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Five Lessons Learned From the NFL’s Final Four Playoff Teams

The Titans, Chiefs, Packers, and 49ers took very different routes to get to championship weekend, but these teams share some philosophies that have helped them in the regular season and throughout the playoffs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The results from a (decidedly wild) divisional round were all over the place. San Francisco stomped the Vikings in a ho-hum 27-10 drubbing. The Packers knocked off Seattle in a duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs erased a 24-0 deficit against the Texans like it was absolutely nothing. And the Titans pulled off one of the biggest playoff upsets ever in a shocking blowout win over the Ravens. It may not seem like there are many overarching takeaways to be had from that sort of slate, but I tried to land on five lessons that we can take away from a frenetic weekend of football—and the final four teams still in the hunt for the Super Bowl.

1. You usually need more than one way to win in the playoffs.

Some have used the Titans’ recent upsets as evidence that a bruising running game is a necessity come playoff time, but I don’t know—the Chiefs still dropped 51 points on the Texans on Sunday with Patrick Mahomes as their leading rusher. What Derrick Henry has accomplished this postseason is unprecedented, and he’s somehow doing it regardless of how many defenders get thrown at him. The Ravens put eight or more defenders in the box on 63 percent of Henry’s carries on Saturday, and he finished with 124 yards on those 19 attempts. That just shouldn’t be possible. Henry is borderline unstoppable right now, but Tennessee will likely still need decent production from Ryan Tannehill and its passing game to upset the Chiefs at Arrowhead in the AFC championship game.

When the Titans beat Kansas City in a 35-32 shootout in November, Henry finished with 188 yards and two touchdowns, but Tannehill also threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 attempts. Tennessee has clearly tapped into something special with Henry, but the takeaway here shouldn’t be that every team needs to build around the running game to smash its way through the playoffs. It’s that building a flexible, versatile offense is a huge advantage come playoff time.

The Patriots have been doing this for years. Under Bill Belichick, New England has been able to transform into a different team from week to week in the postseason. In 2015, LeGarrette Blount carried the ball three times for one yard in the Pats’ 35-31 divisional-round win over the Ravens. The following week, he ran it 30 times for 148 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts. This version of the Titans would never vacillate that much from game to game—and with Henry playing like this, it shouldn’t. But Tennessee has needed the big shots off of its play-action passing game to get to this point and it’ll need them going forward to have any chance at stealing a Super Bowl. Teams don’t need to construct their offenses around a 250-pound bulldozer at running back to find success come playoff time. But as long as it’s part of a broader offensive plan, it’s certainly a luxury to be able to hand it to that guy 30 times if necessary.

2. Building a championship roster is a year-round job.

Late last week, the Packers added right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the injury report with an illness. Bulaga was active for Sunday’s game against Seattle, but during warm-ups, he decided there was no way he could go. Enter Jared Veldheer. The 10-year veteran went to training camp with the Patriots this summer, but eventually retired before the season began. In late November, though, the Packers were looking to bolster their tackle depth and managed to coax Veldheer out of retirement. The move paid off in a big way. Veldheer played all 63 snaps against the Seahawks on Sunday and didn’t allow a single pressure on Aaron Rodgers.

That’s a stark contrast to what transpired the last time Green Bay’s starting right tackle missed time with an injury. When Bulaga went down early in the Packers’ loss to San Francisco earlier this season, backup Alex Light struggled to slow down Nick Bosa. The Niners pass rush is a different beast than a Seattle front that featured an injured Jadeveon Clowney, but Veldheer pitching a shutout about learning he’d be starting about 10 minutes before the game is remarkable no matter the competition. On the sideline during the game, Veldheer told Rodgers that he’d watched the Packers’ Week 1 game in Chicago from the stands. Four months later, he was starting in front of 79,000 people in Lambeau Field.

