As the playoff race looms ever-closer, The 33rd Team is taking a look each week at teams on the playoff bubble. Each week across the rest of the regular season, we’ll identify one team on the playoff bubble whose chances are trending up, and one whose playoff hopes are dwindling.
Trending Up: San Francisco 49ers
3 Things to Watch:
- Offensive Firepower
- Jimmy Garoppolo
- Defensive Line
George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk have effectively become one of the best play-making trios in the NFL recent weeks, and each have emerged differently. The 49ers have found themselves in a position similar to that of the Ravens in terms of RB injuries, and many would think it could have derailed this team. Going into week 10 of the season, Deebo Samuel had at least five receptions and 50 yards in every single game. Since Week 10, Samuel has stepped into a part-time RB role, accounting for 5 TDs during this stretch. The utilization of Samuel in this manner has opened the door for Aiyuk to flourish, featuring the game-winning catch against the Bengals. Additionally, we have seen Kittle do something that has never been done before by a TE; two straight weeks of 150 yards receiving and a TD. Over the last two weeks, Kittle has been atop PFF’s receiving grade category with a 94.7, ahead of Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, and Devante Adams, to name a few.
Like most teams in the league, the 49ers are heavily dependent on competent QB play, and as of late, Jimmy Garoppolo has delivered. Comparing the first 14 weeks of the 49ers 2019 Super Bowl team and the 2021 version, there are similarities, such as a greater than 2:1 TD to INT ratio, around 8.0 Passing YPA, and an average time to throw right around 2.59 seconds. Since Week 10, Garoppolo is No. 6 in the NFL in Passing grade (min 100 drop backs) at 73.6, ahead of notable players such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert. As long as Garoppolo can find a way to play at this same level, the 49ers have a real chance to be dangerous down the stretch.
The 49ers’ defensive line has seen its fair share of injuries since the 2019 Super Bowl run and is finally trending in a healthy direction. Nick Bosa was PFF’s 3rd highest graded pass rusher at 90.9 this past week behind only his brother Joey and Chris Jones. Most recently against the Bengals, Bosa achieved 10 total pressures as a part of a unit that generated the 5th most total pressures as a team at 29. Since Week 12, this defensive unit has been 4th in sacks (9.0) and 3rd in QB hits (13). While this unit has not been as dominant as the 2019 Super Bowl team, they are crucial to the team’s success over the next couple of weeks as the 49ers work towards a postseason appearance.
Remaining 49ers Opponents: vs. ATL, @TEN, vs. HOU, @LAR
Trending Down: Las Vegas Raiders
3 Things to Watch:
- Hunter Renfrow’s Emergence as Derek Carr’s Go-To Receiver
- Health of Darren Waller
Throughout the course of this season, the Raiders’ offense has been hit with injuries, scandals, you name it. This offense is much different than it was at the beginning of the year, but this has not stopped Hunter Renfrow from solidifying himself as a go-to weapon for Derek Carr. Renfrow has recorded over 100 receiving yards in each of the past three games, a career-long streak for him. These games have all been without Darren Waller in the lineup, for the most part, and Renfrow has capitalized on this. Even with Waller in the lineup, Renfrow has still gotten a lot of targets from Carr this season. In The lowest number of targets Renfrow has received this year is four, which came in a game against the Bengals where the Raiders were all out of sorts. With Waller being questionable to play in Week 15 and the Browns being hit with COVID-19, this could be another game where Renfrow is in the spotlight for Vegas.
As mentioned earlier, part of the reason for Renfrow getting more targets this season has been due to the increased attention to Waller on top of the Pro Bowler struggling with injuries this year. Waller has missed three games in 2021 with two of them coming in the midst of the Raiders’ two-game losing streak. Waller has not had as good of a year as in the past, but he is still a vital part of Las Vegas’ offense. He has averaged 8.4 targets per game, and he truly has opened up opportunities for other players on this Raiders’ offense. Without him, the offense is a lot more predictable with teams selling out on Josh Jacobs. If Waller is unable to play in Week 15, especially against a depleted Browns’ team, the Raiders could run into some of the issues that have been plaguing them during this tough stretch.
Another reason for the Raiders trending down in the playoff race is due to their undisciplined style of play. Currently, the Raiders are last in the league in both penalties per game (8.0) and penalty yards per game (71.1). This team has not been able to play a disciplined style of football since their strong start to the season, and as a result this team has suffered five losses in their last six games. Even in their one win during this stretch, the Raiders and Cowboys committed penalties left and right in one of the most penalized games to date. In order for the Raiders to stay in the playoff hunt, they have to stop committing so many penalties while also making sure they are taking care of the football. Las Vegas had five total turnovers in their loss in Week 14 to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Remaining Raiders Opponents: @CLE, vs. DEN, @IND, vs. LAC
Written by Brian Friedland and Bryan Filker