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Why the 49ers will face the Eagles in the Divisional Round

There are several injuries in this game at the most important positions. But the Eagles are still the better team.

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As we try to narrow down who the San Francisco 49ers will prepare for in the Divisional Round playoff a week from now, we’ve narrowed our search to two teams. We’re expecting the favorites to prevail on Sunday. Dallas will prove too much to handle for Green Bay, while the Rams won’t have the answers for the Lions.

That brings us to Monday, where the winner between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be rewarded with a trip to Santa Clara if both home teams win on Sunday.

The final game of the Wild Card slate is the most unpredictable. What have we seen during the second half from this Eagles squad that limped into the playoffs?

Well, they needed a Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott implosion in the 4th quarter to come away victorious on the road in Dallas—a Marquez Valdez-Scantling drop on Monday Night Football to escape Arrowhead with a win.

Buffalo moved the ball up and down the field and even had the lead with under two minutes to play, but wound up losing in overtime 37-34 the following week.

It’s been Murphy’s Law ever since getting embarrassed by the 49ers at home, as the Eagles have lost five of their previous six games, and three of those have come against inferior opponents. They look lifeless and without a plan.

We all watched the NFC South this year. Tampa Bay didn’t score a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. They struggled to get to 13 points at home against the Saints the week before. Prior to Week 17, the Bucs were on a four-game winning streak, but those wins came against C.J. Beathard, Jordan Love, Desmond Ridder, and Bryce Young.

This game is a coin flip.

Why the 49ers will face the Buccaneers

By my estimation, these are the two worst teams in the NFC playoffs. Injuries have a lot to do with it. The Eagles and Buccaneers would likely lose if they were playing anybody else. But they’re playing each other, so somebody has to win.

Who could have predicted that Matt Patricia would struggle as a defensive coordinator? The Eagles gave up 27 points to Tyrod Taylor, 31 to Kyler Murray, and 25 — they were lucky it wasn’t more — two weeks prior against the Giants again. If you review their game logs, teams score early and often against Philadephia. They can’t tackle or cover.

Tampa Bay scored 29 points in three consecutive games before the season's final two weeks. They looked like they were poised to make a playoff run in the NFC and pull off a couple of upsets. Baker Mayfield was throwing the ball well, and Tampa Bay finally figured out how to utilize Rachaad White out of the backfield.

The Eagles are 29th in defensive DVOA, mainly because they’re 29th against the pass. There are clips on the interwebs, allowing a five-yard catch to turn into a 20-yard catch and run. It isn’t good.

They can pull off the upset if the Bucs can get enough stops. And we’ve seen the Eagles offense look out of sorts for a few weeks. Injuries to Philadelphia’s most important players only help the home team.

Why the 49ers won’t face the Buccaneers

Todd Bowles has a specific style of defense where he loads the box — Tampa Bay plays with the fifth-highest number of players in the box in the NFL — and is aggressive while playing 1-on-1 coverage on the outside.

These two teams played in Week 3, and D’Andre Swift ran for 130 yards on only 16 attempts, while Philadelphia ran for 201 yards and gashed the Bucs on the ground. Once that happens, you leave players like A.J. Brown 1-on-1, and he wins those matchups. Brown had nine receptions for 131 yards.

The Panthers didn’t score last week because wide receiver D.J. Chark fumbled the ball, diving into the end zone and resulting in a touchback. Carolina also had a long touchdown run called back because a receiver didn’t line up on the line of scrimmage. They also missed a field goal and fumbled in Bucs territory.

Jalen Hurts and Brown aren’t 100 percent, and we’re all but guaranteed to see a drop-off in their production. Throw in the uncertainty of DeVonta Smith, and there’s plenty of reason for concern.

But Baker Mayfield was limping around the field all game. He couldn’t move. Mayfield has sore ribs, which affected some of his throws, and he suffered an ankle injury during the game that took away his mobility.

For as poor as the Eagles have played during the past month and a half — and there’s no way to sugar coat it, they’ve been terrible — a hobbled Mayfield who can’t move or make you pay for mistakes in coverage isn’t the quarterback to get over on the Eagles, even this version of them.

The Eagles have given us zero reason to believe in them. But this is a sport predicated on matchups. That Bowles’ defense will live with a single-high safety is where Hurts, Brown, and Smith are at their best. Hurts becomes more of a threat as a runner, and all Swift has to do is make one person miss for an explosive run.

Think about the teams that Tampa Bay played during the second half we mentioned during their winning streak. Since Week 9, Tampa Bay’s defense has been in the bottom half of the league in EPA per play and success rate. They’re not getting stops against non-playoff teams.

Philadelphia is ninth in EPA per play since Week 9. They can still make you pay with the big play. Despite all of their warts and faults in the second half, their offense is sixth in the NFL in success rate, meaning that they can still move the ball on a down-to-down basis.

In a game where it’ll come down to who wins 1-on-1, I’ll take the team who played a murderer’s row in the second half.