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How 1991 49ers were best team to miss NFL playoffs in previous format

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AP

How 1991 49ers were best team to miss NFL playoffs in previous format

The NFL officially expanded its playoffs to 14 teams -- seven in each conference -- Tuesday, adding teams to the postseason for the first time since 1990.

The previous format led to plenty of near-misses, and Aaron Schatz -- writing for ESPN and utilizing Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive value over average) metric -- ranked the best teams who would've made the playoffs under the new rules, and the 1991 49ers earned the crown.

"A seventh seed would have also made for a great story," Schatz wrote, "because the 49ers played themselves back into contention with a third-string quarterback."

Joe Montana missed the entire season after injuring his elbow in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, while Steve Young injured his knee in Week 10. Steve Bono admirably filled in for Young in six starts, but the 10-6 49ers missed out on the playoffs by virtue of two losses by an average of four points to the No. 6-seeded Atlanta Falcons, who held the tiebreaker over San Francisco.

Those 49ers were loaded, as 1991 marked the only season San Francisco didn't at least advance to the NFC Championship Game from 1987 through 1994. Bono ranked third in passing DVOA that season and the 1991 49ers had the second-highest DVOA (26 percent) of any team that failed to make the playoffs from 1990 through 2020.

That would've set them up well for a playoff run.

"[The] 49ers' playoff pedigree might very well have made them favorites on the road against second seed Detroit," Schatz argued, "which ranked only 17th in DVOA despite a 12-4 record. San Francisco outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per game during the regular season; Detroit outscored opponents by just three points per game."

The 1991 Lions, as Schatz noted, advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game. Washington (56.9 percent DVOA, which topped the NFL), led by quarterback Mark Rypien, crushed Detroit in that game, so San Francisco would've faced an uphill battle throughout the rest of the NFC playoffs. 

[RELATED: Best, worst 49ers' draft picks of each round this decade]

The 49ers might've gotten a boost, however. Young started for the 49ers in a 52-14 demolition of the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Could Young, who led the NFL in passing DVOA despite his injuries that season, have gone on an Aaron Rodgers-esque run and led the NFC's lowest seed to a Super Bowl appearance?

We'll never know the answer, but it's a fun hypothetical to consider nonetheless. Just as it will be when we look back on the 14-team era after the NFL inevitably expands its playoffs to include 16 (or more) teams.

Kirk Cousins resurrects 'You like that?!' yell after Vikings’ NFL playoff win

Kirk Cousins resurrects 'You like that?!' yell after Vikings’ NFL playoff win

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was in a good mood Sunday afternoon, and deservedly so. He led his team to an upset overtime playoff win over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, during which he shed at least some of his previous reputation as someone who couldn't handle the big moments.

There was no bigger moment than his perfectly-placed 43-yard pass to receiver Adam Thielen on the opening possession in OT, which got the Vikings down to the Saints' 2-yard-line. His game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph -- albeit a controversial one -- wasn't too shabby either.

So, after making his way to the winning locker room following the Vikings' 26-20 wild-card game win, Cousins made sure to credit the teammates that were mobbing him before busting out his famous celebratory phrase.

"You like that?!"

Judging by the Vikings' raucous response, it seems pretty clear that, yes, they did like that performance.

For those unfamiliar with the reference, Cousins went viral following a regular-season game in 2015 after he had led Washington to a comeback win.

Cousins had been the target of considerable criticism throughout his tenure in Washington, and his emotional outburst coming off the field was a direct response to some of his perceived shortcomings.

[RELATED: Six matchups that could decide 49ers-Vikings playoff game]

Minnesota's win in New Orleans on Sunday carried much higher stakes than that regular-season game in 2015, so it's fitting Cousins responded once again to his long-time doubters after the biggest win of his career.

Bad weather expected for 49ers-Ravens, so which team does that favor?

Bad weather expected for 49ers-Ravens, so which team does that favor?

If you're heading to the 49ers-Ravens game in Baltimore on Sunday, bring a poncho. Heck, bring four. It still might not be enough.

