Analysis

Keys to the Game for NFC Divisional Playoff Matchups

The NFC’s final four will take the field this weekend in a pair of NFL Divisional Playoff matchups. Here’s a look at the keys to victory for the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints.

SEE ALSO: AFC Divisional Playoff Matchups

Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX

Saturday’s NFC Divisional matchup features the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense heading to Lambeau to take on the league’s top scoring offense. This game has no shortage of star power, as arguably the best defensive and offensive players get set to go head to head. While the Packers offense has been exciting to watch all season, time will tell if Green Bay can sustain this type of offensive production in the postseason. For the Rams, the name of the game is defense. So the question here is: What wins championships, offense or defense?

Keys to the game for the L.A. Rams

1. Keep Davante Adams under control and out of the end zone

All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey will certainly have his hands full taking on one of the league’s best receivers. Davante Adams has torched defenses all year, becoming the first player in NFL history with 100-plus receptions (115) and 18 receiving TDs in a single season. The Packers have gotten production from a multitude of different players in the red zone, but none have had as big an impact as Adams. The Packers have scored 66 TDs this season, and Adams accounts for 27.3% of those. The good news for the Rams: Ramsey has given up only 2 TDs in coverage. Furthermore, L.A. has only given up 17 passing TDs to opponents all season. If the Rams secondary can play like it has all year, there is no doubt they will give the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL a run for its money.

2. Get after the likely MVP

The Rams have had no problem getting pressure on opposing QBs all season. This was apparent last Saturday when the defensive front took down the mobile Russell Wilson five times, hitting him on 10 other occasions. But they will square off this week with a unit that has been solid up front all year. The Green Bay line has no shortage of talent — All-Pro center Corey Linsley and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins have been able to keep a clean pocket for the MVP candidate, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has only been sacked 20 times, the lowest sack total of his 16-year career. Due to this protection, Rodgers has been able to complete passes at an extremely high clip (70.7%). In the Buccaneers’ rout of the Packers back in early October, Rodgers faced a great deal of pressure — 20% of his sacks came in that one game. The only way to lower Rodgers from his MVP caliber level will be to disrupt the pocket and timing with his wide array of receivers.

3. Akers continuing to roll

Rookie RB Cam Akers came alive for the Rams in the back half of the season. Both of his 100-plus rushing yard performances and all four of his TDs have come since Week 11. In his last six appearances, Akers is averaging 92.5 rushing yards/game. Just last week, in Akers’ first playoff game, he ran for 176 yards and 1 TD. His rushing total accounted for 53% of the Rams’ total yardage on Saturday. Green Bay has been a middle-of-the-road team stopping the run this season — opponents have been averaging 112.8 rush yards/game, 13th in the NFL. With the uncertainty at quarterback, L.A. is going to need steady production out of the backfield.

Keys to the game for the Green Bay Packers

1. Get the run game going

With the L.A. secondary playing lockdown defense in the passing game, Green Bay will have to get their backs going. The running back room is locked and loaded for a playoff run — Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and rookie A.J. Dillion are all healthy and ready for action. Using this three-headed rushing attack will help keep each back fresh. Jones, Williams and Dillon all possess different skill sets out of the backfield, something the Packers will have to use to their advantage. With all the focus on stopping Rodgers and the multitude of receiving weapons, the Packers may be able to catch the Rams defense off guard with a heavy dose of the run game. It is also important to point out that Rodgers fares well when the run can set up the play-action pass game. Rodgers has the sixth-most yards off play-action passes this season with 1,160.

2. Keep Rodgers upright

Rodgers has kept his jersey clean for the majority of the season, but the injury to Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari, is a major loss for this Green Bay offensive line. Bakhtiari has done an impeccable job of protecting Rodgers’ blindside for the better part of eight years. Even if the Rams are able to generate pressure, the key will be creating lanes for Rodgers to escape. As we have seen time and time again, Rodgers is one of the best at extending plays with his legs, all while keeping his eyes down field. We have seen what Rodgers has been able to do with great protection up front. Rodgers led the NFL in TD passes (48), completion percentage (70.7%) and passer rating (121.5) during in 2020. If Rodgers keeps trending at an MVP caliber level, he will be very difficult to stop.

3. Get production from the TE position

Tight end Robert Tonyan has been a pleasant surprise for the Packers offense this season. The third-year player had a breakout season and has become another favorite red-zone target for Rodgers. Tonyan had 11 TDs in the regular season, tied with Travis Kelce for most TDs by a TE. His reliability has led to Rodgers constantly looking his way — Tonyan has an 88% catch rate, which is second among the 2020 TE position. If L.A. is going to have the receivers locked down, and Aaron Donald and company succeed with getting pressure on Rodgers, the TEs will need to be able to get open quickly on underneath routes. These completions will help the Packers sustain drives and potentially open the field for a few shots deep.

— Caroline Videtto

Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, FOX

These NFC South foes have already met twice this season with the Saints dominating both games from the get-go. The Saints were able to win convincingly in the wild-card round thanks to a strong showing from their defense in a 21-9 win, while the Buccaneers were able to fend off a pesky Washington team to advance with a 31-23 victory. With a berth in the NFC Championship Game on the line, here are the keys to the game for both of these teams:

Keys to the game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Keep Tom Brady upright

It has become well known around the league that Tom Brady’s reaction time is not as quick as it used to be. He still gets the ball out fast, but he has gotten increasingly worse against pressure as he has gotten older. Against the Washington Football Team, Tampa’s offensive line did a decent job of stopping WFT’s pass rush, but Brady was still sacked three times and hit seven times. This was part of the reason why Tampa’s offense got off to a slow start and allowed Washington to get back into the game. In the Buccaneers’ first two matchups against the Saints this season, Brady was sacked a total of six times and hit 14 times. Because of the pressure that New Orleans was able to get on Brady, he made some poor decisions that led to turnovers — Brady had five interceptions against the Saints this season. In order for Tampa to avoid losing to the Saints for a third time this season, the offensive line will have to do a better job protecting the 43-year-old signal caller in order to avoid costly turnovers and short possessions.

2. Continue to get Chris Godwin involved

This season, Tampa Bay’s offense has been the most effective when wideout Chris Godwin has gotten involved in the gameplan. In fact, some of Tampa’s highest-scoring outputs this season have been when Godwin has had his best games. Part of the reason why Godwin should continue to be a priority target on offense is due to how the Saints have fared against star wideout Mike Evans. The former Texas A&M receiver had a great regular season, but two of his worst performances of the season came against the Saints. Against New Orleans, Evans totaled 5 receptions for 66 yards and one score. If Evans continues to struggle against the Saints in this matchup, Godwin and Antonio Brown will most likely get the bulk of the targets. With Godwin being the most productive of the Bucs’ receivers against the Saints this year, it is necessary that Brady continues to get the ball to him.

3. Disrupt Michael Thomas

Tampa’s pass defense has not been nearly as prolific as it was when it handed Aaron Rodgers his worst outing of the 2020 campaign, and this unit currently ranks 21st in passing yards given up per game with 246.6. It certainly doesn’t help that Saints star receiver Michael Thomas is playing in this matchup. Thomas only played in part of the first game between these two teams due to an injury while he was in his first game back the second time around. Thomas has been at less than 100% for the majority of this season, but it looks like he is starting to get back to full strength after his performance against the Bears last week, when the former Buckeye recorded 5 receptions for 73 yards and a score. Tampa’s pass defense struggled against Taylor Heinicke and Washington in the first round, so this makes disrupting Thomas’ rhythm a priority. If the Brees-to-Thomas connection is on point, it may be a long day for Tampa once again.

Keys to the game for the New Orleans Saints

1. Stop Tampa’s rushing attack

The Buccaneers haven’t had the most prolific rushing attack this season (94.9 rushing yards per game), but there have been some games where Tampa has been able to be really lethal in this aspect of the offense. Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette have been very capable backs at certain junctures this season. When these two players have gotten the run game going, it opens up the play-action pass for Brady to hit his tight ends in the middle of the field and connect with Godwin, Evans and Brown more. It is essential for the Saints to make the Bucs one-dimensional on offense as the Saints have already proven two times this season that their corners are good enough to contain Brady’s weapons for the most part. New Orleans did a tremendous job on David Montgomery in the first round, as he only totaled 31 yards on 12 carries, so this defense is definitely ready to take on this task.

2. Be patient with the run game

Running the ball on Tampa’s defense was no easy feat in the regular season as the Buccaneers only gave up 80.6 yards per game, the best in the NFL. Tampa did an incredible job stopping rookie phenom Antonio Gibson in the wild-card round (31 yards on 14 carries), but there were some moments where Gibson was able to break big runs on this Buccaneer defense. Alvin Kamara was not that much of a factor in the run game during the first two matchups with the Bucs, but this does not mean the Saints should completely abandon the run. Latavius Murray has proven to be a capable power back in Sean Payton’s offense, and the Saints should give the Buccaneers a heavy dose of him if he is healthy enough to play. If Murray is unable to go, the Saints can also use the read-option with Taysom Hill that has given teams fits the past few seasons. Despite how good Tampa’s rush defense has been, the Saints need to be persistent with the run game in order to not become predictable on offense and put Drew Brees in a tough spot.

3. Force more Tom Brady turnovers

Tom Brady’s worst games this season have been against the Saints. There is no question about it. In two games vs. New Orleans, Brady had 2 TD passes and 5 interceptions. In his other 14 games, Brady threw 38 TDs and just 7 INTs. A lot of the reason behind this is the fact that the Saints have done a really good job getting after Brady. Considering the Saints outscored Tampa Bay in their two meetings by a combined score of 72-26, this formula is clearly working out for Payton and company. In order to secure another huge victory over the Bucs, it is crucial the Saints continue to apply pressure — Tampa only gave up 22 sacks on the season but six of those came against New Orleans. The Saints need to make sure Brady is not comfortable in the pocket. Brady is not a mobile quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, so the Saints need to do a good job of forcing him into more turnovers that will put pressure on Tampa’s defense to keep the Saints from scoring consistently.

— Brian Friedland

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