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The Key to Every NFL Wild-Card Matchup

Can Tom Brady hang tough against the Cowboys’ pass rush? Has Joe Burrow figured out the Ravens defense? And will Wink Martindale show enough restraint? Here are the keys to each game this weekend.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

I hope you like sequels. That’s all we’re getting this wild-card weekend as the NFL playoffs kick off with six regular-season rematches. Three of those are actually third installments of intra-division rivalries, meaning we saw these teams play nine times during the regular season.

That’s a lot of film to break down and learn from, which makes my job as an analyst much easier. There’s no guesswork needed. We’ve already seen how these teams match up. We know how those first games were won and what the losing teams need to do to reverse the results. Using that knowledge, let’s break down the six wild-card games and answer the one question that could decide each of them.

Seahawks at 49ers: How does Seattle mitigate the 49ers’ pass rush?

Geno Smith’s reward for making the playoffs for the first time in his career will be facing the NFL’s best defense—the same defense that forced two of Smith’s worst games of the season. The common denominator in those previous meetings was pressure. The Seahawks were intent on running the ball on early downs, which didn’t work. And that often put Smith and his young offensive line in obvious passing situations, allowing the 49ers’ pass rush, led by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Nick Bosa, to tee off on the pocket. Smith was pressured on 50 percent of his third-down dropbacks in the two regular-season matchups, and the Seahawks needed an average of 10.7 yards on those plays. Smith also held on to the ball for 2.9 seconds per attempt, one-tenth of a second longer than his season average, per TruMedia.

Geno Smith vs. the 49ers in 2022 (via TruMedia)

Opponent Dropbacks Yards/Play EPA/Play Success % Pressure % Time to Throw Average Depth of Target
Opponent Dropbacks Yards/Play EPA/Play Success % Pressure % Time to Throw Average Depth of Target
vs. 49ers 80 5.06 -0.25 41.3% 38.80% 2.54 4.61
vs. Other Teams 570 6.73 0.06 49.3% 33.50% 2.68 8

Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron needs to try something else if Seattle is going to pull off the upset. A higher dosage of play-action—Smith used it on just 13.8 percent of his dropbacks in the first two games—and other misdirection concepts could help take the teeth out of the 49ers’ rush. Las Vegas had success doing that in its near upset of San Francisco in Week 17, and Arizona hit the Niners for a big play on Sunday that capitalized on the aggressive nature of DeMeco Ryans’s unit. Waldron has to figure out a way to get the 49ers’ front seven thinking right after the snap. If he can’t, and Bosa is able to pin his ears back against a Seahawks offensive line that has regressed over the second half of the season, Seattle will have a hard time covering the 10-point spread, much less winning the game.

Chargers at Jaguars: Can Keenan Allen unlock an even better Justin Herbert?

This game will be billed as a matchup of two golden-armed quarterbacks, and fittingly so. Both Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence seem to produce a viral highlight every week, and this matchup could very well come down to which of these generational talents lives up to the hype. In these teams’ regular-season matchup back in Week 3, that was indeed the case. Lawrence made highly difficult throws more often than Herbert did, and though that’s not the only reason the Jaguars won 38-10, it was a big part of it.

To be fair, in that game Herbert was 10 days removed from getting his ribs cracked in a loss to Kansas City. Plus, the Chargers were without Keenan Allen. Neither of those two things will be true for the rematch. But the Jaguars’ approach of flooding the middle of the field and forcing Herbert to either throw deep out-breaking routes or check it down was effective and will likely be the plan once again. In Week 3, Herbert was hesitant to let some of those throws rip, which is understandable given his injury and the fact that DeAndre Carter, not Allen, was running most of those routes.

Now Allen is back in the lineup and is coming off his best performance of the season after racking up more than 100 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Denver on Sunday. Allen starting to come on is bad news for Jacksonville, which has struggled against comparable receivers this season. The Jaguars rank 29th in the league against slot targets, allowing 0.42 expected points added per attempt, and Amon-Ra St. Brown and CeeDee Lamb have had monster games against them out of the slot. Allen runs a lot of the same routes and could be in for a similar performance.

Since Allen and Mike Williams have gotten back on the field, Herbert has been holding the ball a little longer, trusting those two to eventually get open. That has coincided with a spike in Herbert’s sack rate, but the overall trade-off is a net positive for Los Angeles. The QB’s strict adherence to the timing of the Chargers’ passing game led to some of the missed opportunities in the first game. A looser, more ambitious Herbert should be more productive in the rematch if the Jaguars do replicate their plan from September.

