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49ers analytics roundup: The Niners are officially a contender

Metrics have favored San Francisco all season, whether they were winning or losing

NFL: NOV 28 Vikings at 49ers Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 49ers have reeled off three wins in a row, and two of those victories came against potential playoff teams. A win against Minnesota showed a Niners’ team battle adversity and showed some resiliency.

So after 12 weeks of the season, San Francisco sits at 6-5 and in the sixth seed of the NFC playoff race. As high as expectations were heading into the season, nobody would’ve complained before the season started knowing the Niners had a shot at making the playoffs.

What are advanced analytics saying about the 49ers? Here’s where they stand compared to the rest of the NFL.

49ers efficiency at a glance

Football Outsiders ranks San Francisco as the seventh-best team in the NFL. Their weighted DVOA, which focuses more on recent games, has the Niners sixth and higher than the Rams.

Does it feel like the 49ers have one of the best offenses in the NFL? DVOA loves this team. They’re third in DVOA behind the Bucs and the Chargers. Fourth in passing DVOA and seventh in rushing DVOA. Only two other teams are ranked in the top-10 in both metrics.

Here’s a look at every NFL team since Week 5 and where they stand in terms of dropback and rushing EPA per play:

Per RBSDM, San Francisco sits at 13th in dropback EPA and seventh in rushing EPA. Success rate isn’t nearly as kind to the offense as the Niners are 20th in passing success rate and 12th in rushing success rate.

So, how are the 49ers in the middle of the pack yet scoring 30 points in the last three games? The big play. According to Sharp Football Stats, San Francisco has the 12th-most passing plays since Week 15 that have gone for at least 20 yards, and the fifth-most rushing plays go over 15 yards.

They’re moving the ball in chunks at a time and, most importantly, scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The 49ers are scoring touchdowns at a historic clip in the red zone. They remain at 77%, which is where they’ve been most of the season. That’s No. 1 in the NFL by six percentage points.

Here’s a look at NFL team tiers from an EPA perspective:

The defense is toeing the line of average, which works in the NFL if you’re offense is humming.

This next chart shows you how many points a team would be favored against a league-average opponent on a neutral field. Instead of power rankings, think of this as “power ratings.” The chart below suggests San Francisco is firmly in the contenders' chair:

I’d look at this as who the teams are paired with as opposed to who is rated above who. Saying the 49ers are in the second tier feels fair.

Let’s talk about the defense, which has been lights out against the run. The 49ers are tenth in defensive DVOA. They’re 22nd against the pass and second against the run. The Niners are sixth in defensive success rate, which tells you they are doing their job on a down-to-down basis.

Per RBSDM, San Francisco only ranks 16th in total defensive EPA per play. The Vikings game sums up the 49ers' defense perfectly. There was a 40-yard run from Dalvin Cook and another long gain on a screen. We saw a coverage bust early from Josh Norman and Talanoa Hufanaga. But, when the team needed stops, they got them.

D.J. Jones was incredible after re-watching the game. He saved a handful of plays from turning into six, seven, and longer gains. The entire defensive line played well, which is why I believe this team will be fine for a game without Fred Warner.

The 49ers are fourth in rushing EPA and No. 1 by three percentage points in rushing success rate. If Dre Greenlaw can play, that would mitigate the loss of Warner.

The defense has been league average at allowing explosive plays since Week 5. They rank 16th against the pass and 17th against the run. That’s lower on both accounts than I figured. When Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward are on the field, it’s rare the defense gives up the big play.

Special teams stinker

The third phase of the game has been kicking the 49ers butt this year. We have a kick return for a touchdown in Week 12 as evidence. The 49ers are 20th in special teams DVOA.

The only reason the final drive from the Vikings mattered was thanks to a Robbie Gould miss after the offense chewed the clock and drove the length of the field. San Francisco ranks 16th in DVOA in field goals and extra points. They’re not paying Gould to be an average kicker, yet, they’re getting average results.

The team is 23rd in kick returns. The only phase where they’re above average? Punt returns, thanks to Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers are seventh in DVOA in punt returns.