Stats & Info: San Francisco 49ers

Top stats to know: Chargers 38, 49ers 35

December, 21, 2014

Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesPhilip Rivers threw four touchdown passes, three of them after halftime.
Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers turned things around dramatically after halftime in their comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

In Saturday night’s game, the Chargers overcame a 21-point deficit for the second time in franchise history, the first time since a 49-41 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 of 2006. A big reason behind the rally was Rivers’ performance in the second half.

Rivers finished with four touchdown passes, tying his career high. It was his sixth career game with four passing touchdowns, his first since 2013 Week 1. Three of those touchdown passes came after halftime.

In the first half, Rivers had as many interceptions as completions (two) on throws more than five yards downfield. In the second half and overtime, Rivers completed seven passes at least 15 yards downfield, matching his most in a game this season. He was 5-of-5 after halftime when targeting Antonio Gates.

The Chargers converted two fourth-down plays – a fourth-and-8 and a fourth-and-10 – on their game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. Across the NFL this season, teams have converted 17 percent (about 1 in 6) of fourth-quarter fourth downs when they have faced eight or more yards to go for a first down. Those two conversions made the Chargers 3-for-3 on fourth down in the game; they were 1-for-5 on fourth down this season before Saturday.

49ers rely on the run
The rushing game carried the 49ers’ offense. They totaled 355 yards on the ground, the most by the team since 1948 and third-most in franchise history. The 49ers became the first team to rush for 300 yards and lose since the Kansas City Chiefs lost to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 of 2012 despite rushing for 352 yards.

The highlight play of the 49ers’ rush game was Colin Kaepernick’s 90-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, which helped restore the 49ers to a 14-point lead, 35-21, after the Chargers had closed to seven by outscoring the 49ers 14-0 coming out of halftime.

Kaepernick’s run was noteworthy on a couple of fronts. It was the second-longest run by a quarterback since 2001. Only Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard run in Week 8 of 2013 against the Steelers – on the first snap of the game – is longer than Kaepernick’s in that time. In 49ers history, Kaepernick’s run was the second-longest rush touchdown, behind a 96-yard scoring run by running back Garrison Hearst in 1998.

Two 100-yard rushers a rarity
The 49ers’ Frank Gore totaled 158 yards on the ground, including 93 after contact – his most after contact since 2008. Gore and Kaepernick became the first 49ers duo to each top 100 rushing yards in a game since Nov. 13, 1977 (Wilbur Jackson and Delvin Williams).

The 49ers were especially effective between the tackles. Their 243 yards inside the tackles were their most since 2008.

The Chargers allowed more than 300 rush yards in one game for the first time since they allowed 378 against the Vikings in Week 9 of 2007. That game was memorable because Adrian Peterson set the NFL single-game rushing record with 296 yards.

As rare as the Chargers’ rally was, the 49ers’ collapse was more so. They had lost only one game when leading by 21 or more points: 42-41 to the Vikings on Oct. 24, 1961. San Francisco led 35-14 at halftime of that game.

Power Rankings: Another top-10 matchup

November, 25, 2014

Bill Haber/APColin Kaepernick’s performance has dropped off in the second half of games this season.
The top two teams in the weekly NFL Power Rankings (the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers) play Sunday, but there’s another top-10 matchup taking place this week that has major playoff implications.

The San Francisco 49ers (No. 9) host the Seattle Seahawks (No. 7) on Thanksgiving night. Neither team has looked as strong as it did last season when they met in the NFC Championship, but the 49ers’ offensive struggles this season have them looking like the odd team out this season.

Colin Kaepernick is 1-3 in his career against the Seahawks (including playoffs) with a 36.9 Total QBR. With two games against them in the next three weeks, can Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense figure it all out in time?

Red-zone woes
The 49ers are averaging 20.7 points per game this season, their lowest since 2010, the last season before Jim Harbaugh took over as coach.

One of the biggest weaknesses for the 49ers’ offense has come in the red zone. The 49ers have scored a touchdown on 40 percent of their red-zone drives this season, worst in the NFL. Nine times this season the 49ers reached the red zone and failed to score.

Vernon Davis, who had eight red-zone touchdowns last season, has been targeted once in the red zone this season. Davis led the 49ers in red-zone targets last season but is tied for fifth this season.

Kaepernick has no rushing touchdowns this season after he scored seven in the red zone his first two years as starter.

Late-game struggles
Another key factor in the 49ers’ offensive problems has been a failure to move the ball in the second half.

The 49ers have scored 155 points in the first half of games this season with a plus-39 scoring margin. They’ve scored 70 points in the second half, better than only the Jets (64 points), with a minus-39 scoring margin.

It is especially rough in the fourth quarter, where the 49ers have scored three touchdowns this season, one of which was on defense. Blaine Gabbert has as many touchdown drives in the fourth quarter as Kaepernick this season.

This trend of poor second-half play is a continuation from the 2013 NFC Championship against the Seahawks. The 49ers blew a 10-3 halftime lead in that game as Kaepernick was 11-of-19 with two interceptions in the second half.

Home sweet home?If history is any indication, the 49ers could have the edge Thanksgiving night. The home team in the Seahawks-49ers rivalry has won all five times (including playoffs) since the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson. The road team has not scored more than 17 points in a game in that stretch, averaging 11.2 points per game.

