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The 49ers should want to face the Seahawks in the Divisional Round (yes, really)

SF Gate logo SF Gate 1/5/2020 Eric Ting

The San Francisco 49ers will face either the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks or Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs next week, but which opponent is preferred?

The conventional wisdom of both beat writers and fans alike seems to be the 9-7 NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles, who took advantage of a weak NFC East to get into the postseason.

Cam Inman of the Mercury News believes that Philly is preferred to Seattle and Minnesota, since the Seahawks "will have a revenge aspect to them" and "if the Vikings survive New Orleans, I’d be wary of any team that could win [in New Orleans]." Niners Nation's Akash Anavarathan posed the question to 49ers fans in a Twitter poll, and an overwhelming 79.6 percent of respondents said they wanted to face the Eagles, compared to 12.6 percent wanting the Vikings and 7.8 percent wanting the Seahawks.

49ers fans are probably hoping for Philadelphia due to the Eagles' injury situation, as the team is currently without its top three receivers (Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor), starting tight end (Zach Ertz), right side of the offensive line (Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson), and two members of the running back committee (Darren Sproles and Cory Clement.) Only Ertz and Johnson have a shot of playing this week against the Seahawks. Defensive starters Ronald Darby and Malik Jackson have also been lost for the season, and the team's defensive line depth has eroded in the time since Super Bowl LII.

So yes, the Eagles would appear to be incredibly thin, and the Seahawks did just almost beat the 49ers in Week 17 — not to mention the fact that Seattle won the first matchup between the two teams in Week 10. In order for the 49ers to face the Vikings, Minnesota would need to beat the Saints in New Orleans, an outcome almost no one across the NFL media landscape is predicting. For the sake of this exercise, let's assume Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has an 0-15 career record against teams that finish the season with a win percentage over .700, is unable to play the game of his life and upset the 13-3 Saints (.813 win percentage.)

When comparing Philadelphia and Seattle, is it really safe to say the Eagles are preferable to the Seahawks?

49es fans are understandably afraid of Russell Wilson and his career dominance against the 49ers, but statistics and history actually say the 49ers should be more afraid of the Eagles than the Seahawks.

Seattle is not as scary as one may think

One of the stranger things to happen this season was Seattle winning 11 games with a point differential of just +7. This was fueled by the team's miraculous 10-2 record in one-score games, a lopsided figure that's rarely sustainable. The last team to win 11 or more regular season games with a point differential of under +10 was the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, who went 11-5 with a point differential of -30. Those Colts went 9-1 in one-score games, entered the AFC playoffs as the No. 5 seed and were promptly dispatched 24-9 by the Baltimore Ravens on Wild Card Weekend.

The Seahawks enter as this year's NFC No. 5 seed, and have been ravaged by injuries on offense while losing three of their last four games. Injuries at running back forced Marshawn Lynch out of retirement, and left tackle Duane Brown is out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery last week. The team has been without starting center Justin Britt since October after Britt tore his ACL against the Atlanta Falcons.

When one considers the team's luck in one-score games and recent injuries at critical positions, Seattle is really not as scary as 49ers fans may think. When the Seahawks beat the 49ers in Week 10, San Francisco did not have its best offensive player in George Kittle, and the newly-acquired Emmanuel Sanders left the game early with a rib injury. Still, the 49ers were one Chase McLaughlin missed 47-yard field goal away from a season sweep. One could argue that Seattle was an inch away from a Week 17 victory over San Francisco, but the statistics suggest that game should not have been as close as it was.

The 49ers out-gained the Seahawks 398 yards to 348 yards, despite running just 48 plays compared to Seattle's 71 plays. Seattle averaged just 4.9 yards per play compared to 8.3 yards per play for the 49ers. Like a 10-2 record in one-score games, a game plan of trying to move the ball all the way down the field consistently with just short passes and runs is usually not sustainable.

Inevitable penalties, sacks and turnovers often sink such game plans, and Seattle benefited from taking just one sack against a strong 49ers pass rush and not turning the ball over once. However, the Seahawks did commit four penalties for a combined 25 yards — none larger than a delay of game at the one-yard line on the game's final possession that did indeed kill that drive. For comparison's sake, the Seattle offense took five sacks, turned the ball over four times but committed one penalty for five yards (an abnormally low figure) against the same 49ers team in Week 10.

