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The Key to Every NFL Wild-Card Matchup

Can Tua Tagovailoa best a wily Chiefs defense? How will the Mike McCarthy–Packers and Matthew Stafford–Lions reunions play out? And can the Eagles avoid a second wild-card loss in Tampa? Here are the keys to each game this weekend.

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

In the end, the Football Gods had our best interests in mind. It didn’t feel that way as we sat through a messy regular season, bookended by an underwhelming playoff chase. But the gods rewarded us for enduring the four-month slopfest with the best slate of wild-card games in recent memory. Not only are the on-field matchups compelling, but the off-field story lines are just as enticing.

In one weekend, NFL fans will get to see Mike McCarthy take on the team that fired him, Matthew Stafford return to Detroit, the renewal of the Sean McVay–Jared Goff rivalry, and Chiefs-Dolphins in prime time on Saturday. Then there’s Buccaneers-Eagles, which may not seem all that exciting on the surface, but the meltdown potential for Philadelphia is off the charts and could be more entertaining than any game we see over the weekend. Plus, I haven’t even mentioned C.J. Stroud making his postseason debut or the return of playoff legend Joe Flacco.

So let’s not waste any more time dwelling on the crap football we just watched and focus instead on the awesome football we’ll get to take in over the next month. Here are the keys to the six games that will kick off the NFL playoffs.

Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans: Can Joe Flacco keep this up?

The first game of super wild-card weekend will mark the third time these teams have played over the past 13 months, but the first two of those games can’t tell us much about how this one will go. Last season’s Week 13 contest featured Deshaun Watson’s Browns debut, after the quarterback served an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He won’t be playing this week, after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November. And in this season’s Week 16 bout, a 36-22 Cleveland win, C.J. Stroud was out with a concussion and Houston was forced to start backup QB Case Keenum. Stroud will be playing this time around.

Ultimately, though, this weekend’s result could come down to the performance of a quarterback we haven’t named yet: Joe Flacco. That’s not something anybody expected to read about a playoff game taking place in 2024, but here we are. Flacco dominated this matchup in Week 16, carrying Cleveland’s offense with 368 passing yards and three touchdowns. It wasn’t some game-manager-ass performance, either: Flacco lit it up in what was arguably his most impressive display during his mini-resurgence. He pushed the ball downfield like it was 2012 again.

Flacco also helped Amari Cooper set a franchise record with 265 receiving yards that day—which was a good thing, considering Cleveland’s running game accounted for just 54 yards on 30 carries against Houston’s top-ranked run defense. So for DeMeco Ryans and the Texans, the plan for Saturday’s rematch seems awfully simple: stop Flacco from feeding Cooper targets and you win the game.

How will they go about doing that, though? Simply being healthier for this matchup should help. Houston was largely without star pass rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard in Week 16, and Ryans pinpointed the lack of pressure on Flacco as the catalyst for his group’s dismal defensive performance. “When you don’t get pressure on the quarterback, no matter who’s out there it’s going to be a long day,” Ryans said. “Flacco had a really good day against us. We didn’t pressure him at all. He stood back in the pocket. He had all day to throw the football and we weren’t where we were supposed to be in coverage.”

If you watch some of Flacco’s bigger throws in the game, you might conclude that Ryans was being a bit of a hater that day. Flacco made a few throws on the run and nearly all of his completions to Cooper came on tight-window throws. Essentially, Flacco played out of his mind. But that might be an even more encouraging way to assess that game if you’re Houston: Cleveland providing Flacco with a clean pocket feels more replicable than the 38-year-old turning in another performance like that.

Anderson Jr. and Greenard, if he can return from an ankle injury in time for Saturday, should make Flacco’s day harder, but some good old regression to the mean could be enough for Houston’s defense to put forth a better showing. Combine that with Stroud’s return to the offense, and Houston may just have an edge.

Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs: Can Mike McDaniel protect Tua Tagovailoa from Steve Spagnuolo?

Congratulations on your first (healthy) trip to the postseason, Tua Tagovailoa! Your reward is an all-expenses paid trip to Arrowhead Stadium and a date with veteran defensive coordinator/tormentor of quarterbacks, Steve Spagnuolo. It’s a brutal draw for any QB making their postseason debut, but even more so for Tagovailoa, who is prone to panicking in chaotic pockets. And if there’s one thing Spags is going to do, it’s create chaotic pockets.

Fortunately for Tua, he’ll have Mike McDaniel in his corner, and it will be up to the second-year head coach to shield his quarterback from Kansas City’s bully of a DC. While McDaniel certainly didn’t win his first matchup with Spagnuolo, a 21-14 Week 9 win for the Chiefs in Germany, he was able to keep Tagovailoa upright when Kansas City sent extra pass rushers. The Dolphins quarterback was blitzed on nearly 40 percent of his dropbacks, yet completed 9 of 13 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown on those plays. That was good for a passer rating of 113.6, according to Next Gen Stats. McDaniel, Tua, and all of Miami would take similar production on Saturday night.