Inside the matchup: 49ers at Broncos

October, 17, 2014

Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe 49ers can't afford Manning time to throw if they want to keep him from passing Brett Favre.
Peyton Manning is two touchdown passes shy of Brett Favre’s all-time NFL record (508). Pressure will be the 49ers key to postponing the celebration another week:

49ers: Pressure Manning
Manning has been pressured (under duress or sacked) on 19 percent of his dropbacks in losses, and roughly 13 percent in wins. He's been sacked at double the rate in losses than wins.

Manning has thrown nine interceptions under duress with the Broncos; six have come in losses.

However, the 49ers problem on defense this season has been pressure, ranking 23rd in the NFL in pressure percentage, compared with 10th last season.

The Niners actually matched their season sack total with five Monday night, but that came against Austin Davis.

It could get tougher in Denver if they are missing defensive leader Patrick Willis, when they will already be without Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

Broncos: Keep Kaepernick in pocket
Colin Kaepernick leads the NFL with six touchdown passes thrown from outside the pocket this season, and they’ve been unconventional.

Each of the last four have come with Kaepernick running to his left (often throwing across his body), including an incredible off-balance pass to Anquan Boldin on Monday Night Football.

Kaepernick can also beat you with his legs outside. His 185 rushing yards outside the tackles this season rank behind only DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy.

The Broncos have reason to be especially concerned after Russell Wilson beat them with his legs in Week 2, handing Denver its only loss of the season.

On the Seahawks game-winning overtime drive, Wilson threw for three first downs outside the pocket, and scrambled for two more.

In that game, Wilson's eight completed passes outside the pocket were one shy of his career high.

Control tight ends
The name of the game is putting points on the board, and nobody helps their respective quarterbacks do that more than tight ends Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas.

Davis has been on the receiving end of 15 of the 49ers 31 (48.4 percent) touchdown passes since the start of last season. That makes him responsible for the highest percentage of a team’s receiving touchdowns in the NFL over that span.

On the other side, Julius Thomas leads the NFL with nine receiving touchdowns this season, tied for most by any player through his team’s first five games of a season in NFL history (Calvin Johnson – 2011).

Thomas has been tough to guard in the red zone, catching 23-of-27 targets with 15 touchdowns since the start of last season. And if Willis is out, that’s one less defender San Francisco can use to slow him.

Bears' victory comes after steep climb

September, 15, 2014
AP Photo/Tony Avelar
Brandon Marshall caught three touchdown passes to help the Bears catch the 49ers.
In Week 1 it was the Philadelphia Eagles. In Week 2, on Sunday night, it was the Chicago Bears.

For the second time in two weeks, a team that trailed 17-0 in the first half mounted a rally and pulled out a highly improbable victory.

On Sunday night, on the possession after the San Francisco 49ers took a 20-7 lead in the third quarter, the Bears’ win probability dipped to 5.2 percent. The Bears finished that drive with the second of Brandon Marshall’s three touchdown catches, making the score 20-14 and improving their probability of winning to 20.3 percent.

The first snap after the ensuing kickoff was the game’s biggest play in terms of win-probability swing. Kyle Fuller’s interception of Colin Kaepernick’s pass boosted the Bears’ chances of winning by more than 25 percentage points.

The Bears’ win probability surpassed 50 percent on Jay Cutler’s touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett on the next play, and the Bears never had less than a 45 percent likelihood of winning in the final 13 minutes.

Less is more
Whether it’s because the Dallas Cowboys win more often when Tony Romo passes less, or it’s that Romo passes less when the Cowboys are winning, there’s no denying Romo has performed better when he throws fewer passes. In his career, his win-loss record, touchdown-to-interception ratio and Total QBR are much better when he attempts fewer than 30 passes in a game.

Romo threw 29 passes Sunday in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Tennessee Titans. He completed 66 percent of his passes, but he was sacked four times and averaged 6.1 air yards per pass. His Total QBR was 63.

Total QBR is a metric on a 0-to-100 scale, with 50 being average. Even when Romo throws 30 or more passes, he performs at a level above the NFL average.

Don’t blame Saints’ offense
The New Orleans Saints have posted an NFL-high plus-30.3 offensive efficiency this season. But their defense and special teams have combined for a minus-34 efficiency, the worst in the NFL. Efficiency accounts for the impact of each play on a team’s potential point margin.

Five other teams since 2006 have posted a worse defense/special teams efficiency in their first two games, and four of them finished under .500. But there might be some hope for New Orleans -- the 2007 New York Giants finished 10-6 and won the Super Bowl.

Again, Browns' QB is below average

September, 8, 2014
Joe Sargent/Getty Images Brian Hoyer led a 24-point comeback but couldn’t get the Browns a victory.
One of the most stirring comebacks in Week 1 of the NFL season came in Pittsburgh, where the Cleveland Browns erased a 27-3 halftime deficit and tied the score less than four minutes into the fourth quarter. But three plays involving Brian Hoyer late in the game cost the Browns their last chance to win in regulation and added to the team’s already notable total of below-average quarterback performances.

With 1:53 left in the game, the Browns had the ball at their 20, and Hoyer had a 54 Total QBR. Hoyer was sacked on first down, threw an incompletion and then completed a pass for -6 yards. The Browns punted, and the Steelers ended up kicking a winning field goal on the final play.

