game, as the team ranks at the bottom of the league with a meager 3.4 yards per carry and just 88.8 rushing yards per game. Instead, the Bucs, who found the end zone on the ground just 8 times over the course of the season, rely heavily on Mayfield for their offensive output. Mayfield, in turn, relies on his pair of 1,000-yard wide receivers, which has resulted in an above-average passing attack. WR Chris Godwin is a solid No. 2 receiver, while Pro-Bowl wideout Mike Evans, who racked up over 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, is clearly the most dangerous playmaker on Tampa Bay's roster.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Philadelphia Eagles landed the No. 5 seed by self-destructing over the past six weeks. If the Eagles faced the Buccaneers in early December, the reigning NFC Champions would have been favored over Tampa Bay by at least two scores. Normally, we could use the teams' early-season matchup–a 14-point Eagles victory–as a general baseline for their upcoming game. However, the two teams competing on Monday night are not the same teams that faced off in Week 3, after traveling opposite trajectories throughout the 2023 season.

Tampa's loss to Philadelphia in September kicked off a 2-7 skid for the Bucs, which left the team in third place as the NFL entered Week 13. However, Tampa Bay was able to right the ship against the one-win Carolina Panthers and then reverse course just in time to win five of their last six games, securing the NFC South title.

The 10-1 Eagles were a cocky Super Bowl-or-bust team that–along with their fan base–was extremely proud of their victory against a QB-free team in last year's NFC Championship Game. Over the prior 11 months, the chatter–and its collective volume–only continued to increase, even as the San Francisco 49ers arrived in Philadelphia for a Week 13 rematch.

Given the atmosphere, it felt more like a playoff game than a regular season affair, which is understandable, given the extraordinary level of media hype the contest received. In addition, from the 49ers' perspective, the team waited nearly a year for the opportunity to play the game they were scheduled to play last January.

The home team and their fans, known for their "intensity"– to put it kindly–did not disappoint as the contest began. Unsurprisingly, the intensity only escalated when the Niners went three-and-out on their first and second series. For a game billed as a battle for NFL MVP between quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Brock Purdy, the situation appeared bleak for a San Francisco offense that held the ball for just two minutes while failing to move the ball forward in the first quarter.

But although the 49ers' defense continued to bend, it didn't break, as it held the Eagles to a pair of red-zone field goals. And when the second quarter began with a third-down stop, hope was briefly restored, only for the offense to respond with more of the same: another stuffed run and a false start, and the Niners' offense was off-schedule once again. Philadelphia's game plan was clear: Stop the run and put the game on the shoulders of San Francisco's young quarterback. Force Brock Purdy to play like an MVP. So he did.

Three consecutive third-down conversions to three different receivers, and suddenly, the 49ers were ahead. Six consecutive touchdown drives for San Francisco, and suddenly, the Eagles were broken.

Philadelphia began Week 13 with the deserved swagger of a team destined for the Super Bowl after defeating the Cowboys, Chiefs, and Bills in succession, and they looked the part for the first 15 minutes of play. Three quarters and 42 points later, that team was gone. The Eagles team that left Lincoln Financial Field would struggle to keep pace with the worst teams in the NFL, managing just one victory over the remainder of the season.

The change was immediately evident, as the Eagles' offense failed to score the following week. Thanks to their strong start and a weak remaining schedule of opponents with losing records, Philadelphia was still in command of the NFC – but they just kept losing. Their loss to the three-win Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 removed the team from consideration for the top seed. With an outside shot at the NFC title and sorely needing a victory for team morale, the Eagles played to win against the five-win New York Giants in Week 18. By halftime, the Giants amassed a 24-0 lead, while the Eagles sustained numerous injuries to key players, forcing head coach Nick Sirianni to remove his remaining starters from the game late in the second quarter. Mere weeks removed from celebrity status in Philadelphia, rumors are flying surrounding Sirianni's future with the franchise.

So, why such a deep dive into the Eagles' fall from grace? There remains a powerful retort to the preceding 500 words of doom and gloom surrounding the team's present and future: The Philadelphia Eagles are a talented football team; they're just not playing like one. They are slightly favored in their matchup with the Buccaneers, but Philadelphia could easily end up on either end of a playoff rout.

Something happened to the team's collective psyche during their blowout loss to the 49ers. Was the game simply an unexpected reality check? Or perhaps the Eagles are suffering from the NFL's ban of chief security officer Dom DiSandro from the sideline after he initiated a physical altercation with 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw?

According to sources, and referenced across numerous reports by local news outlets, DiSandro's role within the Eagles' organization extends far beyond safety oversight and – ironically – "education on the NFL's personal conduct policy." DiSandro is described as "connected" and a "fixer," who, due to the loyalty he's demonstrated to the organization, can act without explanation or prior authorization. Among his responsibilities, DiSandro reportedly utilizes his police and political connections to intervene when players run afoul of the law – but that's a troublesome conversation for another day. As it relates to the Eagles' playoff run, "Big Dom" plays an important role for the franchise, both as a "therapist" to players and an advisor to the team's last four coaching staffs – and is adored by all.

As stated by The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane:

DiSandro's most important role with the Eagles after nearly a quarter century — according to many coaches, players, and team personnel, past and present — is as chief resident of the psyche.

Big Dom has been a mainstay on the Eagles' sideline – not the Eagles' bench area, but on the actual sideline, where the NFL precludes all non-coaches from standing – in part, to prevent unnecessary situations like his altercation with Greenlaw. But for his inappropriate behavior, the NFL issued a harsh punishment: DiSandro was banished from Philadelphia's bench and forced to watch the Eagles' weekly implosion from a luxury suite. The league also gave him a six-figure fine, but the team immediately picked up the tab, because he's "family."

In many ways, both good and bad, DiSandro is the Philadelphia Eagles. Regardless of whether Sirianni stays or goes, Big Dom will remain. Was his absence during the team's free-fall a coincidence? We'll see, but what we do know is the Big Dom's sideline ban is over. The Eagles are broken, and their "fixer" has returned. If both Dallas and Detroit are victorious, as many expect, the winner of Monday night's game will travel to San Francisco.

AFC Super Wild Card Weekend

Saturday, January 13, 2024
1:30 p.m. PT - NBC: Browns (5) @ Texans (4) +2.5 | Update: Texans 45, Browns 17
5:00 p.m. PT - Peacock: Dolphins (6) @ Chiefs (3) -4.5 | Update: Chiefs 36, Dolphins 7

Monday, January 15, 2024 [Rescheduled from Sunday due to weather]
1:30 p.m. PT - CBS: Steelers (7) @ Bills (2) -10
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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