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The Key to Every NFL Wild-Card Matchup

Can the Bengals protect Joe Burrow against the Raiders’ pressure? Will Bill Belichick be able to outgame Buffalo in the teams’ rubber match? And how will Matthew Stafford fare against J.J. Watt and Co.? Here are the keys that will decide each wild-card game.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week in this column, I claimed that Week 17 had finally provided us with some clarity on this wild NFL season. There was still plenty to sort out in terms of seeding, sure, but the playoff field appeared to be locked in, with the Raiders and Chargers competing for the last spot in the AFC and the 49ers and Saints doing the same in the NFC.

And then the Colts went ahead and got embarrassed by the Jaguars in front of a stadium full of fans dressed in clown wigs. In hindsight, it was a fitting end to the 2021 regular season.

Indy’s shocking loss revived the playoff hopes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and when the dust settled after a head-scratching finish in Raiders-Chargers on Sunday night, the Steelers were in the playoffs, the Raiders had the 5-seed, and the Patriots, who had had an outside chance at earning the AFC’s top seed, dropped to sixth in the standings.

Now we won’t get to see Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert duke it out for a third time, and we will be deprived of Bill Belichick taking on Joe Burrow in the sophomore quarterback’s playoff debut. But the wild-card round still has plenty of fascinating matchups to offer. Let’s take an early look at next weekend’s slate by examining the X factors that will decide the first six games of the postseason.

Raiders at Bengals: Joe Burrow’s Pass Protection

The Bengals opened as 6.5-point favorites in this game for good reason: They are, quite simply, the better team, and they made that clear in a 19-point win over Las Vegas in Week 11. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path to victory for the Raiders. And it starts with getting pressure on Joe Burrow.

In the teams’ first matchup, Vegas hurried Burrow on 31.4 percent of his dropbacks, which is just below his average for the season. But an average performance from the Raiders pass rush is not going to get it done. Remarkably, Cincy was largely able to protect its quarterback from Maxx Crosby in that first game, as he totaled just three pressures on the day. To put that into context, Crosby pressured Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert eight times on Sunday night … in the fourth quarter alone.

Plus, the Bengals did this while keeping only five in to block on all but seven of Burrow’s dropbacks, per TruMedia. That gave Burrow his full complement of receivers, and with an average time to throw of 2.68 seconds (his fourth-highest mark of the season), he had no problem picking apart a suspect Vegas secondary.

That needs to change in the rematch. The Raiders need Crosby to dominate if they’re going to stand any chance of keeping up with this red-hot Bengals offense. Derek Carr has done his best to keep his unit afloat in the second half of the season, but Sunday’s win was the first time Vegas scored more than 23 points since Thanksgiving, and it needed some Chargers nonsense to get there. If this is a shootout, the Raiders’ playoff run will last as long as the last one did.

Patriots at Bills: Bill Belichick’s Third-Down Gameplan

A part of Bill Belichick had to be pulling for the Chargers on Sunday night. Had Los Angeles eked out the win, New England would be “on to Cincinnati” for a matchup against a quarterback and coach making their playoff debuts instead of prepping for a third meeting with Buffalo in 41 days.

Things were a lot easier for Belichick in the first game between these teams. Winds gusted up to 50 mph and made passing the ball a futile endeavor. So New England turned the game into a contest of rushing attacks and hid Mac Jones, who has played well as a rookie but isn’t capable of matching Josh Allen throw-for-throw at this point in his career. The Pats were able to grind out a 14-10 win, and the Bills QB averaged 4.8 yards per attempt (his second-lowest figure of the season), with a QBR of 17.2 (a season low).

But without the aid of gale force winds in the rematch, things looked a little different. Allen threw three touchdowns in a 33-21 win, and his 84.9 QBR was the second-highest mark of his 2021 campaign. Allen was particularly effective on later downs, thanks to his improv skills. Per RBSDM.com, the Bills star averaged 0.71 EPA per play on third and fourth downs, and Buffalo converted 9 of 16 of those plays. Belichick mostly opted for man coverage in those situations, with a single safety back deep and more eyes on the pocket. But that attention didn’t matter—Allen got outside of the pocket on a season-high 16 dropbacks, per Sports Info Solutions, and that extra time allowed Buffalo’s receivers to shake free.

Saturday night’s forecast calls for cloudy conditions and 11 mph winds, which means the rubber match between these teams should look more like that second game. And once again, keeping Allen contained will be pivotal for the Patriots defense. Belichick can’t come into this game with a similar plan and expect different results. The Pats hardly blitzed in Week 16, and they played man coverage on 12 of Allen’s third- and fourth-down dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. The Bills converted eight of those plays, so the conservative pass-rush plan clearly didn’t work. Now, I’m not advocating for Belichick to blitz on every important down, but sending an extra rusher or two every once in a while could speed up Allen’s mental clock and lead to quicker pressure. That’s when the 25-year-old tends to make his mistakes—and he’ll need to make a few if New England’s offense is going to keep up.


Eagles at Buccaneers: Devin White’s Run Defense

There was a time not too long ago when analytics nerds believed the Bucs’ run defense was so good that it was actually bad. The theory made sense on paper: Tampa Bay’s dominant front incentivized opponents to pass the ball more, and because passing is far more efficient than running, that’s not ideal. Well, that’s no longer an issue. Last year’s league-leading run defense has fallen out of the top 10, and the recent loss of linebacker Lavonte David has accelerated the fall over the past few weeks. After ranking fifth in DVOA against the run in the first half of the season, the Bucs defense was 21st in the second half.

