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The Worst Possible Playoff Matchups for the Top Eight Super Bowl Contenders

At long last, the postseason picture is starting to clear up. Who do the NFL’s best teams want to avoid come January?

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2021 season finally gave us a normal week. Some may have found Week 14’s slate a bit predictable—the Falcons were the only underdog to win—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There were no wonky results that forced us to reconsider how we feel about certain contenders, which has felt like a weekly occurrence over the past few months. After weeks of uncertainty, the playoff picture is finally beginning to clear up.

One of the main reasons for the NFL’s parity to this point has been the increase in schematic diversity across the league. Not long ago, most NFL offenses looked similar, and terminology was the main thing that separated elite offenses from the rest of the pack. But now, more and more coaches are borrowing new-age concepts from lower levels of the sport, sparking an offensive evolution and forcing defenses to evolve and grow more complex. That’s created more schematic diversity on the other side of the ball.

These schematic changes have led to a world where how teams match up matters more than ever, and the margin between the first class of contenders and the second tier has never felt thinner. For even the best teams in the league, avoiding a bad matchup could be the difference between an early January playoff exit and a trip to the Super Bowl.

With that in mind, I’ve picked out the matchup every contender will want to avoid in the postseason. We’ll use nine wins as a cutoff to keep our list nice and tidy, but let’s throw in the Rams since they have a chance to join this group before Week 14 is done. We’ll start with the reigning champs.

Buccaneers

Worst matchup: Rams

Sean McVay’s offense has played this aggressive Buccaneers defense coordinated by Todd Bowles in three consecutive seasons. In those three meetings, the Rams have averaged 33.7 points per game. That’s not all that shocking. McVay is at his best facing overzealous defenses that fly to the ball, especially on early downs, when the Rams take the bulk of their play-action shots. That’s typically when you want to attack this Bucs unit, which can wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks on third downs thanks to Bowles’s creative blitz designs and the versatile linebacking duo of Devin White and Lavonte David. I’d imagine those two have caused a lot of long nights for offensive play-callers these past few seasons.

McVay is not among that group. In the past two matchups between these teams, the Rams have thrived in obvious passing situations.

The Rams Have Thrived on Late Downs vs. the Bucs

Game First and Second Downs Third and Fourth Downs
Game First and Second Downs Third and Fourth Downs
Week 11, 2020 -0.14 EPA/play 0.50 EPA/play
Week 3, 2021 0.0 EPA/play 1.0 EPA/play
Data via RBSDM.com

While Los Angeles wasn’t so efficient on early downs in these matchups, it generally avoided the third-and-long situations that give offenses problems against Tampa Bay’s relentless rush. In a 34-24 win over the Bucs in Week 3 this season, L.A. averaged 6.1 yards to go on third down, according to Pro Football Reference. That was tied for the eighth-lowest mark of that week. Matthew Stafford wasn’t forced to hold the ball while his receivers got downfield, which limited the effectiveness of the blitz.

The Bucs blitzed Stafford 12 times in that game, per Pro Football Focus. He was sacked only once, and completed nine of 11 passes while averaging 8.3 yards per attempt. Stafford’s average time to throw was 1.9 seconds. He was getting the ball out quick.

Tom Brady had a somewhat different experience in that game. He also got the ball out quickly, but he was forced to do so by the Rams’ pass rush. Aaron Donald was typically disruptive, and coordinator Raheem Morris schemed a way to get a number of free rushers up the middle. L.A.’s pressure rate (31.7 percent) wasn’t particularly impressive, but Brady’s average time to throw on unpressured dropbacks was 2.1 seconds. With Donald and blitzing linebackers caving in the pocket, Brady had no room to step up and buy time against the rush.

I’m not breaking new ground by suggesting that generating interior pressure is the key to slowing down Brady. The Rams are built to do that better than any other team in the league.

Packers

Worst matchup: Buccaneers

While McVay hasn’t had any issues with the Bucs, his former offensive coordinator can’t say the same. Matt LaFleur’s Packers dropped both matchups against Tampa Bay last season. In those games, Rodgers was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions; all of last season, including the playoffs, he was sacked 25 times and picked off six times. That means the Bucs accounted for over a third of those plays.

Rodgers’s struggles are not the root cause of Green Bay’s problems against the Bucs, however. They’re merely the product of the real issue: the offense’s inability to block White and David in the run game. In Tampa Bay’s 38-10 blowout of the Packers in October 2020, Green Bay averaged negative-0.30 expected points added on 19 early-down rushes. White and David combined for 13 run stops, which Pro Football Focus defines as “tackles that constitute a ‘failure’ for the offense” based on down and distance. The Green Bay offensive linemen just didn’t have the athleticism to block those two in space, which was brutal for a team that majored in perimeter runs.

Early-down inefficiency set Rodgers up to fail in last season’s two matchups between these teams. He consistently found himself facing third-and-long; as mentioned above, that’s when Bowles likes to light up opposing quarterbacks with aggressive coverages and intricately designed blitzes. Rodgers typically holds his own in those situations, but the Packers star is nursing a toe injury that could limit his mobility in a potential playoff game. Bowles would blitz either way, but he could dial up even more pressure if he knew Rodgers would be confined to the pocket.