It's impossible to say how many sacks, turnovers and penalties the Seahawks could have against the 49ers in a potential third matchup, but Seattle executed its ball-possessing game plan to near perfection against the 49ers in the second half of last week's game and still came up short — while at home, no less.

So the Seahawks are not as scary as they may seem, but are the Eagles actually scarier? Offensive and defensive statistics from the regular season would say yes.

Offensive comparison between the two teams

The two teams posted similar statistics in a number of major offensive categories this season, despite the Eagles suffering the bulk of their major injuries earlier in the season than Seattle suffered theirs.

Here's a breakdown:

- Yards per game: Seahawks - 374.4 (eighth in the NFL), Eagles - 360.8 (14th in the NFL)

- Points per game: Seahawks - 25.3 (ninth in the NFL), Eagles - 24.1 (12th in the NFL)

- Passing yards per game: Seahawks - 236.9 (14th in the NFL), Eagles - 239.6 (11th in the NFL)

- Rushing yards per game: Seahawks - 137.5 (fourth in the NFL), Eagles - 121.2 (11th in the NFL)

- Sacks allowed: Seahawks - 48 (9th-most in the NFL), Eagles - 37 (19th-most in the NFL)

- Third down percentage: Seahawks - 40 percent (16th in the NFL), Eagles - 45 percent (fourth in the NFL)

Seattle has had the better ground game, but recent injuries at running back may complicate that. The most important differences between the two teams are sacks allowed and third down percentage. Despite running the ball more frequently than the Eagles (481 rushing attempts to 454 rushing attempts), the Seahawks found a way to allow 11 more sacks on the season. That typically isn't supposed to happen to the offense that throws the ball less, and the loss of Duane Brown could only make it worse.

While a difference of 5 percent in third down percentage may seem trivial, it does represent a 12-spot disparity in the league's overall leaderboard, as every team has a third down percentage between 48 percent and 29 percent.

While the offensive comparison is mostly a wash, the defensive comparison tilts heavily in the Eagles' favor.

Defensive comparison between the two teams

The Seattle defense has not been good all season, and the statistics reflect that:

- Yards allowed per game: Seahawks - 381.6 (seventh-most in the NFL), Eagles - 333.1 (23rd-most in the NFL)

- Points allowed per game: Seahawks - 24.9 (11th-most in the NFL), Eagles - 22.1 (18th-most in the NFL)

- Passing yards allowed per game: Seahawks - 263.9 (9th-most in the NFL), Eagles - 241.6 (14-most in the NFL)

- Rushing yards allowed per game: Seahawks - 117.7 (11th-most in the NFL), Eagles - 90.1 (30th-most in the NFL)

- Sacks: Seahawks - 28 (tied for the 2nd-fewest in the NFL), Eagles - 43 (tied for 13th-most in the NFL)

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has anchored the league's third-best rushing defense — something that should be of grave concern to the run-first 49ers. Cox also helped Philadelphia's pass rush record 15 more sacks than the Seahawks this season, as Seattle defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been hindered by a core muscle injury this season, and was mostly ineffective against the 49ers in Week 17. An Eagles pass rush that consists of Cox and defensive ends Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett is the far more worrisome unit.

The Eagles are also getting healthier

DeSean Jackson is reportedly targeting a return for the Divisional Round if the Eagles advance, and the team could also have Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz back as soon as this week against Seattle.

Zooming out to view the larger picture, the Eagles have been pretty dangerous in the postseason in recent years. Just ask the Falcons, Vikings and Patriots and Bears what happened in the 2017 and 2018 postseasons.

The Eagles were also probably an Alshon Jeffrey dropped pass away from upsetting the Saints in last year's Divisional Round, thus preventing the infamous no-call in the NFC Championship Game from ever happening.

This isn't to say the Eagles are going to to beat the 49ers, or even the Seahawks for that matter, as Philadelphia is still extremely injured and Seattle did win in Philly 17-9 earlier this season. But if the Eagles are able to keep their win streak alive by beating a team that actually has a winning record, and get some of their injured players back, look out.

Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks will always scare 49ers fans. But they'd be an easier matchup than the Philadelphia Eagles would be if the Eagles can beat the Seahawks.

Eric Ting is an SFGATE digital reporter. Email: eric.ting@sfgate.com | Twitter:@_ericting

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