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The Keys to Every NFL Wild-Card Game

Will Dak Prescott be a positive or negative for the Cowboys? Can Khalil Mack and Co. contain Playoff Nick Foles? How can the Chargers produce a different result in Baltimore?

J.J. Watt, Dak Prescott, Khalil Mack, and Melvin Gordon Getty Images/Ringer illustration

That was quick. The NFL regular season is over, and the wild-card round is here. Last year’s opening round featured the Rams fumbling away their first season under Sean McVay, a Chiefs collapse that was epic even by Andy Reid’s standards, and a 10-3 Jaguars-Bills game that was the opposite of epic even by Jacksonville’s and Buffalo’s standards. This year, it looks even better. We have the defending champs against the league’s best defense (Philly vs. Chicago), a divisional matchup (Houston vs. Indianapolis), and a game between Lamar Jackson, the youngest starting quarterback in playoff history, and Philip Rivers, who has more children (eight) than Jackson has career starts (seven). Here’s what to watch for this weekend.

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans

Kickoff Time: Saturday, January 5, 4:35 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN (Simulcast on ABC)
Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters
Line: Houston -1.5
Over/Under: 48
Overworked Story Line: Andrew Luck’s return versus Deshaun Watson’s return
Key(s) to the Game: Pass protection

Andrew Luck was the hardest quarterback to sack in the NFL in 2018. Deshaun Watson was the easiest. Luck attempted 639 passes this year (second most in the league) and was sacked 18 times (the second fewest among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts). Yet even those numbers don’t do justice to the Colts’ pass protection. Nine of those 18 sacks came during the first four weeks of the season, which means that Indianapolis gave up just nine sacks in the 12 games between Week 5 and Week 17. In that span, 28 teams gave up twice as many, more than half the league has given up three times as many, and Houston has given up exactly five times as many (45). Of Luck’s 18 sacks, 12 of them came in five games, all of which were Colts losses. In Indy’s other 11 games, Luck was sacked six times total, and the Colts went 10-1 in those contests. Quenton Nelson’s screaming block video was fake, but his pass protection is real, and it’s spectacular. The team is also going to have center Ryan Kelly, who said he is going to play through a neck injury that affected his nerves. After Andrew Luck, the main beneficiary of that blocking is receiver T.Y. Hilton, who will be playing through an ankle injury but has dominated Houston in his career, averaging 103 yards per game against them in 14 contests, including Week 14 when he had 199 yards on nine catches.

The Texans tied for 11th in sacks this season, and one of its best pass rush performances came against Indy in Week 4, when they sacked Luck four times and won 37-34 in overtime. Of course, the game went to overtime in part because Indy sacked Watson a whopping seven times. Watson was pressured on more than 44 percent of his dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and he became just the ninth quarterback in NFL history to be sacked 60 or more times (14 of which were his fault, but still). Watson adapted to the pressure and had the league’s best passer rating under pressure (life, uh, finds a way) and managed to lead Houston to the playoffs anyway. The Colts don’t have an above-average pass rusher, though Houston’s line can transform the middling into exceptional.

More importantly, this game features four bona fide comeback player of the year candidates: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, and Booger McFarland, who has gone from his sideline mobile cart on Monday Night Football to earning his way into the booth to announce this game. Congrats, Booger. You’re the real winner no matter what happens on the field.

Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys

Kickoff: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers
Line: Dallas -2
Over/Under: 43
Overworked Story Line: Amari Cooper’s arrival
Key(s) to the Game: Be a cliché of an old-school football team.

I’m going to slam my face into a coffee table when I hear Troy Aikman say, “run the ball, stop the run, and don’t turn the ball over” on Saturday, but styles make fights and these teams have old-school styles that warrant old-school clichés. The Seahawks led all teams in rushing this season (160.0 yards per game) under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, while Ezekiel Elliott led all players (95.6). Dallas is the no. 5 rushing defense by DVOA and has allowed just 44 runs of 10 or more yards, sixth fewest in the NFL. That rejuvenated defense led by linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and PFF breakout player of the year Jaylon Smith will be tasked with stopping the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Month in December, Chris Carson, who has 357 rushing yards in his last three games.The Seahawks have allowed the seventh-most passing yards to running backs this year according to Football Outsiders (52.5 per game), and Elliott had his best receiving campaign by far, more than doubling his career high in receptions, gaining 200 more yards than his career-best yardage total, and doubling his career receiving touchdowns. Elliott and Carson should both be featured like it’s 2005.

The Cowboys are 7-0 this season when they don’t turn the ball over. That means the game is likely coming down to Dak Prescott, who led the league in sacks taken independent of his offensive line (i.e., they are his fault) and tied for the league lead in fumbles this season. His pocket presence, which has been dismal at times this year, will be crucial against Seattle, who snagged first- and fourth-quarter interceptions from Dak Prescott in a 24-13 Seattle win in Week 3. Meanwhile, Wilson tied a career low in interceptions this season, and his connection with receiver Tyler Lockett has been astonishing, with a perfect passer rating when targeting him.