You would also say the same about Miami’s run game. Raheem Mostert rushed for 85 yards on 12 carries in the first contest, and almost all of his production came on runs that attacked the perimeter of the defense.

By mostly opting for two-high zone coverage in the game, Spagnuolo conceded that space in order to defend the Dolphins’ deep passing attack. It was a trade-off that worked in Kansas City’s favor—as evidenced by the score—but things might have been different had McDaniel remained committed to the run game throughout the contest. Mostert and Co. were efficient that day; the volume just wasn’t there.

McDaniel has stuck to the run game more over the past month, and if that carries into the postseason, Miami has a real shot at pulling off an upset over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Kansas City’s offense, in its current state, cannot keep up with the Dolphins if they’re operating anywhere close to peak efficiency. Spags is more than capable of disrupting Tua’s flow—but only if McDaniel lets him.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills: Will Josh Allen fall into Mike Tomlin’s trap?

There’s only one way for the Steelers to win this game, and the blueprint will be a familiar one for Mike Tomlin’s team: slop it up. Fortunately for the Pittsburgh slop merchants, they’ll have a willing partner on the other sideline in Josh Allen, who is coming off maybe the weirdest performance of his young career in Buffalo’s division-clinching win over Miami on Sunday night. Allen turned the ball over three times and should probably be charged with a fourth after making the inexplicable decision to throw short of the end zone with no timeouts remaining at the end of the first half—a choice that cost his team three points.

Allen finished the 21-14 win with the three most costly plays of the game by expected points added. That doesn’t even include his fourth-down interception, his second pick of the game, which actually saved Buffalo 15 yards of field position. By EPA, Allen’s end-of-half blunder cost his team more points than the INT. But EPA doesn’t account for Dalton Kincaid being open in the flat for a possible conversion.

Allen lost 15.4 EPA on those four plays, which essentially means he cost the Bills two touchdowns. That feels like a proper valuation, and Allen’s miscues sparked a bunch of well-earned “when are we going to admit that the turnovers are a problem?” questions on social media. But then, in leading Buffalo to the win, the QB showed why we’re often willing to overlook those avoidable blunders. While he had the three most costly plays of the game for either offense, Allen’s dropbacks were also responsible for the seven most valuable offensive plays of the game—and that doesn’t include this ridiculous third-down scramble late.

EPA isn’t a perfect stat. It has flaws, and shouldn’t be used on its own to evaluate players. But it can answer the question of whether Allen’s silly mistakes are really a problem. Despite his high turnover count, he’s at the top of the league leaderboard in that stat every season, so the answer is probably that it matters less than we think.

Pittsburgh has had mixed results against Allen over the years. He’s dominated that defense before, but he’s also put up some stinkers. Predicting which version of Allen will show up on Sunday afternoon is a fool’s errand, but I can say this confidently: He will make enough plays to give the Bills a chance to win. If he doesn’t also keep Pittsburgh in the game, it should be a blowout.

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys: Can Mike McCarthy (actually) exploit Joe Barry’s defense?

Oooooooooooh. The scriptwriters nailed this one. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, with an impatient Jerry Jones looming over his shoulder, takes on his old team and the coach who has successfully replaced him in Green Bay. Dallas, a franchise that has felt nothing but postseason disappointment since the mid-1990s, takes on the youngest team in the NFL, and one that has nothing to lose. If the Cowboys falter, Jones could clean house. It’s as if this game was produced by the weekday talk shows. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless should serve as honorary captains. Twitter might burn to the ground. I can’t wait.

While the various off-field subplots will capture our attention this week, the game probably will be decided by the two least trustworthy coaches in the NFL: McCarthy and maligned Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The Cowboys finished the regular season with the league’s highest-scoring offense and the second-best offense by EPA. Barry’s defense, meanwhile, ranked 23rd in EPA allowed but finished around league average in points surrendered thanks to an offense that controlled the clock. So despite all of the warranted McCarthy skepticism heading into the postseason, this feels like a mismatch on paper. But I’m not so sure it is! When Dak Prescott has struggled this season, which hasn’t been often, it’s typically been against defenses that can put a roof on the Cowboys’ downfield passing game and force them into long third downs. From there, stopping this elite offense doesn’t feel so difficult—provided you can slow down CeeDee Lamb. And the three coverages that have given this passing game the most problems (Cover 2, Cover 4, and Cover 6) just so happen to be the coverages that Barry plays most often.

Prescott’s Stats by Defensive Coverage, 2023

Pass Coverage Scheme (PFF) Dropbacks Total EPA YDS/DB EPA/DB Success %
Pass Coverage Scheme (PFF) Dropbacks Total EPA YDS/DB EPA/DB Success %
Cover 3 182 26.9 6.9 0.15 48%
Cover 1 141 69.3 8.7 0.49 57%
Cover 4 120 7.0 5.6 0.06 45%
Cover 2 68 3.6 6.1 0.05 49%
Cover 6 67 -1.0 5.6 -0.01 46%
Cover Zero 35 11.6 8.3 0.33 49%
Via TruMedia

I want it on the record that I don’t expect Barry to win this matchup, but don’t be surprised if the Cowboys have to strain to put up enough points to win the game.

