Wildcard Weekend Preview: What Will Be The Deciding Factors In This Weekend's Games?

We made it! Somehow 256 regular season games are in the books, and we eagerly march on to Wildcard Weekend. Owen Ravenna looks at the matchups and identifies where the six playoff games will be won and lost…

Wildcard Saturday

Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills

Wildcard Weekend Preview
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While Buffalo’s offense has had great success in 2020, the Colts’ defense is one of the better ones they will have faced. Indianapolis’ offense has struggled to close out games, although gets themselves in position to win enough, and has a favourable matchup against the Bills’ defense based on scheme. The Colts’ run game has expanded with RB Jonathan Taylor becoming the lead back, as this has allowed them to take advantage of their OL’s athleticism and strength, regularly pulling guards and shifting the play to one side of the field.

In turn, the Colts can use play action and counters to attack space left on the opposite side of the field. Against the Dolphins in Week 17, Buffalo had difficulty covering the TEs on out routes and shorter vertical routes. The Colts’ similarly use at least one TE in most formations, and should be able to have similar success with their 7 routes and stick plays. Buffalo’s Safeties and LBs struggled to cover these TEs, and it should allow the Colts to have an open target often. While the vertical routes run by the receivers will have less success, comeback routes or speed against CB2 Levi Wallace on the outside should work as well. Buffalo will use LB Matt Milano against both the run and to cover the TEs at times, and alternate their Safeties in the box to cover the other side of the field. With runs up the middle of the OL, and successfully blocking Milano and fellow LB Tremaine Edmunds, the Colts will be able to move the ball, but will need to adjust in the second half to use RBs as receivers and crossing routes by the WRs, to counteract the Bills’ own adjustments.

Buffalo’s offense is less likely to change as the game progresses, and will stick with their versatile playbook all game. WR Stefon Diggs will run deeper crossing routes, while WRs John Brown and Gabriel Davis provide vertical threats, and a combination of RBs on swing and slant routes, TEs on short out routes, and WR Isaiah McKenzie providing the short, underneath option, with Cole Beasley likely still out with injury. McKenzie will also be used on jet sweeps and reverses to get him to the outside, adding to the space available for QB Josh Allen to run into behind him with fake handoffs.The RBs will be sent up the middle early, and slowly increased runs to the outside, so that Buffalo can see if they can create holes early on, as well as drawing in the Colts’ LBs slightly to try and give their RBs a chance of beating them to the edge.

Indianapolis will rely on their LBs to limit the success of all Bills’ rushing plays, including keeping Allen in the pocket. If DL DeForest Buckner is healthy and plays, pressuring Allen up the middle without having to blitz could unsettle him, and was where he had struggles in the first quarter against Miami in Week 17. Additionally, the Colts’ zone pass defense could make it harder for Allen to read the field, but his arm strength could force passes into tight windows, preventing the Colts from being able to jump routes. Indianapolis will vary between Cover 4 and Cover 3 based on whether the Bills are using 3 or 2 WRs, aiming to mostly restrict deep passes. While Diggs can make plays, the Colts’ defense as a whole is more complex than what Allen is used to. The Colts’ own offense needs to prove it can finish a game on top, but this game should stay close for the first half at least, especially if Buffalo’s offense can’t consistently move the ball.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team

Wildcard Weekend Preview
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The Buccaneers have shown more promise on offense in the second half of the season, but have started to see holes open up on their defense. Washington Football Team, however, are still figuring out their identity on offense, but have had the benefit of relying on a defense that hasn’t allowed a team to score more than 20 against them in their final seven games. Washington needs to aim for 3 TDs if they want to have a chance to win this one. Their RBs provide them with a good foundation, as both Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic can serve as runners and receivers, which Tampa Bay had difficulty with early on in Week 17 against Atlanta. Although with their LB corps likely back to full strength this week, covering the flats might become easier for the Buccaneers, as Lavonte David’s speed allows him to track RBs to the outside effectively.