With the Eagles first up on the playoff schedule, that might be a bit of an issue. Philly’s offense ranked third in both run DVOA and EPA during the regular season thanks in large part to Jalen Hurts. The mobile quarterback has legit running-back-level skills, and first-year head coach Nick Sirianni has made him the centerpiece of the team’s run game. According to Sports Info Solutions, Hurts ranks second in designed quarterback runs behind only Lamar Jackson, and his 360 rush yards on those plays leads the NFL by a healthy margin.

Sirianni’s bag of option concepts is deep and will put tremendous pressure on the second level of Tampa Bay’s defense, which will likely be without David for a fourth straight week. His replacement, veteran Kevin Minter, has been a liability in relief duty—but it’s the team’s other regular starter, Devin White, who might prove to be the biggest issue on Sunday. White is a stellar athlete who flies to the football, but his aggressive style pulls him out of position far too often in the run game. Only two linebackers finished with a worse grade against the run this season, per Pro Football Focus, and for the Bucs to avoid an upset, White will have to play well. If he doesn’t, don’t be surprised if the Super Bowl champs find themselves in another competitive wild-card game against an NFC East opponent.

49ers at Cowboys: Micah Parsons vs. Kyle Shanahan

Rookie linebacker/pass rusher Micah Parsons has been the most important player on the Cowboys defense all season, and that will not change Sunday as Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers travel to Dallas for wild-card weekend.

San Francisco’s offense is notoriously tough on linebackers, who have to process a bunch of window dressing before the snap, discern between runs and passes that look exactly the same up until the last second, and then go make a play. Parsons has played fast all season, but against a Shanahan offense, that’s next to impossible.

If the Cowboys are able to consistently put the Niners in third-down situations, things should be less complicated for the rookie. That’s when defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moves his ultimate chess piece to defensive end and just asks him to get after the passer. But getting to third down will require disciplined play by Parsons. If he’s too anxious to get sideline to sideline and falls for some of Shanahan’s traps, then Jimmy Garoppolo shouldn’t have a problem keeping the offense on schedule—we saw that happen in San Francisco’s Week 18 win over the Rams. But the Niners aren’t so tough to stop if the run game can’t keep Garoppolo out of obvious passing situations. He’s not the quickest thinker in the pocket, and his lack of mobility makes the pass rush’s job a whole lot easier.

Sunday’s game could be a showcase for Parsons as both an off-the-ball linebacker on early downs and a pass rusher on third down. But he’ll need to play well in that first role if he’s going to get a chance to shine in the second.


Steelers at Chiefs: T.J. Watt vs. the Chiefs Offensive Line

The Steelers’ reward for making the playoffs is a rematch with the Chiefs, who are just a few weeks removed from beating Pittsburgh so badly that Mason Rudolph got in the game. If that isn’t enough to kill any optimism Steelers fans might be clinging to, this should: Travis Kelce did not play in that 36-10 win, and Tyreek Hill—who was fresh off the COVID-19 list—played only 29 snaps and was targeted just twice. The Steelers couldn’t cover Byron Pringle or Mecole Hardman. Kelce and Hill will be a much bigger problem.

If Pittsburgh stands any chance this time around, it’ll need a superhuman effort from T.J. Watt, who will likely be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year after tying Michael Strahan’s record for sacks in a season. In that first game, Watt was limited to 38 snaps after spending the week on the injury report with cracked ribs. He managed just three pressures on Patrick Mahomes, and it was one of only four times all season he was held without a sack. That will obviously need to change this time around.

Even if Watt blacks out and single-handedly thwarts the Chiefs passing game, though, I’m not sure it will be enough. This might be the worst possible defensive matchup for the painfully limited Steelers offense, as Ben Roethlisberger is incapable of threatening defenses downfield, which is really the only way to keep Kansas City’s cornerbacks from playing their preferred press coverage. If Roethlisberger can’t hit on a few vertical shots, the Chiefs will crowd the line of scrimmage and we’ll see a repeat of the first game, in which the Steelers quarterback needed 35 attempts to get to 159 passing yards.

Cardinals at Rams: J.J. Watt’s Return

A more obvious pick for this game’s X factor would be Aaron Donald. The NFL’s most disruptive interior presence sacked Kyler Murray three times and racked up a ridiculous 14 pressures in the Rams’ 30-23 win over the Cardinals in Week 14. In Arizona’s 37-20 win in the first matchup, Donald was limited to a pair of pressures and was unable to sack Murray. So, yeah, the Cardinals’ ability to block Donald will go a long way in determining the result of the rubber match.

But the same can be said of J.J. Watt, who should be back in the lineup for this game after missing the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Watt might have been Arizona’s most important defensive player during its 7-0 start. His ability to shoot gaps and get into the backfield against the run helps to create more third-and-long situations, where Vance Joseph shines as a defensive play-caller. While Watt was sidelined, Arizona wasn’t forcing those negative plays on early downs, leading to more third-and-manageable situations for opposing offenses.

The Cardinals’ Third-Down Defense Has Regressed

Weeks Success Rate Allowed EPA/play Allowed
Weeks Success Rate Allowed EPA/play Allowed
1-8 36.5% -0.45
9-18 48% 0
Data via RBSDM.com

Watt, if healthy, will obviously help on third down, as he’s still a productive pass rusher even in the twilight of his career. And getting pressure on Matthew Stafford was the major difference between Arizona holding the Rams offense to 20 points in Week 4 and surrendering 30 in the second game. On unpressured dropbacks in the Los Angeles win, Stafford averaged 10.2 yards per attempt and threw three touchdowns. A repeat of that might be too much for a sputtering Cardinals offense to overcome.