NFL Wild-Card Weekend Preview: Keys to victory

This weekend, the NFL and 12 other teams will embark on a four-week journey as the post-season begins. Of the four wild-card matchups, three of them see teams that have already met this season: The Chiefs against the Colts, the Chargers against the Bengals and the Niners against the Packers. The Eagles and Saints will be facing off for the first time this season.

This week has the potential to be as unpredictable as the regular season, which makes it increasingly difficult not only  to analyze but also pin-point what will transpire. From a matchup standpoint, there are many variables to look forward to. How do the Colts and Saints stop Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy respectively? Can the Saints overcome their road woes? I’ll take a stab at it, as I look at the keys to victory in all four playoff matchups.

Chiefs at Colts

Chuck Pagano has made no secrets about it: Jamaal Charles is considered “enemy number one” and is the player the Colts must contain or else their playoff appearance will be short-lived for the second straight season. In their first meeting against the Indianapolis, Charles combined for over 150 yards from scrimmage, doing virtually whatever he wanted with the ball in his hands. Charles is a dynamic player and the Colts must pick their poison with regards to how they will defend him. If a team stacks the box with eight or nine-man fronts, he will run circles around a defense as a pass-catcher. Conversely, when the Chiefs spread out their formation with four and five-wide receiver sets, it allows for cut-back lanes and big openings for Charles, who has benefitted from a great season from their offensive line. Charles finished the year with over 1,200 rushing yards, 70 catches with nearly 700 receiving yards and 19 combined touchdowns. Andy Reid’s game plan will feature a heavy dosage of Charles early and often.

The Colts will be dealing with a Chiefs attack that has ramped up the offensive pressure since their loss against the Denver Broncos in week 11. Kansas City has averaged 33 points per game in their final six games thanks in large part to Andy Reid opening up the offense. Alex Smith has been pushing the ball down the field at a higher rate and players such as Donnie Avery, Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster have increased their production. I would not be surprised to see Charles and McCluster both split out as wide receivers and the Chiefs making ‘shot plays’ with them. The key for the Colts defense is to find a way to shadow Charles as well as Alex Smith, who can find running lanes and has the ability to break contain when the rush intensifies. On the outside, the Colts play a lot of press coverage similar to the Chiefs, with Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, so look for Smith to try to exploit that defense with big plays. The Colts defense has been helped by the play of Robert Mathis, whose 18.5 sacks led the AFC. Jurrell Freeman has also played very well as a middle linebacker becoming a tackling machine this season.

For the Colts, it is clear that the offense is in better shape with Donald Brown as the starter. In their first meeting against the Chiefs, Brown recorded 10 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. Brown allows them to get to quicker starts and unlike Trent Richardson, he gains positive yardage on his runs. His patience and ability to find cutback lanes makes him a better option against a very aggressive defense that tends to over-pursue. Richardson should still see some work as a goal line ball-carrier and as a pass-catcher, but the Colts need to feature the former UConn Husky as the lead-cog in their rushing attack.

Andrew Luck has played a much cleaner game over the last three games. No surprise that it coincides with their offensive line playing better as a cohesive unit, as Luck has only been sacked three times in their last three games. Since the loss of Reggie Wayne, the Colts offense has sputtered starting games slowly with turnovers or multiple three-and-outs in the first quarter. When their offensive line plays well, it means that T.Y. Hilton plays well. His game is still heavily dependent on the deep ball and as such, when he can get free running deep patters, it allows for the likes of Griff Whalen and Coby Fleener to excel in underneath patterns. He finished with 82 catches and over 1,000 yards in his second season, but he needs to show more than simply being able to run go-routes. When the defense keys in on him by playing coverage, he gets shut down. Pep Hamilton has instilled a no-huddle offensive game plan that has led to better starts as of late.

Two keys for the Chiefs and their defense will be how their corners, Marcus Cooper and Brendan Flowers, can mitigate free-releases from the Colts receiving corps. As mentioned previously, the Chiefs and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton blitz as much as any defense in the league. Even with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combining for 22 sacks, Kansas City loves to apply pressure from all vantage points on defense and leave their corners on an island. The Colts offensive line must keep Luck standing and provide him with a clean pocket or it will be a long day. Of course, Hali could end up being inactive, as he is dealing with a with swelling in his knee. His absence would be greatly beneficial to the Colts passing attack. When the Chiefs are not able to get any sort of pressure, their defense can implode, as evidenced by their games against the Broncos–well everyone implodes against the Broncos, but still.

Watch out for Eric Berry, who has made his name as one of the best safeties in the league. While he’s improved his pass coverage, he can still be beat against quicker players like Whalen and Hilton.