For the Packers to change their fortunes against the Bucs, they would need to figure out how to unlock their run game against a nasty Tampa Bay front seven. That’s a tough ask.


Rams

Worst matchup: 49ers

I don’t know how many offensive play-callers enjoy going up against the Rams’ loaded defense, but Kyle Shanahan headlines that short list. While most coaches probably see a unit led by three superstars in Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Von Miller, Shanahan likely sees a defense with a suspect group of linebackers and the league’s strongest preference for light run boxes, per Sports Info Solutions. The 49ers coach was built to exploit matchups like this.

The Rams defense is designed to stop modern, pass-heavy offenses by giving up numbers in the run game in order to better defend aerial attacks. That design doesn’t work against the 49ers. San Francisco likes to line up with a bevy of tight ends and running backs on the field. With wide receiver Deebo Samuel emerging as a true weapon out of the backfield, even San Francisco’s three-receiver looks can fit into more run-heavy formations.

Add it all up, and the Rams defense can’t play the 49ers the same way it plays the rest of the league. Shanahan doesn’t allow L.A. to cut corners in the run game, and that, in turn, creates opportunities in the play-action passing game. The 49ers have not been overly efficient running the ball against the Rams, but the ground game has served its purpose by making things easier for Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s produced at a highly efficient level against the Rams without having to push the ball too far downfield.

Jimmy G Has Dominated the Rams With Short Passes

Game EPA/play aDOT
Game EPA/play aDOT
2020, Week 6 0.37 4.5
2021, Week 10 0.71 6.6
Data via RBSDM.com

The 49ers also have an advantage on the other side of the ball. While McVay’s offense is a pain in the ass for most opposing linebackers, Fred Warner knows how to stop it. The All-Pro is immune to McVay’s tactics. In San Francisco’s 31-10 blowout of the Rams in Week 10, Warner locked down the middle of the field.

McVay tried to bait Warner and draw him out of position. It simply didn’t work. Stafford has been at his best for Los Angeles when picking apart the middle of the field. That’s hard to do with the league’s best coverage linebacker lurking in that area.

Patriots

Worst matchup: Cardinals

“In critical situations, I would much rather go to our best players rather than to run a certain play against a certain scheme. To me, in the end, I want to give our best players—our toughest, smartest, most dependable players—an opportunity to win the game.”

The above quote is from Bill Belichick, who explained his coaching philosophy at a clinic in 2017. The Pats coach was talking about offensive play-calling, but his mentality is easily applied to defense too. In key situations, Belichick wants to take away an opponent’s best, toughest, smartest, and most dependable player, daring the offense to beat him in a different way. Against most competition, that means blanketing the top receiver with dedicated double teams.

Creating that type of numerical advantage requires sending an extra body in coverage. This might explain why Belichick has famously had problems against scrambling quarterbacks who demand extra attention to prevent forays outside the pocket. If Belichick has to dedicate one of his defenders to spying on the quarterback, that would eliminate his ability to dial up double teams that take away a star receiver.

Kyler Murray is a quarterback who demands extra attention. If the Cardinals and Patriots were to meet in the Super Bowl, his mobility would dictate what Belichick could do on third down. You can pretty much forget about doubling DeAndre Hopkins; New England’s pass rush would have to maintain its gap integrity to stop Murray from escaping the pocket, thereby limiting Belichick’s pressure options. In other words, Murray would force the Pats to make more basic third-down calls and neuter Belichick’s ability to throw curveballs at the Cardinals offense.

This matchup wouldn’t be any more appealing for New England on the other side of the ball. The Pats offense has been powered by the downhill running game, and Arizona’s defense is one of the few in the league that could match its physicality. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has protected Mac Jones by keeping the rookie quarterback out of obvious passing situations and limiting the number of exotic blitzes he’s seen. That approach likely wouldn’t work against the Cardinals. Arizona coordinator Vance Joseph dials up blitzes on first and second down at the third-highest rate in the NFL, per Sports Info Solutions. His goal is to create negative plays and put the quarterback in obvious third-down passing situations, even if it means giving up an explosive play here and there.

Jones has largely avoided mistakes this season, but he’s been more liable to put the ball in harm’s way against aggressive blitzes, when his lack of mobility becomes an issue against NFL-caliber pass rushers.

Mac Jones Has Struggled vs. the Blitz

Stat Blitz No Blitz
Stat Blitz No Blitz
Dropbacks 144 275
Sacks 13 11
Yards/attempt 6.9 7.7
TD 5 11
INT 4 4
PFF grade 68.6 86.4
Data via Pro Football Focus

This Pats roster was built to exploit lighter defenses designed to defend the pass. Arizona’s defense doesn’t fit that paradigm.

Cowboys

Worst matchup: Chiefs

The reasoning for this pick is simple: Steve Spagnuolo is one of the few defensive coordinators in the league who’s capable of fooling Dak Prescott. That was apparent in Kansas City’s 19-9 win over Dallas in Week 11. The Chiefs dominated on third down, thanks largely to Spags using a variety of calls that kept Prescott guessing.