Both offenses look different than they did in these teams’ first matchup in September, as receiver Doug Baldwin has returned for the Seahawks and with Amari Cooper on the Cowboys. But if Prescott doesn’t improve, the outcome will likely be the same.

Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens

Kickoff Time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo (awesome), and Tracy Wolfson
Line: Baltimore -2.5
Over/Under: 42
Overworked Story Line: These teams played two weeks ago, but now the game is in Baltimore, so it’s different.
Key(s) to the Game: Rushing

These teams met just two weeks ago, and the Ravens defense shut down the Chargers. In that game, Baltimore held Los Angeles to season-lows in points (10), passing yards (147), and total yards (198). For the Chargers to win, their offensive line needs to block interior pressure and slanting defenders. These areas gave them trouble against Baltimore in Week 16 when the Ravens put more pressure on Rivers than he faced in any other game this season (44 percent of his dropbacks). The pressure frequently created either sacks or penalties, often leading to difficult third downs. The Chargers faced third-and-10 or longer eight times on 12 drives against Baltimore. L.A. must get more manageable third downs (or avoid them altogether!) to move the ball on the Ravens, and that starts with guards Michael Schofield and Dan Feeney doing better the second time around. The Chargers also take their time at the line, using the most seconds per play in the league this season. Speeding up might throw the Ravens defense off its game.

With Joe Flacco at the helm, the Ravens rushing attack was 31st in yards per attempt. But since Jackson took over in Week 11, the Ravens have had the best rushing game in the league, if not one of the best in recent years. The Ravens have rushed for more than 200 yards five times since Week 11. No other team has done so more than twice in that span, and 20 teams have not done it all. A dozen teams have not rushed for more than 200 yards this entire season. They are gaining 5.1 yards per attempt on an average of 45 rushes per game. (FORTY-FIVE!) Despite that volume, they haven’t hit the wall of diminishing returns. The Ravens are one of six teams averaging above five rushing yards per attempt since Week 11, despite rushing 28.5 percent more than the second-place team. They have run the ball with between 3 and 6 yards to go on third down 20 times since Jackson took over, when 30 other teams in the league haven’t done it 10 times. In a season defined by the league zigging toward passing, Baltimore is zagging about as hard as possible, and it’s a serious wrench for defenses that have hired, trained, and coached defenders to survive in a passing-oriented league, including the Chargers.

Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears

Kickoff Time: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Heather Cox
Line: Chicago -6
Over/Under: 41
Overworked Story Line: Nick Foles
Key(s) to the Game: Nick Foles

We know Foles is once again the key to the Eagles’ season, but the question is how he’ll do it. In three playoff games last year, Foles attempted 15 passes of more than 20 yards. In the three games to end the regular season this year, Foles attempted just eight. It’s a small sample size, but the Eagles may try to test Chicago deep. The Bears have given up the fewest explosive pass plays per snap in the league this year, according to Sharp Football Stats, but safety Eddie Jackson hasn’t practiced since Week 15 with an ankle injury, and Foles is more than capable of slinging downfield. Foles’s 2014 season featured the fourth-highest percentage of passes more than 20 air yards downfield since 2006, and he leads all active quarterbacks in yards per attempt in the playoffs (8.4). He also has a deep ball that plays differently than Carson Wentz. Before linebacker Mychal Kendricks pleaded guilty to charges stemming from insider “cheesesteak” trading, he was the star of a segment on Hard Knocks where he spilled, well, inside info on his former team.

“On [Foles’] long balls, his deep balls, he has a teardrop effect,” Kendricks said. “He’s tall and he likes to drop it literally from the sky. So corners, the timing is just a little slower on that ball coming in.”

That assessment is visible on Foles’s deep touchdown to Nelson Agholor against the Texans in Week 16.

If Foles could drop one of his teardrop balls downfield to Agholor, Golden Tate, or Alshon Jeffery, it could go a long way toward putting up points on a ferocious Bears defense that makes it hard to string together long drives. (A side note unrelated to the game but is worth mentioning anyway: Foles gets $500,000 for each playoff game he plays more than a third of the snaps, and an extra $500,000 for each playoff win, according to The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia. If he led Philly to another Super Bowl run, it would add up to $4 million.)

For the Bears, they’ll want to dominate the clock. The Eagles are second in the league in average time of possession (32:39), while the Bears are third (32:22). Whoever controls time will likely control the game. The Eagles are 0-4 this season when they have the ball for less than 30 minutes, which speaks to their depth issues on defense. A rash of injuries to their secondary and a far thinner D-line than last year means substituting personnel is a problem. Chicago won’t be frigid on Sunday (it’s expected to be a 46-degree day) but the longer the Eagles defense is on the field, the more their lack of depth will be exposed. Keeping the offense on the field also eliminates the amount of time Foles has the ball to work his dark magic, and it means Khalil Mack and Co. can maximize their efforts rushing the passer rather than huffing and puffing late in the game.