Analysis

Keys to the Game for NFC Wild Card Matchups

With two extra playoff teams this season, the NFL’s Wild Card weekend features back-to-back triple-headers. Here’s a look at the three NFC matchups:

SEE ALSO: AFC Wild Card Matchups

Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

One of Saturday’s Wild Card matchups features familiar foes, as two NFC West opponents are set to square off. The Rams will be traveling to Seattle, looking to knock off the 2020 NFC West division champions. The ultimate key to this game is the availability of Rams QB Jared Goff, who is currently working his way back from thumb surgery on his throwing hand. These two have already battled it out twice this season, splitting the season series.

Keys to the game for the L.A. Rams:

1. Exploit the Seahawks pass defense

Even though the Seattle defense has come to life in the back half of the season, they still wrapped up the regular season with the 31st-ranked pass defense. Through the first half of the regular season, the Seahawks’ pass defense was statistically one of the worst in NFL history. The Seattle secondary has been giving up an average of 285.0 yards per game. When the Rams beat the Seahawks back in November, Goff threw for over 300 yards. He was able to spread the ball out to a variety of different weapons — Josh Reynolds, Tyler Higbee, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods all registered at least 5 receptions. Sean McVay will need to design a game plan that gets the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, whether it’s Goff or John Wolford, and into the hands of their playmakers.

2. Set up the play-action with the run game

L.A. will need to get their run game going in order to set up the play-action pass. If Goff is under center, the play-action pass becomes even more important. Much like it has been for his entire career, many of Goff’s yards this season have come off the play-action pass. Goff has had the most pass attempts (172) and fourth-most yards off play-action passes with 1,384. If Wolford is taking the snaps for L.A., it will be important to pound the ball so he can get into a rhythm. Abandoning the run might put Wolford in a position where he has to make plays that the Rams shouldn’t entirely expect him to make.

3. Limit Russell Wilson’s deep ball

Since entering the league, Russell Wilson has been regarded as one of the NFL’s best deep ball passers. Wilson came out hot throwing the deep ball early this season, registering a 127.6 passer rating on downfield passes through six weeks of play. But in Weeks 7-10, Wilson struggled, tallying just a 66.2 rating on downfield passes — a stretch in which Seattle lost three of four games. Wilson and the Seahawks have gotten back on track, due in part to dialing it back and possessing a steady mix of short and long passes. In Weeks 11-16, Wilson’s passer rating on downfield passes was back up to 125.8. If L.A. wants to come out on top, they will have to lock down wide receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Wilson’s favorite deep ball targets. Metcalf and Lockett together have 27 plays of 20-plus yards receiving.

Keys to the game for the Seattle Seahawks:

1. Jamal Adams as Seattle’s X Factor

Jamal Adams has been the glue holding the Seattle defense together through its ups and downs this year. Adams set a record for the most sacks by a defensive back in a single season. Adams leads the Seahawks in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (14). Pete Carroll will need to design a game plan in which Adams is getting after the quarterback. In both games from the regular season, Seattle got to Goff three times — only the Jets were able to match that total. Whether it is Goff of Wolford under center, Adams will need to be the difference maker for Seattle.

2. Three-headed rushing attack

Chris Carson, Carlos Hyde and the legs of Russell Wilson impose a difficult task for the Rams’ defense. Carson and Hyde have had their share of injuries this season, but the two should be ready to go as the postseason gets under way. Carroll has reverted to his old ways during the second half of the season, focusing more on the run game. Two of their highest rushing performances of the season came in Weeks 14 and 15. The Rams matchup well against Seattle if they do decide to keep the ball on the ground – L.A. is allowing the third-fewest rushing yards/game on the ground at 91.3. Wilson’s ability to escape the pocket and take what the defense is giving him with his legs can’t be overstated. Wilson has the fourth-most rushing yards among quarterbacks this season with 513 yards.

3. Russ continuing to thrive under pressure

Wilson has become known for his ability to deliver passes accurately under pressure. According to PFF, through Week 13, Wilson had the most TDs under pressure with 10. Through Week 16, PFF also had Wilson with the third-most completions under pressure with 87. The offensive line hasn’t done a great job of protecting Wilson this year — he was sacked 47 times, third in the league. There is no doubt Wilson will be feeling pressure all day from Aaron Donald and the Rams’ pass rush. The Rams have 53 sacks on the season, second in the league, but their pressure percentage is only 22.5%. Luckily for the Seahawks, Wilson is one of the best at escaping pressure. Wilson will need to pull a few tricks out of his hat on Sunday against the Rams’ defensive front.

— Caroline Videtto

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

The Washington Football Team will play in their first playoff game since 2015, while the Buccaneers also end a playoff drought that dates back to 2007. The Washington Football Team made the playoffs with a losing record (7-9), the first time that’s happened since 2014 (Carolina Panthers — who were led by current Washington head coach Ron Rivera). The last time the Buccaneers finished with 10 or more wins was in 2010, when they missed the playoffs after finishing third in the NFC South.

Keys to the Game for the Washington Football Team

1. Get interior pressure on Tom Brady

Washington has one of the most talented defensive lines in football. Currently constructed of five former first-round pick, Washington was sixth in the NFL in sacks and fifth in pressure percentage (25.6%). Brady and the Buccaneers are 1-3 when Brady is sacked three or more times this season. Historically, Brady has struggled when pressured from the interior due to his limited mobility. Washington needs their first-round talent to step up and get to Brady.

2. Force turnovers and shorten the field for their offense

Washington is 5-2 when they force multiple turnovers in games this season, drastically worse compared to when they force one or less turnovers where they own a record of 2-7. Washington’s offense has struggled this year, ranking near the bottom of most offensive categories, including yards per game (25th), yards per play (31st) and total team touchdowns (26th). Washington will need to help their offense with good field position through turnovers and special teams play.

3. Continue to find ways to get Antonio Gibson the football

Gibson has been electric when he’s been healthy. When Washington has made it a priority to get him carries, they’ve found success as a team. When Gibson has had 15-plus carries, Washington is 4-0 and has outscored their opponents 106-42. Tampa Bay has one of the best run defenses in the NFL though, allowing a league-low 3.6 yards per carry and 10 rushing TDs. By any means necessary, Washington needs to get the ball in Gibson’s hands, whether it be on the ground or through the air.

Keys to the Game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Get the ball to their playmakers in space

Washington has the eighth-most missed tackles in the NFL (122). With a roster that is loaded with talent in all areas, getting the ball to Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski should be a priority early. Allowing their playmakers to get opportunities in open space to create will be key. Brady has the ninth-fastest time to throw in the NFL (2.57) and continuing to get the ball out of Brady’s hands will also help alleviate the pressure from Washington’s talented defensive front.

2. Continue to let Tom Brady cook

Tom Brady has arguably been the best quarterback over the last four weeks — not coincidentally, the Bucs are 4-0 over that span. Brady has averaged 333.3 passing yards, has a completion percentage of 69.12%, and has a 12-1, TD-INT ratio. As a team they have just one turnover over this span. Brady has been heating up down the stretch. Continue to let the six-time Super Bowl champion lead his team to the promise land.

3. Force Washington to throw the football

Washington’s offense, as mentioned earlier, has struggled as a unit this season. When they are forced to pass, though, that is where they have struggled most. In games where Washington has 200-plus passing yards, they are 1-7. In these eight games, they have 20 offensive turnovers as well, compared to just 7 in the eight games where they have less than 200 passing yards. Slowing down Antonio Gibson and their run game will be one of the most effective ways to get Washington to turn to their passing attack.

Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS

The Chicago Bears have found their way into the postseason, only to be greeted by the No. 2 seed New Orleans Saints in the first round. Earlier this year when the Saints and Bears battled each other, New Orleans was able to pull out a 26-23 victory in overtime. The last time the Bears came out victorious against the Saints was back in 2008, when Robbie Gould hit a game-winning field goal in overtime. Chicago has fallen to New Orleans six times since, making it their longest active losing streak against any team. Will the Bears break the streak this weekend?

Keys to the game for the Chicago Bears:

1. Avoid third-an-long situations

Struggling to convert on third down has been the story for the Bears offense all season. Chicago ended the regular season with the second-worst conversion percentage on third down (34.63%). Avoiding third-and-long situations will be key against the Saints, who are allowing opponents to convert third downs at a rate of 38.16% (ninth-best in the NFL). Chicago averaged 6.6 yards to go on third down this year. While that certainly wasn’t the worst mark in the NFL, the Bears were only able to gain an average of 3.6 yards on third down, which was the worst mark in the league. Picking up solid yardage on first and second down will be key to Chicago having a chance against the NFC South champions.

2. Give Montgomery a lane to run

Chicago RB David Montgomery came alive for the Bears as the regular season came to a close. From Weeks 12-17, Montgomery has rushed for 598 yards, averaging just about 100 yards/game during this stretch. He has emerged out of the Chicago backfield as a pass-catching threat as well, registering 438 receiving yards and 2 TDs this season. Montgomery will have his work cut out for him going against the New Orleans defensive line. The Saints are allowing opponents just 93.9 yards/game on the ground this season, good for fourth-best in the league. If Montgomery can get his legs going early, a much-needed weight will be lifted off the shoulders of QB Mitch Trubisky.

3. Take care of the football

Trubisky has had turnover troubles since entering the league in 2017. He has registered 37 interceptions in 51 games played throughout his career. However, Trubisky has done a better job of protecting the football since reclaiming his starting job. In his first five games, Trubisky had 5 interceptions; over his last five, he has had only 3. The Bears have not fared well when turning the ball over during their 2020 season. In each of their losses, they have turned the ball over. Chicago is 4-0 when they win the turnover battle, 3-2 when they tie the turnover battle, and 1-6 when they lose the turnover battle. Taking care of the football against a Saints team that has the fourth-best turnover differential in the league will be key to a Bears victory.

Keys to the game for the New Orleans Saints:

1. Dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball

The Saints have gotten the job done all year by winningup front. Three of the five Saints players selected for the 2021 Pro Bowl came from either the offensive or defensive line. The offensive line has been able to keep Brees upright for the most part, all while creating holes for Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray to explode through. Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat have been the glue to the offensive unit up front — both players were both selected to the Pro Bowl. The defensive line has been just as dominant for New Orleans. They have racked up 45 sacks on the year, getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks 25.6% of the time, fourth-most in the NFL. If the Saints are able to dominate the line of scrimmage, they should have their way with the Chicago Bears come Sunday.

2. Let Kamara and Murray work

So often, the offense runs through the quarterback, but this certainly isn’t the case in New Orleans. RB Alvin Kamara has been, and will continue to be, the centerpiece of the Saints offense. The Saints are thankful to have drawn a Sunday playoff game, with Kamara being eligible to return from the COVID list on Sunday at the earliest. Latavius Murray has been a nice complement to Kamara this year out of the backfield, quietly rushing for over 650 yards in the regular season. The Chicago defense had cooled off down the stretch, and they are a middle-of-the-road team when it comes to defending the run (15th in the NFL, allowing 113.4 yards/game). Feeding Kamara and Murray the ball will help the Saints continue to find rhythm on the offensive side of the ball.

3. Forcing turnovers

Putting pressure on the Chicago offense and forcing mistakes will be high on the Saints’ list of tasks to accomplish on Sunday. As previously mentioned, the Saints have the fourth-best turnover differential at plus-9. New Orleans has 18 interceptions on the season, tied with the Steelers for the most in the league. Creating havoc in the secondary will only make matters worse for Trubisky, who has struggled with ball security.

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