Washington will have a modicum of success running up the middle, but the key to them winning is passing effectively. While CB Carlton Davis should return from injury for Tampa Bay, Washington can still attack the opposite CB along the sideline with Steven Sims. WR Terry McLaurin and TE Logan Thomas will provide a vertical threat up the seam, as well as the former as an underneath receiver on slants, able to get open behind the LBs and in front of the Safety. Tampa Bay will rotate their Safeties into the box at different times, mostly leaving rookie Antoine Winfield Jr in single high coverage, and he will primarily be tasked with breaking up passes to McLaurin and Thomas, leaving the other more open. Washington will get chances when the Buccaneers blitz, but should keep a RB in the backfield to help protect QB Alex Smith so that the quick pass can get out safely.

Washington’s defense will benefit from their DL able to generate pressure without extra help, allowing more players to be spread out against the pass, as Tampa Bay are predominantly in 11 personnel. While their nickel CB will have difficulty on in-breaking routes to WRs Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, the outside CBs need to give a cushion against Antonio Brown and Mike Evans (if healthy), but be ready to close quickly on comeback and slant routes. Washington should then use Safety Kamren Curl in the centre of the field to defend against the WRs crossing over the middle, with their second safety against TE Rob Gronkowski, who is not only used on short vertical routes up the seam anymore, but also on out routes and along the sidelines at times.

Washington’s hopes rely on their pass rush, as well as the success of their OLBs tracking the RBs to the outside. Tampa Bay will run towards the OTs more than up the middle, and this will fall to the LBs to prevent rushing plays going for more than a few yards. While the Buccaneers’ offense should overpower the Washington defense, missed connections and playmakers up front could keep the latter in it into the fourth quarter.

Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks

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With the Rams stumbling into the playoffs, they may consider themselves fortunate to get a Seahawks’ team that is having difficulties of their own. The Seahawks’ defense has been inconsistent for the whole season, and is now dealing with injuries along the DL, as well as Safety/LB Jamal Adams, who will be crucial to pressuring whichever QB starts for the Rams, Jared Goff or John Wolford. Los Angeles should be able to run the ball up the middle as Seattle’s run-stuffing DTs Jarran Reed and Bryan Mone are battling injury, and the Seahawks lack a bigger-bodied defender to fill their absence.

With RB Cam Akers healthy, the Rams can use their power scheme to gash the Seahawks up the middle, setting up play action, which is fundamental to the Rams’ passing attack. WR Cooper Kupp is also back from injury, and with Kupp out of the slot, Robert Woods on the outside and TE Tyler Higbee on vertical routes up the middle, Seattle’s DBs will be tested. Along with Jamal Adams dropping into coverage against Kupp’s slants and WR screens, their other Safety will need to slide across the field to whichever receiver goes vertical, leaving the TE to be covered by a LB.

While the pass rush might unsettle the QB, unless the CBs can provide tight coverage and break up passes, the Rams should have success on offense in both elements. Seattle’s offense needs to keep up with the Rams’, as although it is built to make comebacks, it operates best when teams aren’t focused on defending the pass. WR DK Metcalf has struggled to separate deep since midseason, and could be tracked by CB Jalen Ramsay all game to eliminate the vertical threat. Seattle will also use their TEs on short out routes, and should have success there, especially if QB Russell Wilson is flushed out of the pocket. Wilson’s escapability allows him to extend plays, but outside of WR Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks lack a player who will work back to get open, and spying Wilson with a LB or Safety could prevent him turning these plays into 10-15 yard scrambles.

Seattle’s rushing attack will run outside the tackles, and increasingly use draws, counters, misdirects and RB screens to disguise their runs, before adding play action to try and find Lockett and Metcalf downfield. The Rams should split their LBs in zones across the field to defend Lockett and Wilson, as well as force Seattle to find someone else who can make big plays for their offense. Seattle might have been the better team this season, but the Rams have the pieces to win if they can get ahead on the scoreboard.


Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans

Wildcard Weekend Preview
Credit: Gail Burton (Associated Press)

In a rematch from last year’s AFC Divisional Round, the Ravens will be looking for redemption, only exacerbated by their loss during the season to the Titans. Tennessee, meanwhile, will want to show that although their poor defense presents an obvious flaw, they are still capable of winning tough games. The Ravens have had difficulty slowing RB Derrick Henry in these recent matchups, but should be looking to take leaves out of the Packers’ and Texans’ books. With Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Yannick Ngakoue all available this time (unlike their previous meeting), the Ravens will be looking to swarm Henry with bigger bodies, which is how Green Bay had success, as well as get to him in the backfield or before he can accelerate, which is how Houston kept themselves close in Week 17.

To overcome this, Tennessee will send Henry towards the outside instead of up the middle, so that he can build up speed in space before heading upfield, potentially against the smaller DBs. Even if Baltimore can slow down Henry, they will also need to account for QB Ryan Tannehill and his improving connection with WRs AJ Brown and Corey Davis. Although they have the CBs to go toe-to-toe with Brown and Davis, with Marlon Humphrey likely following Davis and Peters staying on the outside. The Ravens need to ensure that neither is able to separate on vertical passes downfield, as they will be vulnerable due to frequently blitzing a Safety and playing Cover 1. The Titans will also use shorter crossing routes and target Davis and the TEs on the outside, where the Ravens’ LBs have had difficulty making plays on the ball. Additionally, Tennessee will use play action regularly to get the defenders committed to the run and open space on the back side for Tannehill to scramble, Brown to go vertical, and Davis to run a slant away from the focus of the defense. Keeping a Safety or LB in place to account for this should restrict the success of PA, but relies on the DL also being able to handle Henry without too much extra help.

Baltimore’s own plan on offense will be more straightforward, in that they will be run-heavy, and seek to reduce the Titans’ chances of scoring. With heavy formations and additional TEs or FB, the Ravens will use their power scheme to create rushing lanes across the line, and gradually integrate designed QB runs, additional counters, and play action of their own. The Ravens were too quick to abandon the run a year ago, but should be more inclined to stick with it this time. They will use some passes, mostly to TE Mark Andrews up the seam and over the middle, with WRs Marquise Brown and Willie Snead going deep and on crossing routes, respectively.

The Titans’ defense lacks individuals to make a difference, and will be relying on their offense to outscore Baltimore’s. The Titans will need to stick with a 4-3 formation as much as possible, and also stack the box, daring Lamar Jackson to beat them through the air. Although at times this could lead to big gains, if Tennessee can keep their LBs from being negated with extra blockers, and reduce space between the numbers, they might be able to force Baltimore into enough 3rd down situations to keep themselves in it. Without more athletic playmakers though, the Titans will have to rely on discipline and taking their chances when they get them.

Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints

Wildcard Weekend Preview
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Although this game should be straightforward for the Saints, Chicago’s defense put them in position to make the playoffs, and the offense has flashed potential at times this season. Spearheaded by RB David Montgomery, the Bears will focus on moving the ball on the ground, using pre-snap motion to help create extra blockers with the TEs, or allowing them to also get the ball into the hands of the WRs, using their speed to break runs on the outside. New Orleans’ defensive front will stuff the A gaps with their DL, using their LBs to wait at the B gap before shooting outside or inside depending on where the RB goes.

While Montgomery could get around them, the Bears will need to use TEs early on as the run gets going, before opening up more complex plays, including rolling QB Mitchell Trubisky out on bootlegs. Running similar formations to the Panthers (primarily 11 personnel), who the Saints had no trouble against in Week 17, New Orleans will mostly stay in nickel formation, but may choose to use a nickel LB instead of CB to track Montgomery or the TEs to the outside. The Bears mostly use TEs on short out routes, leaving the middle of the field for their WRs, with one more vertical over the middle – usually Allen Robinson.