Dolphins at Bills: Can Buffalo’s corners hold up in man coverage?

Miami’s Week 15 loss in Buffalo may have come in the middle of a five-game losing streak, but it was different from those other losses in one key way: The Miami offense actually looked pretty good. It was the only game since late November in which the Dolphins scored more than 21 points, and the only time they’ve managed more than 400 total yards since their bye in Week 11. It was also the last great game we’ve seen from Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered a concussion in a three-interception performance against the Packers the following week and hasn’t played since, and it was the only real proof that the offense we saw in the first half of the season hadn’t fully disappeared.

Following that Week 16 game, Tagovailoa’s status remains in doubt for the playoffs. But based on what we’ve seen from both Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater this season, the Dolphins won’t stand a chance without Tua under center. Any questions about his ceiling are valid, but he clearly raises the floor for this unit. That’s especially true going against a disciplined, zone-based defense like Buffalo’s. Tua’s quick trigger and misleading eyes allow him to access windows over the middle of the field that neither Thompson nor Bridgewater can. The Bills defensive coverage has been vulnerable when opposing quarterbacks can get rid of the ball quickly, and Tua has one of the quickest releases in the league at 2.47 seconds per throw.

If Tagovailoa does play, Buffalo will have to dial up more man coverage than we saw in the previous two regular-season games. Press coverage has been key to disrupting routes and slowing down Miami’s passing game. And while the Bills didn’t do much of that in either matchup, they also didn’t hold up too well on the few occasions they did, including this long touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill in Week 15.

If Tagovailoa returns, the Bills will not only have to play more man coverage; they’ll also have to do it more effectively. They’ll need Tre’Davious White to look more like the Pro Bowl player he was before the ACL tear that took him out for nearly a year. White notched his first interception in over a year against the Patriots Sunday, so we may have already seen the first steps in that transition. But with Hill and Jaylen Waddle next up on the schedule, White will be tested plenty. How he holds up will dictate the competitiveness of the game, which opened up with one of the biggest lines (Bills minus-10) of the wild-card round.

Giants at Vikings: Can Wink Martindale show some restraint?

When in doubt, Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will send pressure. When your nickname is Wink and you look like this, you’re not going to dial up a boring-ass four-man rush with the game on the line. At least, that’s usually the case. In the Week 16 matchup between the Giants and Vikings, the prequel to Sunday’s wild-card rematch, Wink opted for one of those boring-ass four-man rushes to help out his undermanned secondary, which was tasked with slowing down the NFL’s most prolific receiver, Justin Jefferson.

New York played a man coverage with two safeties deep. That deep help allowed the Giants to get two defenders on Jefferson—a cornerback underneath playing with inside leverage and a safety playing outside to create an inside-out bracket on the star wideout. And …

Jefferson still got open and scored the go-ahead touchdown because that’s what elite players do. It was a fine play call even if the result wasn’t ideal. Martindale had put his players in a favorable situation, but Jefferson was just too good.

After the Giants rallied to tie the game up, Wink got another shot at a third-and-long situation with the game on the line. This time, he did send some pressure after Kirk Cousins and left Darnay Holmes to handle Jefferson all on his own. The result, unsurprisingly, was an easy pitch-and-catch with Jefferson shaking free of the single coverage with a deep out route.

A few plays later, the Vikings kicked a game-winning 61-yard field goal. It was a tough loss, especially for Martindale’s defense, which played well outside of a few high-leverage situations. In the end, Minnesota’s ability to burn Martindale whenever he sent extra players after Cousins was the difference.

Cousins Played Well vs. the Giants Blitz (via TruMedia)

QB Blitzed Dropback Yards/DB EPA/DB Success % aDOT
QB Blitzed Dropback Yards/DB EPA/DB Success % aDOT
Yes 26 5.7 0.15 53.8% 8.3
No 25 4.9 0 40.0% 5.2

Putting Cousins under pressure and forcing him to speed up his internal clock has been a fruitful plan for defensive coordinators across the league, but the Giants’ strength is their defensive line. And going up against a banged-up Vikings offensive line, which could be without two key starters in Brian O’Neill and Garrett Bradbury, creates an even bigger advantage in the trenches. Instead of sending more bodies after the quarterback, Martindale would be wise to allocate the extra numbers to coverage to mitigate the personnel disadvantage New York will have in the passing game. If you stop Jefferson, this Vikings offense isn’t terribly hard to figure out—just look at how Green Bay limited it in Week 17. The running game has been ineffective for the most part, and Cousins’s options behind Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson are limited. Martindale’s aggressive play-calling has brought the Giants this far, but a philosophical changeup might be needed if New York is going to extend this shocking run another week.