We saw a worse version of this Packers team upset Dallas last season with a game plan that should serve them well on Sunday. In that 31-28 win, Matt LaFleur’s offense dominated on the ground, which opened up the play-action passing game. The Packers coach schemed up a few explosive plays for then-rookie receiver Christian Watson, who scored three times in a breakout performance, and that was the difference. LaFleur dominated his matchup with Dan Quinn, who tends to fall flat against this style of offense, and a similar result could be enough to give Green Bay the win. Barry’s defense will have to do its part, though, which is far from a sure thing.

Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions: Will Aaron Glenn’s defense have an answer for Matthew Stafford?

This technically isn’t the first time we’ve seen Sean McVay take on his old quarterback—we saw Matthew Stafford and the Rams beat Jared Goff’s Lions in 2021 in a lopsided affair—but it feels like it heading into Sunday night’s reunion. Goff getting a shot at payback against his former coach is a juicy story line, but Stafford’s performance in his first game back in Detroit since being traded should have a bigger impact on the result. After all, the Lions offense is powered by its run game and offensive line, not its quarterback. Dan Campbell’s team could survive a mediocre performance from Goff and still pull out a win. We can’t say the same about McVay’s group.

And that is largely why the Rams made the trade for Stafford three years ago: After years of trial and error with Goff, it became apparent that L.A. needed more of a playmaker under center. McVay needed a quarterback who could go get him a bucket in crunch time. Stafford proved to be that guy by leading the Rams to a Super Bowl win. And he’ll need to be that guy this week if they’re going to pull off a road upset.

As unreliable as Detroit’s defense has been for nearly all of Campbell’s tenure, coordinator Aaron Glenn has an impressive bag of tricks on third downs. The Lions will crowd the line of scrimmage with heavy blitz looks and drop into exotic zone- and man-match coverages that are difficult to diagnose for most quarterbacks.

Third downs are tough against any defense: “On [early] downs, you usually know what [the defense’s] personnel will be and you know what their base coverages are,” former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan told me in 2021. “When you get into third down, it’s like a game within a game. You’re always going to get the exotic pressures and the exotic coverages on third down. I used to have coaches who called it Star Wars. You don’t know what the hell is coming at you, or from where.”

And if third down is like Star Wars, then Glenn’s defense is sort of like a stormtrooper: He’s going to fire his shots, and while they may not be very accurate, they will create chaos. Stafford should be able to help guide the Rams’ young offense through that chaos. If he does, and L.A. can get Detroit and Goff into pass mode, Sunday’s game will serve as a three-hour reminder of why McVay had to make the trade.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Which team wins first and second down?

It’s been two years since these teams squared off in a forgettable wild-card game in Tampa. And while a lot has happened with the Eagles over those 24 months—including a trip to the Super Bowl and a big contract extension for Jalen Hurts—many of the team’s prominent figures are right back where they were in January 2022. The goodwill Nick Sirianni built last season is all but gone after various blunders, including his choice of coordinators, have caused the Eagles to stumble this season. Sirianni has already replaced his defensive coordinator, and the city of Philadelphia might throw a parade when/if he decides to replace offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. Hurts still has plenty of goodwill left over, but he will start to hear questions about his contract if this game in Tampa goes anything like the 31-15 loss two years ago—which is very much on the table, given the performances we’ve seen from this passing game over the past two months.

We also saw these teams play back in Week 3, a dominant 25-11 win for Philly. But the Eagles group we saw that Monday night will hardly resemble the one we see this Monday night. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. In the first game, the Bucs managed just 41 yards on 17 rush attempts. They failed to get into their play-action pass game as a result, and the offense didn’t find the end zone until garbage time. It was a thoroughly dominant performance—but now the Philly defense has spent the past two months getting thoroughly dominated by mediocre competition. It followed up a dismal performance against Arizona by getting straight-up embarrassed by a Tyrod Taylor–led Giants team that had nothing to play for on Sunday. The Eagles were one of three teams that allowed a positive EPA against runs this season, and they finished third-worst against runs from under center, according to Next Gen Stats. The run defense that stymied the Bucs back in Week 3 no longer exists.

On paper, this is a brutal matchup for Philly. Tampa Bay should be able to run the ball this time around, which will make things easier for offensive coordinator Dave Canales and quarterback Baker Mayfield. And on the other side of the ball, you have the blitz-happy Todd Bowles going up against an Eagles offensive brain trust that hasn’t had an answer for Cover Zero all season. Philadelphia’s dominant run game mitigated that issue in the first matchup. But with the Eagles passing game no longer posing the threat it once did—not with Hurts, A.J. Brown, and DeVonta Smith all nursing injuries at the moment—the Bucs should be able to focus on defending the run more effectively.

Philadelphia opened as 1.5-point favorites on Sunday night, but don’t be surprised if that line has flipped by next week. The Bucs have the advantage on paper. If they win on early downs, they’ll have one on the scoreboard, as well.