The 2017 regular season is in the books, and for the 12 teams left, a chance at Super Bowl glory awaits. For eight of them, the wild-card round represents the first step on the road to NFL immortality. The four games on this weekend’s slate present a bevy of interesting matchups, and each team has unique strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the one number that could matter most for each squad playing this weekend.
Tennessee Titans (9–7)
The stat: The defense finished fourth in both rushing yards (88.8 per game) and yards per carry allowed (3.6).
Tennessee didn’t stand out in many defensive categories this season, finishing middle of the pack in points allowed, total yards, and takeaways, but the Titans’ run defense was among the league’s best, surrendering an NFL-low five rushing touchdowns. The defensive front got stronger as the year went on, too, giving up just one rushing score over its final seven games. That stout play in the box could be a key factor this Saturday against a Chiefs offense that’s most dangerous when it employs a balanced, run-heavy approach.
When offensive coordinator Matt Nagy took over play-calling duties for Andy Reid back in early December, the most important change the 39-year-old former quarterback made was to turn rookie rushing champ Kareem Hunt back into a foundational player in the team’s offense. Hunt carried the ball an average of 26 times for 121 yards in the three games preceding Week 17 (when Kansas City rested its starters), averaging 4.6 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns. If Tennessee’s physical run-defending front can limit Hunt and take him out of the game as a runner, it could throw the Chiefs’ balanced approach out of whack and make them one-dimensional.
Kansas City Chiefs (10–6)
The stat: Alex Smith tossed 12 deep touchdown passes, tied for tops in the league.
Of course, even if the Titans can shut down Kansas City’s run game, they’ll still have to contend with the Chiefs’ explosive downfield passing attack. One of the biggest catalysts for Kansas City’s success this year has been the fact Smith took one of his most scathing career narratives — his perceived status as a check-down artist — and turned it on its head. Smith was the league’s best deep-ball passer (throws that traveled 20 yards through the air), per Pro Football Focus. Not only did he match Russell Wilson for the league lead in deep touchdown passes (tossing just one pick on those passes), he finished with an NFL-best 1,344 yards on deep balls, with an NFL-best 56.5 completion percentage and an NFL-best 131.4 passer rating (nearly 20 points higher than the next closest player, Lions QB Matt Stafford) on those throws.
Smith’s got one of the league’s most dynamic pass-catching duos at his disposal. Tight end Travis Kelce’s a menace up the seam, and Tyreek Hill is just about unguardable up the sideline. The Titans have no hope for an upset if they let either of those two loose in the secondary.
Atlanta Falcons (10–6)
The stat: The defense ranked 21st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA defending pass-catching running backs out of the backfield.
The Falcons’ weakness defending running backs out of the backfield is, shall we say, not insignificant against a Rams team that relies so heavily on Todd Gurley (64 catches, 788 yards, six touchdowns) as a pass catcher. For the second straight year, Atlanta gave up more receptions to running backs than any other team in the league, surrendering 107 catches for 802 yards (28th) and four touchdowns (tied for 19th) to that position. It’s a vulnerability that Sean McVay is sure to exploit when calling plays. It’s not a question of if, it’s when: Gurley’s going to get his shot at doing damage through the air, and the Offensive Player of the Year candidate will be matched up against Atlanta’s athletic linebacker corps.
The speed and play-recognition abilities of Falcons linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are going to be big factors in this game, as will safety Keanu Neal’s ability to sniff out screen plays and stop Gurley before he gets into the open field. If Atlanta’s defense can pursue and tackle with speed and discipline, it’ll go a long way toward securing the team its upset.
Los Angeles Rams (11–5)
The stat: The defense got pressure on opposing quarterbacks on 31.3 percent of dropbacks, tied for the fourth-highest pressure percentage in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year favorite Aaron Donald is the straw that stirs the drink for the Rams’ pass-rush group, and registered a league-high 91 pressures from his three-technique position on the interior (which, by the way, is absurd). Donald has plenty of help, too, with Robert Quinn (38 pressures), Michael Brockers (32), Connor Barwin (30), Matt Longacre (26), and Ethan Westbrooks (15) all chipping in to move opposing quarterbacks off their spot and force quick throws.
As long as the Falcons have Matt Ryan under center and Julio Jones out wide, they’re a dangerous playoff team. The best way the Rams can get Atlanta’s offense out of rhythm and keep the Falcons off the scoreboard is to get after the quarterback, and they’re primed to do just that with one of the league’s most disruptive fronts.