Hoyer ended up with a 46 Total QBR, the 48th game in which the Browns’ starter has recorded a QBR of less than 50 in the last five seasons (QBR: 0-to-100 scale, 50 is average). Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, with 50, have more.

Eagles’ improbable comeback
The Philadelphia Eagles entered Sunday 1-39 since the merger in games they trailed by at least 17 points at the half.

After a neutral zone infraction penalty by Trent Cole gave Jacksonville a 1st-and-5 at the Philadelphia 19 midway through the second quarter, the Eagles had a 4.5% win probability, their lowest in the game.

It’s the lowest win probability the Eagles have overcome in a game they ended up winning since Dec. 19, 2010, when they recovered from a 0.75% chance of winning against the New York Giants. The Eagles came back from 21 points down in that one, with DeSean Jackson scoring the game-winning touchdown as the clock expired on a punt return.

Brady, Patriots O-Line struggle
Tom Brady posted a 32.2 Total QBR against the Miami Dolphins, his lowest against the Dolphins since Week 14 of 2006, when he posted a 9.6.

Brady was sacked or under duress on 16 of his dropbacks, his second-most in any game since 2006 and his most since 2009.

Overall, the Patriots posted a -9.6 pass offensive efficiency, their fifth-worst in any game since 2006 (since ESPN began video tracking). The efficiency rating means the Patriots’ passing contributed about negative-10 points toward the team’s score.

Cowboys inefficient
The Dallas Cowboys’ offense gained 194 yards in the first half Sunday, the third-most yards the San Francisco 49ers have allowed in the first half in a game the last three seasons. But despite the yardage total, Dallas had a -13.6 offensive efficiency in the half, the Cowboys’ worst in any first half since 2008.

Offensive efficiency accounts for the impact of each play, including turnovers, on the potential point margin. Of the Cowboys’ four first-half turnovers, one was returned for a 49ers touchdown and another gave San Francisco possession at the Dallas 2-yard line. Nearly 14 points of Dallas’ 25-point halftime deficit can be attributed to the Cowboys’ offense.

Overall, the Cowboys posted a -7.3 pass efficiency, their worst in a game since 2010. Maybe this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The 49ers’ defense has a +49.9 defensive efficiency on pass plays in the last five seasons, second to the Seahawks’ +77.3.

Kaepernick's success leads to big payday

June, 4, 2014

Harry How/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick has a reported $61 million guaranteed to celebrate.

Colin Kaepernick signed a six-year extension with the 49ers Wednesday reportedly worth more than $110 million, including a $61 million guaranteed. That would be the most guaranteed money among current NFL contracts, besting Matt Ryan’s $59 million.

The deal is an extension of Kaepernick’s cap-friendly rookie deal. Last season, the 49ers committed only $2.85 million of cap space on quarterbacks, fifth-lowest in the NFL. That figure will now be among the highest in 2014 and beyond.

Is Kaepernick worth the money, though?

Postseason success
Since making his first start in Week 11 of 2012, Kaepernick is tied for the fourth-most wins among quarterbacks (17) and has the third-best Total QBR (69.6), trailing only Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

Kaepernick has been even better in the postseason, posting the best QBR (82.7) since 2006 among quarterbacks with at least three postseason starts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kaepernick is also the sixth-youngest quarterback to start multiple conference championship games.

Kaepernick has been successful in the playoffs despite playing most of those games on the road. He is already 3-1 in road playoff games in his career. All other 49ers quarterbacks have combined to go 2-9 on the road, which includes Joe Montana (1-3) and Steve Young (0-3).

Areas of strength
Kaepernick’s rushing ability might be the most well-known aspect of his game. Last season, he ranked in the top four among quarterbacks in rush yards, yards per rush, rush touchdowns and rush first downs.

In the postseason, Kaepernick’s 507 rush yards are 87 shy of the most in NFL history by a quarterback, a mark currently held by former 49er Steve Young.

Kaepernick isn’t all legs, though, as he ranks sixth in yards per pass attempt since making his first NFL start.

Kaepernick has been at his best passing when facing the blitz. Opponents have sent five or more pass rushers against him on 38 percent of his dropbacks the past two seasons, highest in the NFL. His 75.2 QBR in those situations is third in the NFL, throwing 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Only Tom Brady (31 TD, 2 Int) has a better ratio of touchdowns to interceptions in that time.

Areas of improvement
Despite all this early success, Kaepernick still has areas of his game to improve, most notably passing from the pocket.

Kaepernick completed 61 percent of his passes in the pocket last season, a regression from his first year as a starter in 2012. His struggles inside the pocket were more pronounced this postseason, as he completed 54 percent of his passes, while throwing one touchdown and three interceptions.

The other big area for concern for Kaepernick is his performance against the 49ers top rival, the Seattle Seahawks. He's just 1-3 in his career against the Seahawks, including the loss in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Kaepernick has just five losses against all other opponents.

With the Seahawks locking up Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas this offseason, as well, beating Seattle will continue to be a tough task for Kaepernick and the 49ers.

Seahawks defense pounces on 49ers' lapses

January, 20, 2014

Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports Richard Sherman (25) and the Seahawks flexed their strength in the second half
In earning their spots in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seattle Seahawks (the NFL’s top scoring defense) and the Denver Broncos (the league’s top scoring offense) rode their strengths to victory in Sunday’s Conference Championship games.