Saints at Eagles

One of the more mystifying statistics I saw was that Nick Foles, of his 27 touchdown passes, threw only 6 of them at home. Now, we know how Philadelphia has struggled over the last two seasons at home, finally stopping their embarrassing 10 game losing streak that spanned the 2012 and half of the 2013 season. The Eagles finished the season strong at home, winning their final four contests. As well as Foles has played, LeSean McCoy has established himself as the best running back in the league. He finished the season with 1,604 rushing yards and 539 receiving yards, being an equally dangerous player running and receiving the ball.  Facing off against a Saints team that very forgiving against the run, especially in the middle of their defense therefore limiting what McCoy does will be crucial. The Saints are ranked 19th in rushing yards allowed at 112 per game, but looking deeper, the team allows the fourth most rushing yards per carry at 4.6. This is a weakness of the Saints that can be further exploited when their opponents have a lead and do not need to abandon the running game.

As with most aggressive defenses, the Saints will overplay their gaps because a player of McCoy’s caliber can break off a long run at any moment. The last thing you want to do against a running back with tremendous cut-back ability is to lose contain on the back side of the play and overplay your assignment. McCoy is a master at cutting against the grain and breaking off a run opposite of where it was intended too, thus turning a five yard run, into a 60-yard house call.

One matchup to watch is Jason Peters and Lane Johnson against Cam Jordan and Junior Gallette. Both book end pass rushers finished the season with 24.5 sacks, but the duo of Peters and Johnson have protected Foles as well as any duo of tackles this season. Chip Kelly’s offense is based on great line play, misdirection and impeccable timing, the latter which can be thoroughly disrupted if the offensive line falters on blitz pickups and bad protection.

The Saints have gone from worst in pass defense to a top-five unit in a year thanks to Rob Ryan. Their pass rush has been great all season, although it has quieted down in the second half of the season. If they do not get enough of a rush, I do not have confidence in Keenan Lewis, Roman Harper and Malcolm Lewis stopping DeSean Jackson and, yes, Riley Cooper who have been the best duo of receivers when it comes to yards per reception.

For the Saints, their woes can be attributed to one factor: unfamiliarity outside of the dome. The Saints were a sparkling 8-0 at home, but only 2-8 on the road.  I’m not too concerned with the Saints, having played five road games in their history,  never winning a playoff game. What is more concerning are Drew Brees’ home/road splits which are staggering:

Home: 2,385 yards, 74 percent completion, 27 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 127 QB rating

Road: 2,327 yards, 63 percent completion, 12 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 84 QB rating

The advantage the Saints get with their crowd can’t be understated. It allows them to gain momentum in every facet of their units, and they can get the ball back for their offense. On the road, they’ve been starting games slowly because they are not establishing the run at a faster pace.  The wonky home/road splits are not discriminating against other aspect of the Saints team though. They pressure the quarterback less, allow more rushing yards as well as more passing yards on the road.

With this game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Saints need to enter this game with a game plan to start fast, but keep the crowd out of it and they can do this by working in their trio of running backs. With the news that Pierre Thomas is out for the game with a chest injury Mark Ingram,Darren Sproles and to some extent Khiry Robinson, will each need to run the football effectively and continue to deploy the screen, which is an aspect of the game that the Saints do better than any team in the league. Make no mistake about it though, the injury to Thomas is an absolutely crucial blow as he is their most complete and versatile running back. With the struggles from the left tackle position, whether it’s Terron Armstead or Charles Brown, someone has to step up at that position against Trent Cole, especially on the road where you have to deal with the snap count and crowd noise. Drew Brees has been repeatedly pressured from the left side over the last three games as the offensive line has struggled to protect him. Fletcher Cox is an underrated defensive tackle that has the quickness to be a terror as a pass rusher.

If Brees gets the adequate protection needed, we know how good he is at creating openings for his receivers by his manipulation of safeties. The Eagles are one of the worst teams against the pass, allowing the 30th most yards per game in the air, despite their propensity to create takeaways as they force on average two turnovers per game from their opponent. Still, Pat Chung and Nate Allen will be tested all game by Brees as he will look to funnel his passes in the middle of the field to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, two players who are dominant in the slot. Brandon Fletcher and Cary Williams have been tenacious corners all season and have been improving greatly. They will likely be matched-up against Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills all game; three receivers that Brees uses as his homerun hitters.

Unheralded player to look out for: Ben Watson.

Typically in the playoffs, teams will game plan to completely neutralize a dominant player. In the case of the Eagles, if they find a way to double or triple-team Jimmy Graham, I can see Watson making some key catches for the Saints, especially if Brees is getting pressured relentlessly. Remember, Watson is a terrific in-line tight end who blocks very well for his position. This is also a player who has caught 50 to 60 catches in his career, as recently as last season with the Browns.

Chargers at Bengals

In the first meeting, the Chargers played relatively well against one of the better defenses in the league. The Chargers lost the contest 17-10, but it spearheaded their four-game winning streak that propelled them into the postseason.