Sunday's highly anticipated game between two Super Bowl hopefuls is expected to be a bad weather game. When I say bad, well, just have a look:

It's going to be cold, wet and humid. Not exactly a quarterback's dream scenario.

So, it begs the question: Which team does the forecast favor more?

At first glance, San Francisco might appear to be the answer, despite the fact that the 49ers will be playing on the road against the highest-scoring team in the NFL. Why? Because they've been there before.

In Week 7, San Francisco went into a torrential downpour in Washington and came out of the mud bowl with a 9-0 shutout road win. It certainly wasn't the prettiest 49ers' performance this season, as evidenced by their muddied uniforms following the victory. The weather significantly hampered both passing attacks and kicking games, but of the two teams, the 49ers performed far better in both categories. Jimmy Garoppolo threw for twice as many yards as Case Keenum, and while Robbie Gould missed one field-goal attempt, he converted his three others for the only points in the game. Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins missed his lone attempt.

The Ravens, on the other hand, haven't had a bad weather game yet this season. They've played in a slight drizzle twice, but nothing like the weather that is expected Sunday in Baltimore.

So, it favors San Francisco, right?

Not so fast. It's not that simple.

Just like in Week 7, Sunday's weather likely will result in both offenses favoring the run more than the pass. The problem for the 49ers, then, is that the Ravens are a far better rushing team than Washington. They're not just good or even great. They're the best in the league.

Baltimore averages 210.5 rush yards per game. San Francisco ranks second in the league with an average of 145.6. That's a bigger difference than between the 49ers and Bengals, who rank 28th in the NFL with 81.1 rush yards per contest.

And the Ravens' leading rusher isn't even a running back. That would be quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is the MVP frontrunner and on pace to set the single-season rushing record by a QB. He is the focus of every opposing defense he faces, and rightfully so, but Baltimore has planned for that.

Behind Jackson, the Ravens have one of the strongest running-back tandems in the league with Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, both of whom average 5.2 yards per carry and have combined for 1,223 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. At least two of Jackson, Ingram and Edwards usually are on the field at the same time, and they're all capable of breaking a big one.

But what about the defenses? Don't the 49ers have an advantage there?

Based on pure talent, yes. San Francisco arguably has the best defense in the league, and as evidenced by Sunday night's win over the Packers, the 49ers' front seven can wreak havoc on any game plan.

But the QBs that have somewhat been able to expose San Francisco's defense have been of the dual-threat variety, and Jackson is the scariest of that bunch. Arizona's Kyler Murray has given the 49ers a lot of trouble both times they faced him this season, and Seattle's Russell Wilson dealt them their only loss.

[RELATED: 49ers can't make same zone-read mistakes vs. Lamar Jackson]

Now, the bad weather might hamper Jackson's ability to cut and change direction, thereby limiting his impact as a runner. However, one would assume he'll still be somewhat of a running threat at a minimum, and that's an advantage that San Francisco can't match.

If the 49ers have an advantage other than prior experience, it's their rushing attack against Baltimore's rush defense. The Ravens only allow 87.7 rushing yards per game so far this season which ranks third-best in the league. But that's more a reflection of the success of their rushing offense than it is their defense. Baltimore averages 35:05 of possession per game (1st in NFL), nearly two minutes more than San Francisco, which ranks second. In the Ravens' back-to-back losses in Weeks 3 and 4, they gave up 140 and 193 yards rushing to the Chiefs and Browns, respectively.

The 49ers are at their best when they're running effectively enough to set up the play-action pass. They very well might do that against the Ravens on Sunday, but even if they do, the weather might rule out their resulting advantage through the air.

Baltimore doesn't have the same concern, or at least not to the same degree. If passing seems all but impossible, they can revert to their bread and butter, and let Jackson and the rushing attack do their thing.

The weather shouldn't be a major advantage for either side. But even if it tilts ever so slightly towards Baltimore, that could prove the difference between two seemingly evenly-matched teams.