Buffalo Bills (9–7)
In order to beat the Jags on Sunday, the Bills are going to have to play mostly mistake-free football. Offensively, that’s been the name of the game all year, and in games started by Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo took care of the ball incredibly consistently, with just 10 giveaways spread out among 15 matchups — including zero in the past three games. Taylor gets plenty of criticism for the throws he doesn’t attempt, but the veteran finished the year tied for first in the NFL in interception rate (1.0 percent), tossing just four picks on 420 attempts. That ability to protect the football could be crucial this week against one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses.
The Jaguars do a lot of things well on defense, but they thrive on turnovers, finishing second in the NFL in takeaways this year (33). Unfortunately, with a quarterback like Blake Bortles, they’re also pretty prone to giving the ball away. In back-to-back losses to close out the year, Jacksonville turned it over seven times while creating just two turnovers on the other side of the ball. If Buffalo can take care of the ball and force Bortles into a few knuckleheaded throws, the Bills could come out of the wild-card round with an upset.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10–6)
The stat: The run defense has given up 100-plus yards on the ground in five out of the team’s past six games.
The Jaguars’ acquisition of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in Week 8 seemed to fix what had been, to that point, one of the league’s worst run-defending fronts. Through seven weeks, Jacksonville ranked 30th in rushing yards allowed, dead last in yards per carry allowed (5.16), and tied for 19th in rushing touchdowns surrendered (5). From weeks 9 through 12, though, the former Bill helped plug up the middle of the field and the Jags’ run defense thrived, ranking eighth in yards and fourth in yards per carry (2.85) in that stretch, giving up just one rushing score (tied for fourth). That honeymoon is over, though. In the past four games, Jacksonville’s run defense has fallen off, ranked 22nd in rushing yards allowed and 16th in yards per carry (3.99) in that stretch, surrendering three rushing scores to finish the year 26th in rush defense DVOA overall.
Meanwhile, no one’s run for more yards than the Bills (840) over the past six weeks, and they’ve averaged 4.2 yards per carry on a league-high 200 attempts in that time. The combination of LeSean McCoy (if he plays on a sprained ankle) and the always-dynamic Taylor could present this normally stout Jacksonville defense with some issues. If Buffalo can run the ball, control the clock, and score points on the ground, it may not matter that the Jags have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers (11–5)
The stat: Carolina finished third in the NFL in average time of possession per game (32:17) and average time of possession per drive (2:56).
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said this week that his ability to run the ball is what gives him an “edge” in the NFL — he extends drives with his legs, picking up key first downs and explosive runs, helping the Panthers bleed the clock and keep opposing offenses off the field. Newton said he’s never bought into the idea that he should run the ball less often — a concept that head coach Ron Rivera talked about a few times over the past few years. The “run less” tack just hasn’t seemed to stick, though, and apparently, Rivera and Co. finally have accepted that the former MVP is most dangerous when defenses have to account for him on the ground. The team has unleashed Newton the past five weeks, a stretch in which he’s rushed 56 times for 290 yards and a score — including 11-plus carries in each of the past four games.
As we enter the playoffs, Panthers QB Cam Newton is riding a five-game streak of 50+ rushing yards, the longest by a QB since Michael Vick in 2006.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 3, 2018
The Panthers’ best shot at an upset on Sunday is by keeping the ball out of the hands of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Michael Thomas. Newton’s been erratic as a passer this year, but if there’s one thing Carolina can rely on it’s that his ability to run creates major issues for opposing defenses and makes the Panthers dangerous even when Newton has an off day through the air.
New Orleans Saints (11–5)
The stat: The offense has broken the 100-yard mark on the ground just once in the team’s past four games.
The Saints underwent a near-total transformation on offense this year, riding an explosive rushing attack and a newfound balance to an NFC South division title and playoff berth. But while Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have both been incredibly impressive running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the team’s efficiency in the run game has been a little underwhelming over the past month. Through 13 weeks, the Saints ranked third in rushing yards (1,711), first in yards per carry (4.97), and first in rushing touchdowns (19). But in the past four weeks, New Orleans ranks 30th in yards (359), 29th in yards per carry (3.59), and has scored four times on the ground (tied for ninth). That’s a small sample size, of course, and New Orleans still has all the pieces in place to unleash its dominant ground attack, but it’s certainly a bad time for that part of the Saints’ offense to go cold. They’re going up against a stout Carolina front this week, too, a unit that finished the year sixth against the run per DVOA.
The Saints still have the Drew Brees–Michael Thomas connection in the passing game to fall back on, but they’re damn near unstoppable when the run game is the foundation of their scheme. If they can’t jump-start that part of their offense this week, it could open the door for a Panthers upset.