The Seahawks, trailing 10-3 at halftime, made 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick pay for his second-half lapses. The Broncos inflicted the worst postseason thrashing on a Patriots defense in at least the past eight seasons.

Seahawks’ defense rises, Kaepernick’s QBR falls
Entering Sunday’s NFC Championship game, Colin Kaepernick had an 85.4 Total QBR in the playoffs, the highest total since 2006 among quarterbacks with at least five postseason starts. Behind strong running (eight rushes for 98 yards), Kaepernick posted a 96.8 first-half Total QBR, his strongest first half in a playoff game in his career. His best first half had been 88.2 against the Falcons in the NFC Championship last year.

Here’s how his QBR fell apart:

    6:38/3rd: Kaepernick hits Anquan Boldin for a touchdown for a 17-10 lead. QBR: 96.2

    10:17/4th: Kaepernick takes a delay of game penalty and loses a fumble on a sack on the next play. QBR: 83.3

    7:44/4th: On his next pass, he throws an interception to Kam Chancellor that leads to a Seahawks field goal. QBR: 69.7

    0:30/4th: His final interception in the end zone seals the game. QBR: 65.1.

Kaepernick’s erratic second-half play was forced by a revived Seahawks defense. In the first two quarters, the Seahawks defense contributed -3.5 points to the team’s scoring margin, its third-worst first-half mark this season. In the second half, the defense contributed 4.6 points to the scoring margin. The 8.1-point difference is tied for the Seahawks’ second-largest positive swing from a first to a second half (27.4 in Week 4 against Houston and 8.1 in Week 14 against San Francisco).

Kaepernick’s second-half QBR of 27.0 is his worst performance in a half of any playoff game in his career. His previous low was 39.4 in the first half of the Super Bowl last season.

Manning sets QBR Standard in Rematch
Sunday’s AFC Championship game differed considerably from the season’s first meeting between the Broncos and Patriots. Perhaps the most significant difference was the performance of Peyton Manning.

He had a 28.1 QBR in Week 12, a 34-31 overtime loss by the Broncos. On Sunday, with more at stake, Manning posted an 88.8 QBR – not only enough to eliminate the Patriots, but also enough to set a standard against a coach regarded for his defensive acumen. That 60.7 change in QBR was the greatest QBR increase in a rematch game against a Bill Belichick-led defense in the QBR era.

Since 2006, a quarterback has started against the same defense twice in a season 664 times (not including the rare third matchup in a season – such as in Sunday’s NFC Championship game). Looking at all QB-opponent matchups, QBR drops 3.2 points on average from the first to the second meeting.

Quarterbacks have fared worse against the Patriots. Against a Belichick-coached defense, opponent QBR in a rematch has dropped 8.8 points on average, more than 2 times greater than the league average.

Before Sunday, Peyton Manning had faced the same opponent twice in the same season 27 times (since 2006). In the rematch game, Manning’s QBR rose 5.0 points on average, the fifth-highest average change among QBs who have had at least 10 rematches in that span.

Two of the dynamics entering the game were defenses historically improving against a quarterback the second time around and Manning typically improving against a defense in a rematch. But the magnitude of Manning’s improvement and the Patriots’ deterioration would have been hard to predict.

Sunday’s game was the Patriots’ worst defensive effort in the playoffs in terms of points contributed since 2006. The defense contributed -14.5 points to the Patriots’ scoring margin against the Broncos.

In all three games in which the Patriots faced a starting quarterback for the second time this season, he improved his Total QBR from the first matchup, the first time that happened in a Patriots season in ESPN’s data set (since ’06). New England lost all three games.

With his improvement in his second game against the Patriots, Manning surpassed Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins, who had a 29.8 QBR followed by an 82.2 this season for a 52.4 point improvement.

Keys to victory: Seahawks 23, 49ers 17

January, 19, 2014
The Seattle Seahawks had the top defense in the NFL during the regular season.

That unit came through when it was most needed as the Seahawks edged the San Francisco 49ers 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game.

The Seahawks advance to face the Denver Broncos in what will be the Super Bowl's first matchup of the top offensive team against the top defensive team since the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants in the 1990 season.

Seattle overcame a 10-point deficit to win. The Seahawks won all three games this season in which they trailed by 10 or more points.

Play of the Game- Smith’s interception
Seahwaks defensive back Malcolm Smith did not have an interception until Week 16. Heha s now had three in his past four games.

This one, which thwarted the 49ers' potential game-winning drive, came after Richard Sherman tipped away a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the end zone.

It was only the second time in the past two seasons that Kaepernick was intercepted on a pass intended for Crabtree.

Marshawn Lynch rushed for 109 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown run. This was the fourth time in his Seahawks career that he rushed for at least 100 yards in a playoff game. All other Seahawks have combined for four such games.

Lynch had 107 of those yards rushing between the tackles, the most by any player against the 49ers in the past five seasons.

Lynch has the top three rushing touchdowns by distance in Seahawks postseason history. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that his four postseason rushing touchdowns of 25 yards or more are twice as many as anyone else.

Baldwin for the win
Doug Baldwin finished with 106 receiving yards, the second-most he has had in any game in his career. He also had three kickoff returns for 109 yards, including a 69-yarder that set up a field goal by Steven Hauschka. Baldwin had returned only three kicks for the Seahawks all season prior to Sunday.

Containing Kaepernick
Kaepernick had a 58-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, but did not scramble much after that. Kaepernick had only three second-half rushes after running eight times in the first half.

