NFL Divisional Round: Keys To Victory

After one of the wildest Wild Card weekends in recent memory, the Tennesee Titans, Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings all booked their spot in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. The Divisional Round promises the potential for even more intrigue and excitement, as the league’s four best running teams and some of the game’s elite quarterbacks are set to face-off. Here are the ‘keys to victory’ for all four NFL divisional round clashes as the teams look to secure a place in their respective Championship games and put themselves just 60 minutes away from Super Bowl LIV.

Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

Saturday 11th January. 21:35 (GMT)

This game is a matchup of a team that misses the fewest tackles going up against a run-heavy and ‘yards after the catch’ offense

Minnesota Vikings

Buy Sell Hold. NFL Divisional Round: Keys to victory, Minnesota Vikings

In the spirit of full disclosure, I, like many others, was expecting to be writing about a Saints vs. Packers match-up this week. However, thanks to Mike Zimmer’s versatile defense, and a marquee performance from Kirk Cousins, the Vikings marched out of New Orleans and head to the Levi’s Stadium on Saturday.

The Vikings need to replicate their defensive play from this past weekend. If they can dominate the line of scrimmage against the Saints impressive O-line, they have every chance to do it again this week and make Garoppolo uncomfortable all afternoon. They will be facing a prolific Shanahan running attack, but when they can restrict the 49ers offense to passing-down situations, Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin should be able to get pressure in the back-field. They were particularly effective rushing the passer when lined up over the Saints’ guards last week, so look for Zimmer (one of the league’s most underrated Head Coaches) to again put his elite defensive lineman in the best position to succeed.

Offensively, they need Kevin Stefanski to continue to dial-up play-action passes to keep Bosa and this 49ers pass rushing unit at bay, while simultaneously opening up the options for deep passes to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Cousins will undoubtedly need to continue to handle pressure, as he has done all season. He’s been pressured on almost 40% of his drop-backs this year and has still managed a respectable 84.9 passer rating. Despite punching in two touchdowns, Dalvin Cook wasn’t particularly explosive last week averaging less than two yards per carry, I’d expect him to be a workhorse this week, both on the ground and in the passing game. The Vikings offense will need him functioning effectively to keep the 49ers off balance.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers offensive line needs to handle the moving chess pieces that the Vikings and Zimmer like to use. Their best shot at a positive performance and outcome on Saturday is to make sure they can maintain their running game. Jimmy Garoppolo has been inconsistent over the past month or so, and they want to keep the game out of his hands as much as possible, especially given this is his first playoff start. So much of Shanhan’s offensive system relies on having a threatening zone-run scheme, and if they can handle the line and very athletic linebackers of the Vikings, they should be able to implement their game-plan.

Similar to their quarterback, the defense has been inconsistent over the back half of the season. While they’re still the 7th best passing defence in the league in terms of passer rating and completion percentage allowed, they’ve still surrendered 20 or more points in eight of their last nine games. This defense is the best at yards allowed to the TE and second for receiving yards allowed to a RB. Therefore, if they can maintain that level of performance, their key to a successful afternoon then relies on Robert Salah finding a way to stop the run and limit the big plays to Diggs and Thielen.

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

Sunday 12th January 1:15am (GMT)

It is hard not to feel for the Titans a little bit. They potentially end a dynasty by beating the GOAT in his own back-yard, and their reward? A trip to Baltimore to face a historic offense led by the NFL MVP.

Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry. There it is. That’s the Titan’s key to victory. This season Henry has rushed for 100 yards in seven games, and the Titans are 7-0 in those games. On top of that, he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in just his last seven games, and had 182 against the Patriots last weekend. He is the league’s leading rusher and the most dominant running back left in the Divisional Round. He is a huge part of their game plan against any team, but against the Ravens, getting Henry going is going to be critical from a defensive stand-point as well. Keeping the MVP-elect Lamar Jackson and all of his weapons off the field for as long as possible is crucial for the Titans.

Controlling the clock is one thing, but it is almost a certainty that you’ll also need a hat full of points to beat the Ravens. Impressive rookie A.J. Brown was quiet against the Patriots but if offensive coordinator Arthur Smith can get him involved, he’s a threat for yards after the catch and should help stretch the field, opening up plays for the aggressive Ryan Tannehill to exploit.

At this stage, it’s difficult to know how much credit you can give a team for shutting down the Patriots offense. The Titans don’t tailor their personnel that frequently, so they’ll be asking a lot of their linebacker core, in particular Rashaan Evans, who will have to be keeping at least one eye on Lamar all afternoon.

Baltimore Ravens

It’s difficult to dive too deep on what the Ravens need to do to win because the simple answer is the right one, keep doing what you’re doing…

They use more Run Pass Options (RPOs) than anybody else in the league and against a Titans team that likes to stay in their base-defence, there should be some weaknesses for Lamar to exploit either with his arm or on the ground. This underneath passing attack that incorporates the tight ends should be prevalent once again for Harbaugh’s men. Especially when you consider that the Titans allow the 7th most yards to TEs. We could be looking at yet another big day for Mark Andrews this weekend.

