NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff Round

The Wild Card round of the playoffs is in the books, and there are four teams left in the NFC, representing two of the four divisions. With an upset win on the road against the New Orleans Saints, the Minnesota Vikings now face the San Francisco 49ers. Likewise, the Green Bay Packers play host to the Seattle Seahawks, in what has become one of the better rivalries in the league. Which teams will make it to the NFC Championship game?

Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have had a tough few weeks, losing their last two games of the season while sustaining several injuries. They got the passing game going against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wildcard game, but are desperately lacking a rushing attack. The Packers, however, will be hoping they have ironed out the issues with their own passing attack, after struggling through the air down the stretch.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Seattle Seahawks had one of the best rushing attacks all season, until they lost their top three Running Backs. Despite signing Marshawn Lynch, they have averaged just over 90 yards in their last three games. Their passing attack has been inconsistent, with Wide Receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf failing to make plays at times. Defensively, Seattle have allowed over 380 yards per game, with almost 25 points per game, lacking success against both the run and pass. Despite generating turnovers, the Seahawks largely have not closed out opponents, finishing the regular season with a point differential of 7.

The Packers were league average in both the passing and rushing game on Offense. RB Aaron Jones improved throughout the season and was deployed more effectively as the season progressed, becoming a receiving option and amassing 19 total touchdowns. Green Bay will like the way they matchup against Seattle on Defence though, as they had difficulty stopping the run but allowed just 240 yards per game through the air.

The Gameplan

The Packers will continue to focus on limiting the passing options for Seattle, especially as the latter has had trouble rushing the football recently. The biggest threat to Green Bay on the ground will be Quarterback Russell Wilson, and they may choose to spy him if he starts running. Similarly, they may utilise a delayed blitz if Seattle gets Wilson out of the pocket with bootlegs and rollouts. Seattle will likely bring extra blockers to establish the run, and look for Lockett and Metcalf to get open downfield. Winning the field position battle will likely determine the overall winner in this one.

Conversely, Seattle will want to be patient on Defence, and avoid overcommitting to the run or pass. While they may double up on WR Davante Adams, the Packers will try to spread the ball around. Tight End Jimmy Graham, WR Allen Lazard and RB Jones will each get opportunities to make plays, and the Seahawks need to keep them all in front of them. Seattle should use a mostly zone coverage approach, especially to restrict Jones who is effective once in space, and since they have strong coverage Linebackers.

Minnesota Vikings vs. San Francisco 49ers

Minnesota played their best game of the season in the Wildcard round, limiting the Offense of the New Orleans Saints. However, the 49ers have the second best Defence in the league, allowing 50 fewer yards per game than the Saints. The 49ers are also more balanced on Offense, and have a stronger run game than New Orleans.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Minnesota’s strength on Offense has been their run blocking and ground attack. While their QB Kirk Cousins had a good game last week, he has not had too many games where he has thrown for a high number of yards. The Vikings have protected the ball well, giving up equal 5th fewest interceptions, and equal 6th fewest sacks. On the other side of the ball though, the Vikings are just above average against both the run and pass. However, they will be emboldened by their showing against the Saints, where they diversified their defensive front, holding them to 20 points and 355 yards.

San Francisco, however, are a greater run-based Offense, and were second in the league on the ground. As the season progressed QB Jimmy Garoppolo improved as a passer, averaging 270 yards per game in their final four games. The greatest strength of the Offense is the versatility with a lot of pre-snap movements and players taking multiple roles. TE George Kittle is effective as a blocker and receiver, and has also been used as a rusher, as has WR Deebo Samuel. The 49ers generate a lot of pressure on Defence, although were vulnerable to rushing attacks, allowing over 100 yards per game.

The Gameplan

Minnesota will aim to run the ball a lot in this one, using Fullback CJ Ham to assist RB Dalvin Cook. Similar to the Wildcard game, they may explore end arounds and jet sweeps to get the ball in the hands of WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Cousins will need to avoid hanging onto the ball too long. He should target CB Ahkello Witherspoon, who gave up 29 receptions, which was equal 93rd in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

San Francisco will consider how the Vikings moved Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen along the Defensive Line. They will come out throwing the ball early, looking to get Kittle and Samuel receptions, as well as releasing RBs Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Kyle Jusczyk in space. If they get a lead, the 49ers will run the ball more, moving Kittle and Jusczyk around for play action. Where a receiver succeeds early, expect the 49ers to continue targeting them throughout the game. The Vikings will need to blitz early and try to take away the run if they are to keep themselves in it.

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