Kaepernick also finished 2-for-9 for 33 yards and two interceptions on throws outside the painted numbers, including the 49ers' final play of the season.

Kaepernick threw multiple interceptions in a game for the second time this season. The other instance was a three-interception game against the Seahawks in Week 2.

Who has it better: 49ers or Seahawks D?

January, 17, 2014

Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesThe offenses will have to work for every yard in Sunday's matchup.
On Thursday we took a look at the remaining NFC offenses and broke down who has it better at each offensive skill position group.

Today we look at the defenses of the Seahawks and 49ers to see who has the advantage at each level.

The Seahawks signed defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in the offseason. They contributed with 8 and 8.5 sacks respectively. In the previous 10 seasons, Seahawks defensive ends reached eight sacks in a season three times, and never in the same season.

Seahawks defensive linemen did more than sack opposing quarterbacks. They accounted for 39 disrupted dropbacks (sacks + interceptions + batted/defended passes) during the regular season (10th in NFL). 49ers defensive linemen finished 30th in disrupted dropbacks with 19.

The 49ers do have a strong defensive line, anchored by defensive tackle Justin Smith, but they have been uncharacteristically generous when facing the Seahawks over the last three seasons.

Since the start of 2011, the 49ers defense has allowed Marshawn Lynch to rush for 100 yards in a game three times, more than all other individual rushers combined over that span.

The 49ers have been particularly vulnerable on Lynch’s rushes up the middle, allowing 5.2 yards per rush over the last three seasons. The other 30 NFL teams average 3.8 yards on those rushes against the 49ers.

Pick: Seahawks. They have gotten after Colin Kaepernick and have held him to a Total QBR of 16 when rushing four. That leaves seven in coverage for an opportunistic defense.

Tackling technique comes into question a lot in today’s NFL. Not so much with these two teams.

The 49ers and Seahawks ranked first and second in fewest yards after contact allowed this season, thanks to strong tackling at all levels. The 49ers led the NFL in solo tackles by linebackers with 348, 33 more than the next closest team.

All four of the 49ers’ primary linebackers have been named to the All-Pro team in the last two years. Aldon Smith made it once in 2012 while Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Navorro Bowman have all made the first or second team multiple times.

49ers linebackers combined for 46 disrupted dropbacks, fourth in the NFL. Those came in the form of 28 sacks (fifth), three interceptions (T-18th) and 16 pass breakups (fifth).

The Seahawks cannot match the 49ers in terms of name recognition at linebacker, but Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin all had strong seasons.

As mentioned above, the Seahawks are among the best at tackling. The linebackers also helped contribute to a league-high 56 defensive expected points added when sending four or fewer pass rushers.

On passes between the numbers and 10 or fewer yards from the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks allowed a Total QBR of 40, ranked fourth in the NFL. Seahawk linebackers have four interceptions on such throws, tied for third in the league among that position group.

Pick: 49ers. They have too many All-Pros who can do everything.

The case for the Seahawks secondary is not a hard one to make. As the chart shows, Seattle led the NFL in just about every defensive statistic.

First team All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman leads the talented Seahawks secondary. Sherman’s 20 interceptions in his first three seasons are the third-most in a player’s first three seasons since the merger in 1970.

Sherman and the rest of the Seahawks secondary take away the sidelines as well as anyone. The Seahawks allowed NFL-lows in completion percentage (49), yards per attempt (4.8), interceptions (14) and Total QBR (34) on passes outside the painted numbers.

Pick: Seahawks. Sherman, fellow first team All-Pro Earl Thomas and company are the best in the business right now.

In playoffs, it's all about defense (not QBs)

January, 17, 2014
Much of the focus heading into Sunday’s Conference Championship games will be on the quarterback play, particularly with future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning facing off for the fourth time in their postseason careers.

But if recent playoff history is any indication, it’s not the quarterbacks who will have the most impact on which teams get a trip to MetLife Stadium, but rather the defenses’ ability to stop those quarterbacks that will make a bigger difference.

Just looking at the past few Super Bowl champions, quarterbacks who rated outside the top half of the league in Total QBR through the Divisional Playoffs have led their teams to championships, including Eli Manning in the 2007 season, Ben Roethlisberger in 2008 and Joe Flacco just last year.

What those quarterbacks had in common was a defense on the other side that could control opposing quarterbacks, each ranking in the top quarter of the league in terms of QBR allowed. Even the recent Packers and Saints title teams, which had elite quarterbacks, paired them with Top-3 defenses in terms of opponents' QBR.

An examination of all playoff games back to 2006 (as far back as QBR goes) shows that although quarterback play seems to carry over from game to game in the regular season, that correlation decreases in the postseason.

And conversely, the ability of a team to contain opposing quarterbacks seems to have a greater impact on how quarterbacks perform – and as a consequence, who wins – in the playoffs.

The details of our study
This analysis looked at how two components entering each game – the quarterback’s QBR for the season and the defense’s QBR allowed on the season to that point – related to the quarterback’s Total QBR in the game as well as the final result.

To ensure each of those numbers were representative, the only games analyzed were those in which both the quarterback and the defense had at least 100 action plays entering the game, and in which the quarterback had at least 15 action plays within the game.

The first graph below shows how well a quarterback’s QBR entering a game does in terms of “predicting” QBR within that game, with separate trend lines for regular season and playoff games.