The Chargers are one of those west coast teams that will have to travel in the postseason and play in cold-weather. Add to the fact that the Bengals are 8-0 on home-turf this season and have scored over 40 points in four of their last five games, the task is daunting, for the Chargers.

Let’s look at what they have working for them. A case can be made that Philip Rivers has been the third or fourth best quarterback this season. The former NC State Wolfpack completed 69.5 percent of his passes and nearly threw for 4,500 yards. The efficiency with which he played with was as good as any quarterback in the league this season. In the first meeting, Rivers had a hard time making clean throws and the Bengals did made good for on the defensive side to contain the likes of Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Ryan Mathews.

The latter three players are easily the most important skilled players for the Chargers. Mathews has had resurgence this season, staying healthy, finishing with 1,255 yards rushing and only losing one fumble. As good as he was, Keenan Allen displayed the route running skill and cerebral wide receiver skills that 10-year veterans show. Gates is Gates and although he has slowed down, he now has a running mate in Ladarius Green at the tight end position who can stretch defenses similarly to the way Gates did when he came out from being a basketball player at tight end.

How do the Bengals stop Rivers and his merry band of Chargers? Pressure, pressure and more pressure. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson only combined for 11 sacks this season. They will need to be important components in disrupting Rivers on Sunday.  When Rivers has time to scan the field and pick apart a defense, he is extremely efficient. When pressured– and that can be done against this big but at times, slow-footed offensive line–Rivers can struggle. Pressure up the middle with Domata Peko will be crucial as Rivers loves “climbing” the pocket and stepping into his throws. It will be a great matchup seeing Adam Jones and or Dre’ Kirkpatrick matching up against Allen. Kirkpatrick has looked really solid this season and has stepped in nicely since the Bengals lost Leon Hall for the year.

I am going out on a limb and saying that Danny Woodhead will be the biggest component for the Chargers success. As good as Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga have been as tackling machines, the Bengals feature a linebacker corps that does not matchup well against pass-catching running backs. And I’m not referring to running backs who simply catch screen passes. No, Woodhead lines up as a flanker, who can run dig and option routes, but he excels at running wheel routes and beating linebackers in coverage. There is no better 3rd down converter than a back that can catch passes as well as a receiver.

On the offense, the Bengals are a surprising team who, one would feel, should better than their 18th ranked rushing offense. Gio Bernard’s talent is unquestionable and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a grinder who will always gain positive yards. The running game for the Bengals looks good on paper, especially with their offensive line, one of the biggest in the league, that has seen a resurgence since the move of Andrew Whitworth from tackle to guard. I look forward to seeing how the game develops in the trenches. I can guarantee very few football fans know who Corey Liuget is, but he is one of the best players on that defense and is getting more traction as being a premier defensive tackle.

As for Andy Dalton, this has to be his year to dispel the notion that he cannot be the main cog for this offense. Obviously, A.J. Green is an elite receiver and will always draw double teams, but this team will go as far as Dalton takes them. He has shown improvement every year, in the regular season at least. When combining his first two playoff appearances, the numbers are not pretty: 56 percent completion, 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 49. Guarantee number two will be that a Dalton dud of a game will result in a third straight one and done for the Bengals. The Chargers are not a great pass defense, having allowed the 29th most yards per game, which should allow for Green, Marvin Jones (the only pair of receivers with double-digit touchdowns on the same team) and the tight end duo of Gresham and Eifert to have big games. Eric Weddle is a great player, but he cannot be replied upon in pass defense. Conversely, Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are untested and will need safety help to ensure they do not get beat deep, as the Bengals have aired it out over the last quarter of the season.  The key is whether we will see good Dalton or bad Dalton. Playing at home means a likelihood to seeing good Dalton, as he’s completed 63.5 percent of his passes with 20 scores, nine interceptions and a 98.4 passer rating at Paul Brown Stadium.

49ers at Packers

San Francisco will be facing off against the Packers for the fourth time in the last two years, going 3-0 in the last three contests. In the last two, the Packers have made no secrets about making Colin Kaepernick look like the second coming of Steve Young in last year’s playoff matchup (he ran for 183 yards and made Clay Matthews’ hair go one way and his legs the other) and Joe Montana in the season opener this season (he threw for 404 yards).

Defending Kaepernick is an extremely difficult task because his speed is unheard of at the position since Michael Vick has entered the league. Defenses become damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Rush Kaepernick aggressively with the outside linebackers and defensive ends, and you allow Kaepernick to break contain and become dangerous as a runner. Keep the ends and linebackers as spies and Kaepernick may pick you apart through the air. The keyword is ‘may’ as this has been a trying season for Kaepernick who struggled with consistency as a passer before Michael Crabtree returned. He had a passer rating of at least 108 in five of his final six games as he got more comfortable in the pocket. The key for the Packers is making Kaepernick antsy in the pocket. Providing a rush up the middle will almost surely cause him to scramble wildly, as he is still not completely adept at sticking in the pocket at the first sign of it becoming unclean. I can envision Packers defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, dialing up multiple A-gap blitzes to fluster Kaepernick into making errant throws, and developing happy-feet. He’s struggled going through his progressions and tends to run if his first progression is covered.