Here’s an example from the first half. On a third-and-6, Kansas City showed a blitz look before the snap. Dak made his protection calls and checked into a quick-hitting play to beat the blitz.

Yet the Chiefs sent only four and flooded the underneath areas. Prescott initially looked to tight end Dalton Schultz, who had a pick set for him. But Kansas City’s extra bodies in the middle clogged up the play and forced Dak to hold the ball just long enough for the pass rush to get home.

Kansas City’s defense is built to stifle the Cowboys offense in other ways too. Just look up front, where Dallas has no answer for defensive tackle Chris Jones. The Chiefs standout racked up four sacks and eight pressures in the teams’ November meeting, per Pro Football Focus. Part of that likely had to do with Tyron Smith missing the game with an ankle injury, but part of it also had to do with Kansas City’s Melvin Ingram and Frank Clark both playing at a high level. The emergence of that duo, along with Jones’s play after he moved back to his natural position on the interior, has allowed Spags to get creative with his pressure designs on third down and helped this defense turn things around after its early-season struggles.

While the Dallas defense might not represent the best possible matchup for the Chiefs offense, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have what it takes to score against virtually any opponent. And with the way that this defense has been playing of late, the offense might not even need to fire on all cylinders for the Chiefs to be a tough out in the playoffs.

Chiefs

Worst matchup: Patriots

While the Chiefs defense has been rolling recently, it still has one glaring issue: It can’t stop the run. Kansas City gives up the NFL’s second-highest success rate on the ground, according to RBSDM.com. That just hasn’t been an issue, since most teams are built primarily to pass.

It would, however, be a massive issue against the Patriots. If Kansas City can’t knock New England’s offense off schedule with early-down run stops, that would limit what Spagnuolo could do on third down. And given Mac Jones’s issues against the blitz this season—his passer rating falls from 102.0 to 81.5 when defenses send extra pass rushers—creating obvious blitzing situations is the key to slowing the Pats’ efficient offense.

The Belichick factor also looms large. This New England defense has consistently played well against the Mahomes-led Chiefs. Even last year, when Kansas City’s offense was at the peak of its powers and the Patriots defense was one of the worst in the league, Mahomes had trouble moving the ball thanks to some subtle adjustments by Belichick.

Belichick’s game plan in that October 2020 meeting laid a blueprint for slowing this Chiefs passing attack. Even if Reid and Mahomes are able to make the proper adjustments, Belichick will likely have a new ploy to throw at them. He always does.


Cardinals

Worst matchup: Packers

The Cardinals’ defensive success is largely built on confusion and chaos. That starts on early downs, when coordinator Vance Joseph sends blitzes designed to attack certain run concepts and create tackles behind the line of scrimmage. It’s a boom-or-bust approach that explains why Arizona has surrendered the league’s highest rate of explosive gains on the ground, per Sharp Football Stats. But it has mostly yielded the desired results.

That was not the case in a Week 8 matchup against the Packers. Green Bay ran the ball 34 times for 151 yards in a 24-21 win.

Much of the Packers’ success stemmed from the constraints that LaFleur imposes on defenses in the run game. Nearly every Green Bay rushing formation provides Rodgers with an option to pass against overly aggressive defenses, so whenever the Cardinals loaded up to stop the run, Rodgers would just flip a quick pass out to the perimeter and let his receivers take it from there. He did that a lot—just look at his passing chart from that game.

The chaos that has created so many problems for other Cardinals opponents had no effect on Rodgers. His command at the line of scrimmage was one of Joseph’s top concerns heading into that game.

If these teams meet again in the postseason, the Cardinals will have to deviate from their preferred approach on defense. By forcing their opponent to change what they do, the Packers could consider that a win.

Titans

Worst matchup: Bills

Several teams would present a bad playoff matchup for the Titans, who appear set to limp into the playoffs without Derrick Henry. But I’m going with Buffalo here, specifically because of what Henry’s absence would mean in this game. The Bills’ issues against the run have been well-documented, and Henry has tormented this defense two seasons in a row. What would the Titans’ plan of attack look like if he’s gone?

Ryan Tannehill has done an admirable job keeping Tennessee’s offense afloat since Henry went down with a foot injury, but he’s done so by taking advantage of pass defenses not nearly as sound as Buffalo’s. Without the threat of Henry in the backfield, Bills head coach Sean McDermott would be able to get more creative with his blitzes and coverage disguises. Those types of exotic looks have given Tannehill issues in the past, but defenses have rarely been able to employ them because they’ve had to account for Henry. For now, at least, that’s not the case.

Things would change if Henry returns for the playoffs, and recent reports suggest that he could be back in time for the wild-card round. Even if that happens, though, we won’t know how Henry will look, or how much time he’d need to get back to full speed. The big back is known for bowling over defenders, but it’s his speed that makes him such a terror in the open field. In the first matchup between these teams, that made the difference on his biggest runs of the day.

Several Bills defenders looked as if they had an angle on Henry and he just ran right past them. If Henry’s speed isn’t quite there in the postseason, this matchup will be more manageable for Buffalo.