The regular-season trend shows a decent amount of regression to the mean, as quarterbacks with extreme QBRs entering the game have less extreme performances, on average.

But the general trend of good quarterbacks having above-average games and bad quarterbacks having below-average ones is clearly present with the upward trending line.

On the other hand, the trend line for the playoffs is pretty wacky. This is what happens when quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco have games of 90 or higher QBR, and Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan each post games with a QBR less than 20.

Now, contrast that picture with the one below, which looks at how strongly the opponent’s QBR allowed entering the game influences the quarterback’s play in the game.

The regular season trend is almost flat, showing that defensive quality has minimal impact on how well a quarterback plays in those games.

But look at the postseason trend – while clearly not perfect, there seems to be a stronger impact on QBR by defense entering the game in the playoffs. The elite defenses mentioned above flexed their muscles in the postseason, limiting opposing quarterbacks as they had earlier on in the season.

A more rigorous analysis using multiple regression shows that the quarterback’s QBR entering the game is still significant in the postseason, but the defense’s QBR allowed becomes more predictive in the postseason. The small sample size of the postseason means that this pattern might be due to random fluctuation, but the trend is still something worth keeping an eye on.

We can go one step further and look at how impactful these pregame QBR values are in terms of actually winning the game. A look at the chart below shows that the pattern is similar to that with the actual QBR in the game.

Having a starting QB with a better QBR entering the game gives you a solid chance to win in the regular season, but the team with that advantage is just 44-40 in the postseason since 2006. Conversely, teams that have a better QBR defense than the opponent are 51-33 in those same playoff games, including 6-2 so far this postseason.

Looking ahead to this weekend, perhaps we can de-emphasize Peyton Manning’s 22-point advantage over Brady in QBR and instead focus on the defenses that they line up against.

As it works out, though, the Patriots and Broncos have very similar, mediocre opponent QBR values to this point: 48.3 for Denver, 50.5 for New England. So there isn’t any clear advantage there.

In this regard, the more interesting matchup is out in Seattle. Both defenses in the 49ers-Seahawks game rank in the top five in terms of QBR allowed, but the Seahawks are ahead of all other NFL teams at 29.5.

In each of their past seven games, the Seahawks have limited the opposing quarterback to a QBR at least 20 points below what he came in averaging entering the game, including their last meeting against Colin Kaepernick in Week 14.

If the Seahawks can keep up their own trend of shutting down opposing quarterbacks and the similar bigger-picture pattern that has emerged over the last several postseasons, they should give themselves a good chance to win this weekend.

And even though the road would go through Brady or Manning, the trend of strong defense carrying over more in the playoffs gives Seattle a pretty good chance of taking home the Lombardi Trophy in early February.

NFC Championship: Matchups to watch

January, 16, 2014

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesWho will be smiling on Sunday: Kaepernick or the Seahawks secondary?
The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have split their four head-to-head matchups the last two seasons, with the home team winning each time.

Both teams are very similar in their makeup and a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII could hinge on these key matchups.

Colin Kaepernick vs Seahawks’ secondary
Kaepernick has been the most blitzed quarterback in the NFL the past two seasons, but the Seahawks have gone a different route. The Seahawks have brought four or fewer pass rushers on 75 percent of Kaepernick’s dropbacks, forcing him to throw into a crowded secondary.

This has posed several problems for the 49ers. First, despite teams bringing five or more rushers frequently against Kaepernick, his decision making in those situations is strong.

His 19-to-2 touchdown-to-interception differential against such pressure the past two seasons is behind only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Against a standard rush of four or fewer, Kaepernick ranks tied for 21st.

The Seahawks’ secondary is one of the most physical in the NFL. No team has committed more defensive pass interference, defensive holding or illegal contact penalties this season. Although that could be viewed as a negative, it also indicates a lot of contact is being made on the field.

Because of this, Kaepernick has completed only 47 percent of his attempts to wide receivers against the Seahawks with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

49ers’ defense vs Beast Mode
The 49ers have allowed five 100-yard rushing games since the start of 2010 and three of those belong to Marshawn Lynch.

Most of Lynch’s damage has been straight up the middle. Lynch has averaged 5.0 yards per rush between the guards against the 49ers since joining the Seahawks. All other running backs have averaged 3.5 yards per rush on such plays.

The 49ers have done a good job of limiting running backs’ production after contact this season. They are the only team in the league that allowed fewer than 500 rushing yards after contact this season.

Frank Gore vs play calling
In his last two home games against the Seahawks, Frank Gore ran the ball 31 times for 241 yards. Yet in his last two games in Seattle, Gore totaled 15 rushes and 44 yards.

San Francisco trailed during most of the games in Seattle, but the 49ers got away from the run quickly in each. The two games remain the highest dropback percentages for the 49ers in the Kaepernick era.

Keys to victory: 49ers 23, Panthers 10

January, 12, 2014
What were the keys to the San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers?

49ers chew up the clock with long drives
The 49ers had five scoring drives in this game and they lasted a combined 52 plays.

The key drives in this game were the 49ers last one of the second quarter and first one of the third quarter, each of which resulted in touchdowns. In those two drives, the 49ers ran 25 plays that gained 153 yards over a span of 8 minutes and 18 seconds. The Panthers went three-and-out in between those two touchdowns.