The Titans also got some key contributions from their own late-season addition. Cornerback Tramaine Brock had been with the Cardinals all year before he was released on December 2. Tennessee claimed him the next day. After losing Malcolm Butler to a season-ending injury in early November, the Titans needed cornerback depth, but Brock has provided them with much more than that. Brock has played at least 45 snaps in each of his six games with Tennessee (including the regular season and playoffs), and he was on the field for 83 plays against the Ravens on Saturday. The 31-year-old had an excellent pass breakup on a second-and-10 throw to Marquise Brown early in the second quarter and made several sound plays in the open field. On Brock’s four tackles, the Ravens gained a total of zero yards after the catch. Neither Brock nor Veldheer was a splashy signing during the first week in free agency, but they both came through in the biggest games of the year.

3. A dominant pass rush can still carry a defense in the playoffs.

Top defenses like the Patriots and Ravens stifled opponents all year with their deep, talented secondaries, but in high-leverage moments, it still pays to have guys who can just get to the quarterback. Big-time pass rush performances were a theme throughout the divisional round. Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey tallied two sacks against a Ravens offensive line that had been solid in pass protection for most of the season. Nick Bosa finished with two sacks and seven hurries as he terrorized Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff. Packers star Za’Darius Smith was everywhere against the Seahawks on Sunday. It didn’t matter whether he was on the right side, the left, or standing up over the center—he was getting into the backfield. Smith finished with two sacks and 11 total pressures against Seattle, despite facing consistent double-teams. Fellow 2019 free-agent acquisition Preston Smith also added two sacks for Green Bay, including a crucial one that forced a Seattle punt late in the fourth quarter. The ability to get after the quarterback with the front four remains a crucial advantage come playoff time.

4. A solid running game doesn’t have to rely on brute power.

When I went back to watch all of Derrick Henry’s runs from Saturday’s win, I was curious what sort of wrinkles the Tennessee coaching staff put in place to help propel his big day. The answer was, “Not many.” The Titans are steamrolling defenses using a variety of zone runs out of (mostly) heavy personnel packages, and relying on Henry to make one ridiculous cut after another. Their approach is football boiled down to its essence: Our guys are going to push your guys around.

That’s a nice formula if you can pull it off, but the Niners are proof that there are other ways to run the ball effectively. San Francisco’s running game features a dizzying array of formations and motions that are designed to confuse defenses while making life easier for blockers. Take this Raheem Mostert run from the first quarter of Saturday’s game against Minnesota. San Francisco is lined up in a pretty standard three-receiver set, with Mostert off to the left. But just before the snap, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne goes in motion from left to right, then stops in his tracks and sprints back across the formation with a ghost motion.

Watch the effect that action has on Minnesota’s defense. Linebacker Anthony Barr follows Bourne into the flat and completely takes himself out of the play. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks bumps down a gap, which gives the offensive linemen a better angle to work up to him. The right tackle and right guard get great movement on the double-team, but the play design does a lot of the heavy lifting for the Niners on a pretty easy 10-yard gain.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan often uses deception to his advantage, but he’s also done an excellent job of mixing a variety of schemes into an offense that’s historically focused on zone runs. The Niners have incorporated different types of gap and power runs over the course of the season, and it’s left defenses notably off-balance all year.

5. Defensive blueprints don’t always carry over.

Patrick Mahomes has—by his standards—struggled against man coverage this season. Both the Lions and Colts played heavy amounts of man to slow Mahomes down earlier in the year, and the Texans followed a similar game plan on Sunday. Welp.

Mahomes shredded Houston’s tight man coverage, to the tune of 321 yards and five touchdowns. Armed with the knowledge that the Texans were playing mostly man, Andy Reid devised a game plan to exploit that coverage. The Chiefs used a ton of switch and rub routes that got Houston’s defenders caught up in traffic, and the Texans had absolutely no answer for Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill one-on-one.

It’s tempting to look at some of the results from earlier in the year and think that a steady diet of man coverage is the best way to contain Mahomes, but the reigning MVP was banged up during a good portion of those games. Mahomes was incredible against man coverage last season, and when Reid knows what’s coming, he can help make it all look easy.