Ravens at Bengals: Can Joe Burrow solve his Mike Macdonald problem?

Whether Lamar Jackson returns from a knee sprain in time for this one or not, the onus will be on the Ravens defense to keep the team in the game. Even with its starting QB in the lineup, Baltimore doesn’t have the weapons to hang with Cincinnati and will need to keep the score in the 20s if it’s going to stand a chance. Fortunately for the Ravens, it appears rookie defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has Joe Burrow’s number. The Bengals star has looked like an MVP candidate against other opponents, but Macdonald has brought out the worst in him in their two regular-season matchups.

Joe Burrow Has Struggled Against Baltimore in 2022 (data via TruMedia)

Opponent Dropbacks EPA/DB Success % Off-Target Throw % Pressure % Sack % Interception %
Opponent Dropbacks EPA/DB Success % Off-Target Throw % Pressure % Sack % Interception %
vs. Baltimore 82 -0.17 36.6% 10.4% 23.20% 4.90% 1.30%
vs. Other Teams 591 0.14 50.3% 7.4% 27.10% 6.50% 2.10%

Baltimore has held Cincy’s passing game in check this season without generating a lot of pressure or creating sacks and turnovers. Burrow’s pressure, sack, and interception rates were actually lower in the Ravens games compared to his season average, but his overall numbers were not, suggesting that Burrow had a hard time diagnosing Baltimore’s coverages and finding the right receivers to target.

Macdonald threw all sorts of disguises at the third-year quarterback in the first meeting. He’d present Burrow with enticing matchups before the snap, only to rotate to a coverage that took the matchup away after.

There aren’t many quarterbacks better than an in-rhythm Burrow, but we have yet to see him find a comfort zone against Baltimore. In Sunday’s 27-16 win, the 26-year-old was uncharacteristically inaccurate and threw his receivers into big hits. And while the Ravens sacked Burrow only twice in the season finale, he was constantly under duress. The Bengals completed just one pass of more than 20 air yards—a beautifully thrown go ball to Ja’Marr Chase—and in two games against Baltimore, they’ve completed just seven passes of more than 10 air yards.

Burrow hasn’t played well against Macdonald’s defense, but he has seen a lot of it now. That should be a concern for the Ravens. The young quarterback is a quick learner and he should have a better grasp on what he’s seeing in the third contest. On Sunday, Burrow just missed on several deep passes that he usually hits with ease. The throws weren’t good enough, but those plays suggest that Burrow has already started to catch on to Macdonald’s tactics. If the Bengals quarterback can just play that matchup to a draw, Cincinnati will score enough points to win the tiebreaking game with ease. If not, Baltimore could pull off an upset.

Cowboys at Buccaneers: Can Tampa Bay’s pass protection hold up for more than two seconds?

That’s been the question all season, and it’s one that’s been difficult to answer because Brady hasn’t been waiting around to find out. He led the NFL with the fastest average time to throw at 2.3 seconds, which is the main reason he’s been able to keep his sack rate low while playing behind a depleted Buccaneers offensive line. He’ll likely want to keep that up against a Cowboys rush that finished fourth in sacks.

But if Tampa Bay is going to make a surprising run in January, Brady will have to adjust. The Bucs offense has been its best when Brady has been more willing to hang in the pocket to give his aging receiver corps time to get downfield. The Cowboys are going to play a lot of man coverage. It was their top coverage when these teams played all the way back in Week 1, and they haven’t changed much since then. Receivers, especially those that lack speed, need more time to get open against those looks, so Brady will have to hold on to the ball a little longer if the Bucs are going to manage more than the 19 points they put up in the opener.

Playing on natural grass could help to balance what looks like a mismatch on paper between the Dallas rush and Tampa Bay’s pass protection. As former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett mentioned on NBC’s Football Night in America on Sunday, Dallas is 1-4 when playing on natural grass, and its pass rush, which relies on the burst of Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence off the edge, seems to fall off a bit when playing on the real stuff, where footing isn’t ideal. Parsons tallied 1.5 sacks in those five games on grass. Lawrence had just one. Brady doesn’t require much time to get a pass off, so if Parsons and Lawrence are slowed down by even fractions of a second, it could change this game and tilt it in the favor of the underdogs.