It helped that Phil Dawson made all three of his field goal attempts. He has now made 35 of his last 36 attempts since going 0 for 2 against the St. Louis Rams in Week 4.

Kaepernick was able to throw it
Despite being heavily pressured through much of the game, Colin Kaepernick was successful when passing downfield. He was 6 for 8 for 136 yards on throws longer than 10 yards downfield in this game. He was 0 for 6 against the Panthers in the Week 10 loss.

His 23-yard throw to Quinton Patton and 45-yard throw to Anquan Boldin were longer than any throw he completed in the previous game against the Panthers.

Boldin was the biggest beneficiary of Kaepernick’s passes. He finished with eight catches for 136 yards. Kaepernick was 4 for 4 on his second-half throws, all of which went to Boldin. Three of those passes resulted in first downs. The fourth was a yard shy of the first down.

Vernon Davis also had a touchdown catch. His seven postseason touchdown receptions are tied with Dave Casper for the most by a tight end in NFL history.

Newton struggled when pressured
The 49ers were successful when they were able to get to Cam Newton.

Newton had more passes caught by the 49ers (two) than his teammates (one) in the four instances in which he got a throw away under duress.

Newton was sacked five times. The Panthers went 0-4 this season in games in which Newton was sacked at least five times.

The Panthers failed to capitalize on the opportunities they did get. They ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line during the game and did not score a touchdown.

Stats of the Day
The 49ers snapped their four-game road losing streak in the divisional round. This was their first playoff road win in that round since beating the Minnesota Vikings during the 1970 postseason.

The 49ers are the fourth NFL team to win 30 postseason games, joining the Dallas Cowboys (33), Pittsburgh Steelers (33) and Green Bay Packers (30).

This will be the 49ers' 15th appearance in an AFC/NFC championship game, tying the Steelers for the most all-time.

The 49ers are the first NFC team under the current playoff format (since 1990) to return to the Conference Championship the season after losing the Super Bowl.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Jim Harbaugh became the first head coach to lead his team to the AFC/NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons.

Matchups to watch: 49ers vs. Panthers

January, 9, 2014
The Carolina Panthers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 10-9 in Week 10 as the defense clamped down and forced a career-worst performance out of Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s 7.7 Total QBR that day was his lowest in any game. How the Panthers were able to slow him is just one of the key matchups to watch Sunday.

49ers’ offensive line vs. Panthers’ pass rush
The six sacks taken by Kaepernick in Week 10 were the most in his career, but he was also put under duress on an additional four dropbacks. Kaepernick went 0-of-3 passing and scrambled for 1 yard on those plays.

The Panthers finished the regular season with an NFL-high 60 sacks and the pass rush was only getting stronger as the season ended. The Panthers were able to sack Drew Brees and Matt Ryan a combined 15 times the last two games of the season, with Greg Hardy accounting for nearly half (7.0).

Crabtree, Boldin, Davis vs. Panthers’ secondary
It's worth noting that Michael Crabtree wasn’t available for the Week 10 game.

With Crabtree joining Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the 49ers may be able to ease some of the pressure and better take advantage of a secondary that allowed opponents to complete two-thirds of their passes this season, the third-highest opponents' completion percentage in the NFL.

Kaepernick has completed 64 percent of his passes this season when Crabtree, Boldin and Davis are all on field. If any of them leaves the field, his completion percentage dips to 56 percent.

Crabtree was targeted 13 times in the wild-card round against the Green Bay Packers, his second-most targets in a game in his career.

The 49ers' offense may have its hands full, but the Panthers' offense will also have some key matchups to win.

Cam Newton vs. the 49ers’ adjustments
Newton may have gotten the win in Week 10, but he finished the game with a season-low 50 percent completion percentage and a 19.6 Total QBR (third worst of season). Newton may have actually benefited too from an atypical 49ers strategy.

The 49ers sent four or fewer rushers 81 percent of the time this season (second highest in the NFL), but did so only 68 percent of the time in Week 10. Newton was solid against five or more pass-rushers (6-of-10 passing), but went 10-of-22 with an interception against four or fewer.

If the 49ers send rushers at their normal rates, Newton may struggle even more.

Panthers’ rushers vs. 49ers’ tacklers
One of the keys to victory in Week 10 was a 27-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the first half.

The play was notable because Williams was able to gain the final 16 yards of the rush after being contacted. Prior to that play, the 49ers hadn’t allowed 16 yards after contact on a single rush in any game since the start of the 2010 season.

The Panthers finished the game with 61 rush yards after contact, an average of 1.97 per rush. Both remain the most this season against the 49ers, who finished the regular season as the NFL's best in both categories.

Challenges await Kaepernick, Newton

January, 8, 2014

ESPN Stats & InformationColin Kaepernick’s game-by-game QBR has varied based on the strength of his opponents.
Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game features a matchup between two exciting, young, dual-threat quarterbacks looking to lead their teams one step closer to the Super Bowl.

Both Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton led their teams to 12-4 records in the regular season this year, but they have been relatively inconsistent compared with other good quarterbacks. Each of them has at least five excellent games with a Total QBR of at least 80 this season, but each also has three abysmal games with a QBR below 20. Besides Andy Dalton, no other quarterbacks have that number of both great and terrible performances this year.

