The race for the playoffs is alive and well in the NFC, with multiple teams below .500 still very much in contention with four weeks to go. Two of those teams meet Sunday in Arizona, as the 5-7 Washington Football Team takes on the 5-7 San Francisco 49ers.
Washington is in the mix for the NFC East after three straight wins and is currently tied with the New York Giants atop the division. The 49ers are just a game back of a Wild Card spot despite a rough November.
Here is a preview for Sunday afternoon's matchup between Washington and the 49ers, complete with a free pick. San Francisco is favored in this one "at home" by 3.5 points.
In his first year with Washington, head coach Ron Rivera has helped change the culture of a team that lost its team name and more this last offseason. But it wasn't smooth sailing, as Washington followed up a Week 1 win with five consecutive losses, all but one of those to teams currently holding a playoff spot.
But since then, it has won four of its last six, the final win a shocking upset against the previously-undefeated Steelers on the road this past Monday.,
With standout play from young receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson, as well as the improbable comeback of quarterback Alex Smith, Washington has a chance to close the season strong and make the postseason for the first time since 2015.
The offense continues to improve from where it started before Smith, but still has some way to go. Washington sits 24th in points scored with 22 as well as 25th in yards per game with 346.5.
Its offense is balanced, ranking 25th in passing yards and 24th in rushing yards, while its 38 percent conversion rate on third down is tied for 26th in the NFL.
However, Washington's defense has hit the next level this season and has been great across the board. Its 21.7 points allowed is good for eighth in football, while its nearly 332 total yards allowed is inside the top five.
Washington also boasts the third-best pass defense with under 204 passing yards allowed per game and ranks in the top 10 in run defense and third-down defense. It also has 36 sacks, tied with the NFC-leading Saints for the fourth-most in football, to go along with 11 interceptions.
San Francisco Outlook
Less than a year removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers' 2020 season has been marred by injuries. Early injuries played a part in San Francisco starting the season 2-3, highlighted by back-to-back losses to the Eagles and Dolphins.
But Kyle Shanahan's group rebounded nicely with a pair of convincing wins against the Rams and Patriots. However, the last five weeks have been a tough test.
The Niners have gone 1-4 in that stretch, facing playoff-bound teams that have a combined record of 45-16. Now, with the schedule easing up, plus the return of running back Raheem Mostert, the breakout of rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and the steady play of backup quarterback Nick Mullens, the 49ers still have plenty of hope to return to the playoffs once again.
On the offensive side of things, San Francisco has been steadily average. It currently sits 19th with 23.8 points per game but 12th with 383.7 yards per game on average.
The Niners also rank 13th in passing yards and 18th in rushing yards while also racking up a 17th-ranked 41.3 percent success rate on third downs.
Defensively, injuries have been much of the reason why last year's elite unit is just very good this year. San Francisco gives up 24 points per game, 13th in the NFL, but still has the sixth-fewest yards allowed with 337.
The 49ers are 11th against the pass but sit just inside the top 10 in run defense and third-down percentage. Elsewhere, the 49ers do have just 21 sacks to go along with 10 interceptions as a team.
For the season, Washington has a solid 6-5-1 mark ATS despite its 5-7 overall record. It is 2-4 this year away from home, going 3-3 ATS in those games as well.
Washington has really played its best ball of late, covering in five of its last seven games and four of its last five games as an underdog. However, it has won just two of its last eight road games.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's ATS record matches its overall record at 5-7. The 49ers have also been bad at home, going 1-5 both straight up and ATS, although they are playing in Arizona as the home team this weekend again.
During their current 1-4 stretch, the 49ers have covered just once and are 3-7 in their last 10 games against the NFC East. However, the Niners have won eight of their last 10 home games against the Washington franchise.
This game between 5-7 clubs has massive playoff implications, something that the extra Wild Card spot in each conference makes possible. Overall, these are two evenly-matched teams that like to run the ball, play solid defense, and have coaches with Super Bowl experience.
All that being said, I think the line on this one is way off. Washington is playing better football right now, has health on its side, and has a pass rush that can overwhelm the backup quarterback Mullens.
Look for Washington to get the win outright in this Sunday game played on a neutral field, increasing its chances at both an NFC East title and a playoff spot as a whole.
Pick: Washington +3.5