The NFL playoffs have arrived. The Chiefs and Eagles get to rest this weekend while 12 teams battle Saturday through Monday in the wild-card round. Here’s one storyline to watch in each of the NFC matchups.
(All times listed are Eastern. Check back Friday for a breakdown of the AFC games.)
Seahawks at 49ers, Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Is Brock Purdy ready for his close-up?
Purdy, the last of nine quarterbacks drafted in 2022 and San Francisco’s fourth-string option at the outset of training camp, is undefeated as an NFL starter.
Ever since Jimmy Garoppolo’s foot snapped in Week 13, the rookie has completed 68.3% of his passes and thrown for 13 touchdowns against three interceptions. Purdy prolonged the 49ers’ 10-game win streak while the Seahawks almost slumped out of the playoffs.
Purdy looks like Garoppolo out there, which is a compliment. They’re two of the sport’s most conservative passers, per average depth of target, but they move the ball efficiently. Purdy’s 0.239 expected points added per play in the five weeks he started ranks second league-wide behind Jared Goff in that span and compares favorably to Garoppolo’s season mark (0.236), per Ben Baldwin’s database.
Purdy sprung tight end George Kittle for seven touchdowns in the past four weeks, including this pair of long scores against Seattle in mid-December.
By record, the nine-win Seahawks are the best team Purdy’s beaten so far. Cornerback Tariq Woolen snared a league-high six interceptions in 2022, but Seattle’s defense ranked in the bottom 10 in points and yardage allowed. Losers of five of their last eight games, the Seahawks only snuck into the postseason because Detroit edged Green Bay in Week 18.
Offensively, Geno Smith is 22nd in EPA/play among qualified passers since Week 14, fading just as Purdy ascended. Smith absorbed 46 sacks this season behind a reeling offensive line that’s about to face NFL sack champ Nick Bosa.
Seattle’s 1,000-yard playmakers – Kenneth Walker III, DK Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett – didn’t score in two losses to San Francisco this season. The Niners’ league-best defense is stingy enough to power a Super Bowl run on its own. San Francisco’s positioned Purdy to succeed, and he’s capitalized on the opportunity so far, sort of like Tom Brady circa 2001 at the dawn of the Patriots’ dynasty.
Giants at Vikings, Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Whose luck in close games will persist?
No team relied on succeeding in one-possession matchups as much as these squads.
Nineteen of their 22 combined wins – 11 of Minnesota’s 13 and eight of New York’s nine – came by a single score. Both reached the playoffs with negative point differentials. The Vikings are the weakest No. 3 seed in league history as assessed by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric.
Kirk Cousins won’t mind if the Vikings trail late Sunday. He spearheaded an NFL-best eight fourth-quarter comebacks, doubling his previous career high. Cousins threw 45% of his TD strikes – 13 of 29 – in the final frame. His synergy with 1,809-yard receiver Justin Jefferson offset Minnesota’s defensive woes (28th in points allowed, 27th in defensive DVOA).
The Giants’ defense bent yet didn’t break in close games. New York gave up the second-most field-goal attempts (43) and the ninth-fewest touchdowns (37) in the league, permitting TDs less than half the time the opponent reached the red zone. Advanced metrics decry the Giants’ defensive prowess – PFF graded the unit No. 30 in the NFL, above the dreadful Texans and Bears – but it tended to work.
Despite Saquon Barkley’s return to Pro Bowl form and Daniel Jones’ competence – he ranked 11th among QBs in EPA/play – New York might lack the offensive juice to expose the Vikings’ deficiencies. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s offense ranked eighth in scoring and red-zone TD rate.
The Vikings also won eight home games, tying San Francisco and Dallas for the league lead. However, the Giants were the only playoff team they beat in Minnesota thanks to Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal at the buzzer.
Cowboys at Buccaneers, Monday at 8:15 p.m.
Will Dallas’ run game rebound?
Dallas pounded in more ground touchdowns (24) this season than every team but the Eagles. The Tony Pollard-Ezekiel Elliott tandem, with help from Dak Prescott, powered eight 150-yard rushing performances. The Cowboys won six of those matchups and lost twice in overtime.
However, they’ve stagnated in that phase of the game. Pollard, Elliott, and Malik Davis amassed 48 yards on 20 cumulative carries when the Commanders smoked Dallas last Sunday. The Cowboys managed 87 rushing yards against the Titans the previous week. Forebodingly, Tampa Bay was the only other club to hold Dallas carriers below the century mark (71 in the Bucs’ season-opening win, before Pollard’s offensive role was amplified).
Establishing the run relieves pressure on Prescott. He ranked eighth in EPA/play but was prone to lapses this season. Rotten in the opener against Tampa Bay and in the regular-season finale at Washington, Prescott threw multiple interceptions in four of seven games dating to Thanksgiving, including the bobbled pick-6 in Jacksonville that helped lower the Cowboys’ road record to 4-4.
That split could pose problems for Dallas, though maybe not Monday. The Buccaneers were 5-4 at home and own the worst point differential among playoff teams (minus-45) by a vast margin. Peering ahead, the Eagles and 49ers combined to lose three home games all year. The Cowboys’ postseason path got trickier when Philly clinched the division.
Nevertheless, Dallas is a juggernaut that has just one regulation loss since Week 6. Tampa Bay finished 25th in scoring despite Tom Brady authoring four fourth-quarter comebacks. Run defense, the Bucs’ strength, represents their best hope to pull a major upset.
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