The 49ers knew that the acquisition of Anquan Boldin would be crucial for these types of games. He was absolutely sensational last season during the Ravens playoff run and you know he will be geared up for this contest, especially knowing he caught 13 balls for 208 yards in the first meeting. His game is tailor-made for the types of situations that will present itself on Sunday. His prowess on third downs and his ability to catch the ball with defenders drapped all over him, make him a dangerous component that San Francisco desperately needed. With the return of Michael Crabtree from a torn achilles and Vernon Davis as a constant deep-threat, Kaepernick has his full weapons at his disposal. The matchups between a talented, yet inconsistent, Packers secondary will be intriguing. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are two corners that can look brilliant on some plays and woeful in others. The Packers safety play has been inconsistent as well, which should bode well for Vernon Davis. Morgan Burnett is solid, but M.D. Jennings has been exploited virtually all season. Mike McCarthy has a difficult decision to make on who to start on the opposite side of Burnett.

We saw  last Sunday that the Packers defense has not resisted any form of power running game from teams who can play such a style. Last week, Matt Forte ran wild against a defensive front that has given up 232-241-83-134-152 and 121 rushing yards in their final six contests. We know how well the 49ers can run the ball. They use misdirection, multiple traps and kick out blocks to isolate defenders and seal edges and holes to allow their bevy of running backs, led by Frank Gore.

The Packers would not be in the postseason if not for Aaron Rodgers returning in week 17 against the Bears, driving a dagger into the post-season plans. Rodgers was still slightly rusty and missed his receivers last week, but he should be back to his usual self against San Francisco. The 49ers great defense has never been an impediment for Rodgers as he’s thrown for over 300 yards in two of the last three contests against the 49ers. As good as the 49ers are at rushing the quarterback, their secondary can be beat as Carlos Rogers, Tramaine Brock and Tarrell Brown can be susceptible to the long pass. Additionally, Donte Whitner and Eric Reid (who started out great in his rookie season, but has struggled of late) are not the type of safeties you can rely upon as the last line of defense in pass rushers. Randall Cobb is a very tough matchup for any team and is one player I don’t feel safe to say can be contained by one 49ers player. Of course, they will still need to account for Jordy Nelson and James Jones as well.

The Packers could only muster 45 rushing yards in week one against the 49ers. but their  run offense has improved greatly with Eddie Lacy becoming a dominant inside runner over the last nine weeks with Aaron Rodgers sideline. Lacy is throwback runner who adds the interest component that you rarely see from a back of his size. His ability to cut on a grain and his superior vision makes for some terrific runs. If you’ve read this blog on a regular basis, you’d know I’ve spoken the praises of Even Dietrich-Smith, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang all season. The middle of the Green Bay offensive line has been an integral component in the Packers being a top five rushing team. Their ability to pound the ball inside has added a component to the Packers that they’ve been missing for nearly a decade as they’ve struggled to find a blue-chip running back since Ahman Green left the team.

Forget the fact that the 49ers feature the third best run defense in the league thanks in large part to Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. This particular Packers team will run the ball and continue to deploy Lacy and James Starks–who comes in the spell Lacy and the offense does not lose a beat. With the weakness in the Packers offensive line being at tackle, it will be imperative for Green Bay to keep the 49ers defense as honest as possible.

I usually scoff at the notion that west coast teams not acclimated with inclement weather is a big factor going into cold temperatures, but in this case, it will be hard not to consider this as a key asset in the Packers road to victory. On Sunday night, there were reports that the temperature may dip to -17 at Lambeau Field. I listened to former 49ers cornerback and current radio analyst for the team Eric Davis on NFL Network and he made the point that teams like the 49ers simply react differently to the cold. Their bodies are not used to playing in this type of weather. When it gets this cold, he said, it takes a great toll on a player as their bodies take longer to be activated. Getting tackled and hitting the ground hurts that much more as the grass gets so frozento the point that it feels like a concrete pavement. The Green Bay players will likely be sleeveless as they are familiar with the freezing temperatures. Although it may seem like a small factor, it is one that should not be overlooked when analyzing this game.

If there is an adage that reigns supreme in the NFL, it’s the fact that the defense and the running game always travel well in the cold and the 49ers have more than enough of both.

Finally, here are my game predictions for the first weekend of the playoffs.

Chiefs 27-Colts 24

Saints 38-Eagles 45

Chargers 14-Bengals 24

49ers 30-Packers 35

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