The Ravens have an elite secondary including being strong against the deep-ball. Something that Tannehill and the Titans often rely on. As the league’s most prolific blitzers, they should be able to pressure the QB, particularly on third downs.  Tennessee will need to improve their third-down percentage of just 37.8% if they want to keep Lamar Jackson off the field.

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Sunday 12th January. 20:05 (GMT)

Two of the game’s best young QBs, but their previous encounter suggests that perhaps the running backs are the key to victory.

Houston Texans

NFL Divisional Round: Keys to victory

Sandwiched between prolonged camera shots of J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson had one of the most exciting and memorable play-off performances in recent memory. He may not necessarily have to single-handedly drag the Texans through this game however, especially if Head Coach Bill O’Brien returns to the same formula that saw the Texans win at Arrowhead in Week 6. That game saw the Texans control the clock and run the ball with Carlos Hyde who racked up 116 yards on the ground. It appears to be an underrated formula for success against the Chiefs, much like Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, the key here is to keep Mahomes, Hill and company off the field. 

This might not be so simple this time around as the Chiefs defence is much-improved since they last met and has held three of their last five opponents to under 10 points. However, they do still rank 26th in the league in Rushing yards allowed per game so should O’Brien revert to the Week 6 strategy, the Texans have a real chance.

Will Fuller is expected to play, he’s a vital cog in their offensive machine so should they need to put up points, their passing attack should be firing on all cylinders. We saw the Chiefs double-team Edelman earlier in the year and if Hopkins gets that treatment this week, then Fuller and Stills should have plenty of opportunities.

KAnsas City Chiefs

As we’ve discussed, this rushing defence probably has to have one of their best games of the season if Kansas City are going to control the game on Sunday. They’ve only lost four times this season and each time, it was a RB who led the opposition to the win. If they can slow down the run, their pass defence is one of the better ones in the league, but they will be facing Deshaun Watson with a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal.

Offensively, they have a very favourable match-up, the Texans defence has been an issue all year, they rank in the bottom three for passing yards and total yards per game. The Texans are the 31st team in third down defence, care to guess which team has the number one third down offence? You got it, the Kansas City Chiefs. If that statistic manifests itself on Sunday, the Chiefs should have the upper-hand and will be able to force the Texans to move away from their run-heavy game-plan and potentially drag them into a shootout. 

If it becomes a high-scoring affair with each team trading touchdowns, I’d favour the Chiefs to win-out in the end but I’d expect it to be appointment television for the neutral.

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Sunday 12th January 23:40 (GMT)

An injury ravaged Seahawks against a Packers side that has flattered to deceive at times this season.

Seattle Seahawks

Short of a miracle cure for all of their injury woes, the biggest key for the Seahawks is to take some pressure off Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer combined for 19 rushing yards on 17 attempts against the Eagles and that is certainly not a recipe for success. Wilson has been magnificent all year (likely the MVP if Lamar Jackson didn’t exist), but repeatedly putting him in third and long situations and asking him to perform some magic either through-the-air or with his feet is not sustainable. He pulled it off against the Eagles as their injury-ravaged secondary couldn’t stop DK Metcalf all afternoon but the Packers are healthier and better on defence.

They need to establish the run, it’s expected to be ‘playoff weather’ in Lambeau field but the Packers don’t have the strongest rushing defence in the league so if they want to keep the ball away from Rodgers and make sure Wilson doesn’t have to single-handedly drag the team to a victory, then they need more from Lynch and Homer, particularly as this Green Bay front seven handles mobile quarterbacks very well. Seattle don’t have a great record on the road in the play-offs, or against Green Bay so they’ll have to adjust the record books a little on Sunday if they’re to book their place in the NFC Championship game.

Green Bay PAckers

Starting on the defence, the Smith duo (Preston and Za’Darius) lead Green Bay with a combined 25.5 sacks between them this season and against this Seahawks offensive line, they should have opportunities to get to Wilson. If they can force Wilson to improvise, they have young talent in the secondary who should be able to stay with receivers just long enough for the pass-rushers to chase him down.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but Green Bay need to establish the run. Seattle has a ball-hawking secondary but they struggle mightily against the run, Aaron Jones needs to be involved early and often to make sure the Packers dictate the pace of the game. While the offence hasn’t been wholly convincing this season, Green Bay’s only losses this year have come when Aaron Jones was shut-down by the opposition.

If it does come time to air it out, Davante Adams has quietly had another solid season (83 rec, 997 yards, 5 TDs) and remains Rodgers favourite target. But aside from Adams, Rodgers again will have to rely on a receiving core without any marquee talent, and while he only has four interceptions on the season, any risky throws to lesser receivers will have the Seahawks dreaming of a takeaway.

Billy Morton





Image credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports, Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports, Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports