Leading up to the Divisional Round matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, there wasn’t much of an argument to be made against the San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Shanahan had led his team to 11 straight victories.
But that wasn’t enough for everybody. There’s always something for somebody to complain about. In this case, it was the lack of formidable opponents on the 49ers' schedule — as if it’s their fault the Saints were bombarded with injuries, the Cardinals had lost their quarterback, or even Tompa Bay being a shell of itself this year.
Remember, we’re only allowed to use the context that works against San Francisco. Because the way some of these conversations went, the Niners haven’t suffered a single injury all season. Ignore the seventh-rounder under center, who was QB3 until December.
There are 32 teams in the NFL. There are maybe a handful that would objectively be considered in an “elite” tier. The 49ers fall under that category.
That Arizona team with backup quarterbacks? The 49ers beat them in two games down the stretch by a combined 76-23. In fact, from Week 11 and on, the only game that kept us on the edge of our seats came against a team the week after they benched their quarterback on the road. Still, that extra jolt of motivation wasn’t enough to beat the Niners.
Nobody cares how you win in the playoffs, as every team is assumed to be a worthy opponent. Seattle was trending the wrong way, as they were 16th in DVOA since Week 10. In that game, we saw the 49ers' offense continue to hit on all cylinders as they scored over 40 points in what ended up being a blowout victory.
This past Sunday, fresh off a 17-point victory against Tampa Bay, Dallas struggled to muster consecutive drives where they crossed midfield. They were fortunate to crack double-digits.
Don’t be fooled by the score. San Francisco dominated Dallas. That doesn’t make the Cowboys an outlier. Football Outsiders' DVOA adjusts for opponents, and the 49ers were head and shoulders better than the rest of the NFL for the entire second half.
Philadelphia and San Francisco have been the class of the NFC for much of the season. Kyle Shanahan said as much recently:
“They’ve been as good as anyone since the beginning of this year and all the way to right now. If you looked at the beginning of the year, you thought Philly would be the last team right here and that’s the way it’s ended up, so we’re going down there, hopefully we’ll have a good week of practice, and looking forward to the challenge.”
If we’re referencing weighted DVOA, the Eagles are in fifth place and are closer to the seventh-placed Cowboys than the first-placed 49ers.
We can do away with the strength of schedule argument. Football Outsiders has the 49ers 31st and the Eagles 32nd. The Niners are also No. 1 in Pythagorean Wins, while Philly is third. The Chiefs are 29th in strength of schedule but fifth in Pythagorean wins, representing a projection of the team’s expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed.
So, the two teams with the worst strength of schedules in the NFL are facing off in the NFC Championship, while the team with the fourth-worst SOS is in the AFC Championship. Yeah, I’d say it’s a faulty stat.