Take 5: Wild-card playoff keys
The playoffs have arrived, and the wild-card slate is one of the more intriguing in recent memory. Three of the four games are regular-season rematches, and none looks particularly one-sided. You could make an argument for almost any of the eight teams to make a Super Bowl run.
We'll start by looking at both sides of the ball in a rematch from just two weeks ago.
1. Rivers gets a redo vs. Ravens
Philip Rivers almost never loses a mental battle, but that's exactly what happened to the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback against Baltimore in Week 16. The Ravens' fire-zone blitzes created confusion and pressure, forcing Rivers off the spot and into inaccurate throws. Rivers even failed to see open targets downfield, most notably just before halftime. Rivers quietly threw six interceptions in his final three games after totaling six through the first 13, and he's looked skittish at times, struggling to see the field with clarity.
Interior pressure has been the biggest culprit. Steady for much of the season, guards Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield have imploded in pass protection, especially struggling against quickness. Baltimore's Za'Darius Smith hounded both men in Week 16, and the Ravens' litany of blitzes, stunts and twists also stressed them mentally.
Those issues could be exacerbated in noisy Baltimore, so Rivers must be sharper at handling them. The Chargers' vertical routes take time to develop, requiring precise movement from Rivers to stay alive against pressure. If he can stay clean, there will be opportunities: The Ravens' zone blitzes can leave receivers free, especially up the seams.
2. Will Baltimore's offense change up?
The Ravens' offensive approach will remain run-heavy, but it's worth wondering how much Baltimore will change given the Chargers have faced quarterback Lamar Jackson before. Despite the 22-10 win, Baltimore's offense struggled in L.A., scoring just 16 points (the Ravens' defense scored six) and getting 68 of 363 total yards from just one play. That play -- detailed in our Week 16 film study -- was excellent, but no offense can count on a long touchdown every week.
Preparing for Jackson and Greg Roman's complex run designs is difficult, but the Chargers allowed just 116 yards on 34 carries (3.4 average) after giving up 43 yards on the first snap. Los Angeles will be more prepared this time around, too.
Perhaps Baltimore will consider more early-down throws, giving Jackson several chances at explosive plays. L.A.'s Cover-3 tendencies would provide more predictable coverages. If the defense dominates again, it won't matter, but it's hard to pin Rivers down forever. Baltimore must have alternatives if the bread and butter isn't working.
3. Can Chicago handle Philly's D-line?
The Eagles' defensive resurgence is all about their front four, as the group has regained its 2017 form. Reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week Fletcher Cox (10.5 sacks, 34 QB hits) remains dominant, and only Aaron Donald (41) hit QBs more this year. Michael Bennett has been a terror both inside and outside, and Chris Long continues to stave off Father Time.
The Bears' offensive line has been steady all season, even with Long's brother, Kyle, missing extended action. Matt Nagy's scheme helps by using concepts that slow the pass rush -- including screens, play-action, run-pass options and misdirection at the line of scrimmage -- and many reads are designed to get the ball out immediately.
Using quick throws, regular double-teams and occasional triple-teams, Chicago quieted Donald in Week 14, but it won't be that simple against Philadelphia. Devoting that much attention to Cox risks letting Bennett run wild. Likewise, Long and Brandon Graham will exploit single-blocking if given enough opportunities.
Game flow will be critical. The Bears' offense has scored a disproportionate number of points early in games on scripted plays before bogging down late. If the Eagles can weather the early storm, Mitchell Trubisky eventually will be forced into more obvious passing situations, giving Philly's D-line a chance to tee off.
4. Seahawks' front must bounce back vs. Zeke
In a battle of two very similar, run-based teams, the Cowboys' ground game carries the greatest burden. That's because Dallas' passing game remains a week-to-week proposition. Despite big games, receiver Amari Cooper still disappears for stretches, and the Cowboys rarely scheme to get him involved. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott remains inconsistent at hitting his downfield opportunities, an issue Seattle QB Russell Wilson hasn't had much this season.
Thus, the Cowboys' best avenue to success remains running back Ezekiel Elliott, who hounded the Seahawks for 7.9 yards per carry -- despite a long run of just 26 yards -- in Week 3 but had only three carries in the final 20 minutes as Dallas fought a deficit. After averaging 29 touches per game from Week 10 to Week 16, Elliott got the regular-season finale off to get fresh, as did Pro Bowl linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin.
Despite the Week 3 issues, Seattle's front can match Dallas' run game. The Seahawks' scheme helps, with an extra safety usually in the box and one heavy defensive end (291-pound Quinton Jefferson) alongside two defensive tackles. Jefferson has been steady, while the tackles have really impressed.
Jarran Reed garnered attention with 10.5 sacks, but he entered the NFL as a run-stuffer first and foremost, which shows in his discipline and ability to anchor. Shamar Stephen is rarely moved out of his gap easily, and Seattle also found a gem in Poona Ford. The undrafted rookie has more than earned his recent boost in snaps, showing tremendous effort and using his limited stature (5-foot-11, 310 pounds) as an advantage by playing low.
Ford didn't play in the teams' Week 3 meeting, but the former Longhorn could be critical in the rematch in Dallas.
5. Can Houston contain Hines?
Behind Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron, fourth-round rookie back Nyheim Hines has become a quiet weapon in the passing game, especially late in the season (30 targets, 23 catches for 177 yards since Week 13).
With a rare combination of short-area quickness and long speed (he was a track star at North Carolina State), Hines has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles. His inside running is far from Sproles' level, but he has shown early refinement as a receiver.
Hines is comfortable splitting out and running a broader route tree, and the Colts often deploy him on the weak side to create more room. His hands are reliable amid tight coverage and heavy hits, and he also is a vertical threat. In Week 4 against Houston, he beat Tyrann Mathieu on an out-and-up from the slot in the red zone, and in Week 16, he caught a 28-yard, back-shoulder fade. Both were extremely uncommon routes for a back, but Hines looked comfortable winning the ball in the air.
The Colts will try to get Hines on Benardrick McKinney, a hulking 'backer with good speed but questionable lateral agility. Against Houston's preferred Cover-4, two-man-route combinations could isolate McKinney on Hines in de facto man coverage. Two years ago, the Patriots did exactly that with Dion Lewis and James White for two touchdowns in a divisional playoff win.
(With inputs from agencies.)
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