One explanation for this apparent inconsistency that applies to both Kaepernick and Newton is the difference in how they perform based on the quality of opposing defenses. If we divide up the 32 NFL defenses in half by opponent QBR rank – that is, defenses 1 to 16 in terms of lowest opponent QBR allowed in the top half, and defenses 17 to 32 in that category in the bottom half – and then break down each player’s performance across those categories, some startling differences emerge.

First off, Kaepernick dominated below-average QBR defenses in the regular season, going 9-0 with 18 total touchdowns and no turnovers, good for a league-best 91.2 QBR against those 16 defenses. That doesn’t include another stellar performance (88.8 QBR) against the defensively challenged Packers last Sunday at Lambeau Field.

On the other hand, his performance against upper-half QB defenses has been poor. In those games, he has more interceptions than touchdowns and has a QBR of 31.2, good for 24th out of 34 QBs with at least 150 action plays against those opponents.

The chart above shows all nine of his games (10 if you count the playoffs) with a QBR greater than 70 have come against poor QBR defenses, and he’s had a QBR significantly better than average in only one out of seven games against upper-half QBR defenses.

While the split is not as extreme for Newton, he, too, has cleaned up against bad defenses while struggling against good ones. Newton, Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are the only quarterbacks to be undefeated with at least five starts against below-average QBR defenses, but Newton’s production and his team’s record are mediocre against defenses more adept at controlling opposing signal-callers.

Below are Newton’s QBR game scores plotted by opponent strength. While the line is not as steep as with Kaepernick, most of Newton’s top performances this year have been against average-or-worse defenses, and almost all his bad performances have come against solid opposition. One exception is his 74.7 Total QBR against Seattle, good for second-best by any QB against the league’s top-ranked QBR defense this year.

ESPN Stats & Information

The difference in performance for Kaepernick and Newton is well beyond the average drop-off for this split. The NFL average QBR this season is about 45 against defenses in the top half, compared with about 63 against the lower tier.

Compare that 18-point swing to Kaepernick’s 60-point drop and a near 40-point difference for Newton. Among the 27 quarterbacks who have had at least 150 action plays against each group of defenses, those are the two largest such QBR differences.

The domination of poor defenses by these two quarterbacks is what got them to this point, but the bad news is there are no more such opponents left in the NFC playoffs. The competition gets tougher right away, as Kaepernick and Newton will face each other’s defenses, units that ranked sixth (49ers) and seventh (Panthers) in terms of Total QBR allowed in the regular season.

Neither quarterback wants a repeat of the regular-season meeting between these teams in San Francisco back in Week 10. The defenses limited them to a combined total of 218 net yards (including passing, rushing and sacks), no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 10-9 Carolina victory. Newton’s 19.6 Total QBR was the third-lowest score he put up this season, while Kaepernick’s 7.7 QBR was his career low as a starter.

One of these quarterbacks will have to play well against a top defense to help his team to the next round. But if each quarterback continues the trend of poor performance against quality competition, we could be in for another defensive struggle Sunday in Charlotte.

49ers ride Kaepernick's legs past Packers

January, 6, 2014

AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato Colin Kaepernick already is among the all-time leaders in postseason rushing yards by a quarterback.
The San Francisco 49ers’ 23-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers was the second game of the weekend’s Wild Card round to be decided on the final play of the game.

In the win over the Packers on Sunday, Colin Kaepernick rushed seven times for 98 yards. He had three rushes for 31 yards on third down (converting two), including an 11-yard third-down conversion late in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning field goal by Phil Dawson.

The scramble increased the 49ers’ win probability by 19.8 percentage points, to 84.8 percent. It was the the largest win probability swing in the game.

Kaepernick’s rushing against the Packers increased the 49ers’ win probability by a total of 36 percentage points, the second-greatest increase attributable to a quarterback’s rushing in a playoff game since 2006. First is Kaepernick in last season’s playoff win against the Packers.

Strength vs strength
During the regular season, the San Diego Chargers boasted the NFL’s second-best road offense, adding 12.5 expected points per game; the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense added an NFL-high 11.3 expected points per game at home. EPA uses the result of every play to evaluate what each unit contributes to a team’s net scoring margin.

On Sunday in Cincinnati, the Chargers’ strength came out on top, as the offense added 8.2 expected points. This was only the second instance of the Bengals’ defense having a negative EPA at home this season.

Saints' running game delivers
The New Orleans Saints rushed for 185 yards in their win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday after averaging 92.1 rush yards per game in the regular season.

When running the ball in the regular season, the Saints added -1.6 expected points per game; on Saturday, the Saints added approximately 7.0 expected points on the ground. Had the Saints had a rushing performance similar to their regular season averages, and everything else had remained the same, they would have lost in Philadelphia.

Colts had (almost) no chance
Only one team since 2006 has successfully overcome a lower probability of winning a playoff game than the Indianapolis Colts did in their game Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

After the Chiefs received the second-half kickoff and scored a touchdown for a 38-10 lead, the Colts’ probability of winning was 0.86.

Andrew Luck completed 17 of 24 passes with three touchdowns in the second half to spark the Colts’ rally. He finished the game with a 93.5 Total QBR.

The only other team to win a playoff game after having a lower win probability was the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 Divisional Playoffs. Trailing by seven with less than 90 seconds left, the Ravens forced the Denver Broncos to punt and took possession with a win probability of 0.74 percent. Jacoby Jones scored on a 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and the Ravens won 38-35 in overtime.