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Why a certain NFC playoff trend in 2023 favors the 49ers

The playoff landscape could be changing this season, and the 49ers are the biggest beneficiaries.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at San Francisco 49ers Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are set to play in their first playoff game this weekend when they host the Green Bay Packers in a divisional round matchup, looking to make their fourth NFC Championship Game in five years under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

San Francisco enters the game with a near clean slate of health, as they’re set to return defensive tackle Arik Armstead, while Christian McCaffrey has received three weeks of rest to deal with his injuries.

They’ll face a Packers team that is led by first-year quarterback Jordan Love, who won his first playoff game with a strong performance last weekend to upset the Dallas Cowboys, who entered the game as significant favorites.

That was one of three different NFC playoff games last weekend, and each one followed a trend that isn’t always highlighted in the playoffs: the better quarterback losing.

For the Cowboys, quarterback Dak Prescott was placed in MVP conversations for much of the season, throwing for 4,516 yards, 36 touchdowns, and nine interceptions, while completing 69.5 percent of his passes.

In the game between the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams, quarterback Matthew Stafford arguably played like a top-five quarterback down the stretch, and was the best NFC signal-caller in my eyes this season.

Then, in the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quarterback Jalen Hurts, who led his team to a Super Bowl in 2022 and was the MVP favorite for the entire month of November in 2023, couldn’t pull his team through to the divisional round.

Now, of course, the distinction is much more nuanced than the better quarterback losing.

The trend

This season, we are seeing that a better overall team has trumped better quarterback play, at least in the NFC.

While Jordan Love had a great game against the Cowboys, throwing for 272 yards and three touchdowns, it was ultimately Green Bay’s ability to run the football and stop the run that encapsulated their victory.

The Packers played balanced football offensively, as Aaron Jones had a 118-yard and three-touchdown game, while Cowboys running back Tony Pollard was limited to just 56 yards on 15 carries.

In the Lions game, Detroit remained balanced throughout, passing 27 times with Jared Goff while running the ball 22 times on the ground with their duo of backs, while Matthew Stafford threw the ball 37 times for the Rams, as opposed to 17 total rushes for the team.

Additionally, Detroit’s defense kept Stafford and Co. out of the endzone, as the Rams scored just one touchdown in five trips to opponent territory.

Like the other winners, the Buccaneers remained balanced, running the ball a total of 29 times, while the Eagles shied away from the run early and never established that part of the game with D’Andre Swift.

Ultimately, in all three scenarios, the better team pulled through, trumping the better quarterback, perhaps shining a light on a difference in this year’s playoffs.

Now, how does this relate to the 49ers?

Why the 49ers benefit

Now, when pointing out the quarterback disparity, I don’t mean that the 49ers are at a disadvantage with Brock Purdy as their signal-caller.

Instead, I believe the 49ers are favored in this year’s playoffs because they hold the most complete team in the NFC.

Not only have they received strong quarterback play this season from Purdy, but they’ve run the ball on 48.7 percent of their plays this season, second to only the Baltimore Ravens, who coincidentally have the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The 49ers know how to be balanced and run the football, and they have the personnel to do so with Christian McCaffrey at the helm.

Additionally, with Arik Armstead returning to an already strong defense, the 49ers will have their top run defender back, which will aid their efforts in slowing Aaron Jones down on Saturday.

Earlier this week, defensive end Nick Bosa highlighted that the team’s No. 1 objective will be to stop the run, which in return will hopefully cause Packers quarterback Jordan Love to be more uncomfortable than normal.

“He’s really good at going through his reads, playing the offense to a tee,” Bosa said about Love. “We definitely need to stop the run. I don’t think many teams have made him uncomfortable yet. So stopping the run and covering up those easy open guys is something we have to do.”

But, the philosophy doesn’t only apply to the Packers game; it has been a trend highlighted throughout the playoffs, illustrating how the best NFC teams have been both balanced offensively and have good personnel overall to complement their quarterback.

When comparing the remaining NFC playoff teams, the 49ers arguably have the most talent on their roster, while also possessing strong quarterback play, which is why they are the favorites to make the Super Bowl, and potentially even win it.