The Saints’ will have CB Marshon Lattimore track Robinson across the field, removing him for much of the match. This will leave WR Darnell Mooney and the TEs as the focus for the passing game, and the Saints will be able to double cover Mooney with a combination of LB Zack Baun, Safety Malcolm Jenkins and CB Janoris Jenkins. Chicago will need to get the ball out quickly and introduce more vertical components against the Saints, but with New Orleans’ defensive front, the Bears will struggle to move the ball. For New Orleans, with WR Michael Thomas and RB Alvin Kamar likely returning, they should be able to move the ball on the ground and through the air consistently. Chicago’s DL needs to be aware of the Saints’ OL positioning, as they are lined up slightly differently for run and pass plays.

On passing plays (and some with Taysom Hill), the Saints’ Center Erik McCoy is a small step ahead of the rest of the OL, who are in a flat line, whereas on rushing plays (as well as play action), the OL is angled with the OTs further back than the OGs. With dominant DT Akiem Hicks back, if he can get a jump on diagnosing run or pass plays he may be able to be disruptive enough to slow the Saints down, yet New Orleans’ OL consistently get a good push and provide a clean pocket, as well as big rushing lanes. With WRs Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders providing receivers at different levels downfield over the middle, the Bears’ LBs will be caught out dropping back or coming up, leaving space underneath or behind them for one of the receivers. The Bears’ Safeties will need to be used in Cover 2 often, and quickly get Thomas to try and help break up passes if he gets open downfield. Chicago’s hopes rely on their front seven, and while they will get some stops, it won’t be enough over four quarters.

Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Sunday Super Wildcard
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Facing each other in consecutive weeks, the Steelers will be optimistic about their chances after narrowly losing in Week 17 without several of their key starters. The Browns are getting healthier and will also be closer to full strength, but need to find ways to get stops if they are going to emerge with another win. Pittsburgh will be encouraged by LB Alex Highsmith continuing to shine, and not just against the run, as it will allow them to blitz TJ Watt more often off the opposite edge. Additionally, this will funnel Browns’ run plays up the middle, and they will need to use TEs as well as their linemen to pull inside, including pre-snap motion to open up holes.Cleveland’s RB tandem can make players miss and find space, but only once they get clear of the line of scrimmage. 

Pittsburgh’s run defense struggled in Week 17 up the middle at times, but they will add an extra man to the box at times to further limit the Browns’ RBs. Cleveland’s passing game will attack the CBs regularly, using WR screens to get the ball in the hands of their WRs, before taking shots to the outside. Pittsburgh will again rely on Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick covering over the top, but will increasingly shade him to the outside against the vertical receiver, usually WR Rashard Higgins. At times one of their Safeties may be asked to cover the TEs in man coverage as well, but Pittsburgh will assign their slot CB Mike Hilton there instead.

Cleveland will use TE Austin Hooper across the field on a variety of routes, and Hilton needs to get to the inside of him when he can, so that QB Baker Mayfield has fewer clean passing lanes, and is forced to throw to the outside more. The Steelers will be able to pressure Mayfield, but need to have their DBs stick in coverage long enough for the pass rushers to get home consistently. Pittsburgh will have less to worry about in terms of the Browns’ pass rush, as Cleveland will sit back a little to stop the run. Their LBs won’t blitz often, and with Pittsburgh unable to create rushing lanes, the Browns can attack the few holes that do open up, forcing Pittsburgh into obvious passing situations. Pittsburgh needs to use their WRs in the run game more, and have to find a way to get downfield blockers if they are to move the ball on the ground.

Once the Browns take away the run, it puts too much pressure on the passing game. In Week 17 Pittsburgh frequently threw comebacks, curls and slants, with a few deep shots. Early on they need to have success with some vertical passes, so they can stretch the defense and keep their whole playbook open. If the field becomes compressed by being unable to go vertical or run the ball, Pittsburgh’s offense won’t put up the points they need to. Cleveland’s pass defense will be improved if CB Denzel Ward is activated off the injury/Covid list, and will then allow the Browns to slide coverage away from him. Pittsburgh has speedy wideouts to get behind the Browns’ CBs, but are reliant on accurate throws and safe hands, something they’ve lacked for much of the season. Although this game is evenly matched, Pittsburgh has the superior defense, and if their offense can do enough, they should squeeze out a win.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst