Breakdowns

NFL Divisional Playoff Matchups to Watch

Here are the matchups we’ll be watching closely in this weekend’s NFL divisional round playoff games:

The Rams defense vs. the Packers offense might be one of the most enticing matchups of the entire NFL season, with both units showing the ability to dominate games. The Rams might look to replicate the success Tampa Bay and Indianapolis had in pressuring Aaron Rodgers into multiple turnovers, but it won’t be easy: Rodgers has only thrown 2-plus INTs in 19 of his 197 career games. Instead, the Vikings’ Week 8 upset might be more of a model — Rodgers and the run game both did well, but neither was allowed to take over the game entirely.

On offense, the Rams also favor a balanced approach, but rookie RB Cam Akers will be expected to shoulder a heavy load with the health problems at QB. Although Akers has the NFL’s third-most carries since Week 12 and fifth-most yards after contact, he only forces 0.11 missed tackles per attempt, 53rd among (qualified) rushers over that span. The Packers have faced a top 10 rusher (by yardage) seven times this season; they’re 5-2 in those games.

The Ravens have 100-plus rushing yards in 34 consecutive games – the fourth-longest such streak of all time — and this could be the key to Saturday’s game. The Bills defense allowed an average of 200 rushing yards in their three losses, but only 101 rush yards per game in their 13 wins.

Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability will keep Buffalo playing a lot of zone; in the most critical play in the game last week, Jackson had a 48-yard TD run against Tennessee when the Titans’ defenders had their backs turned to the line of scrimmage.

The Bills have put up a franchise-record five games of 350-plus passing yards. The Ravens are 2-1 this season against top-10 passing offenses, allowing 300-plus passing yards in each of those three games but allowing 17 or fewer points in both wins.

As always, ball control is the key to slowing down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense. Will Cleveland be able to have long sustained drives in order to keep Mahomes off the field? Kansas City is 21st in rushing yards allowed per game, and the Browns’ rushing attack has been strong most of the season.

The interesting thing about the Chiefs rushing defense is that their subpar numbers weren’t due to missed tackles but rather failing to engage the rusher until an average depth of tackle of 4.65 yards — the fifth-worst rate in the league. There’s an interesting battle brewing there, as the Browns averaged 3.4 yards after contact per attempt, good for second in the NFL.

Cleveland’s pass defense has struggled this year (22nd), despite facing one of the least-intimidating slates of opposing passers. They faced only two of the top 10 throwers by yardage this season (Deshaun Watson and Philip Rivers). They beat both, but Mahomes is a different beast.

Tom Brady vs. the Saints’ secondary will be the story of this game. In his two games vs. New Orleans in the regular season, both losses, Brady threw 2 TDs and 5 INTs. In his other 14 games, Brady’s TD-INT ratio was 38-7. Pro Football Focus credits the Bucs with the most Big-Time Throws and the fewest Turnover-Worthy Plays, but the Saints defense has a league-leading 19 INTs and 13 Dropped INTs.

The Saints offense runs through second-team All-Pro Alvin Kamara, who scored 3 TDs (2 rushing, 1 receiving) in the two games vs. Tampa Bay this season (despite low yardage outputs). Among starting RBs, Kamara leads the league with over 30% of runs going for a first down or a TD. He also led the league with 21 total TDs. The Bucs lead the league in rush defense, including the second-fewest missed run tackles and the second-best average depth of tackle (3.56 yards).

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