Super Wild Card Weekend is upon us, and we are blessed with six playoff games to watch. Below, we break down a couple key matchups that will define the outcome of each game as well as some stats for Wild Card Weekend in general.
Raiders @ Bengals (Saturday at 4:30 PM EST)
Raiders Pass Rush vs the Bengals Pass Protection
The Bengals tied for the NFL lead in sacks allowed this season, while the Raiders were tied for fourth in QB pressures, so there is a clear opportunity here for the Raiders to get after Joe Burrow early and often. Burrow had an 87.4 Pass Rating when facing pressure this season versus a 109.8 Passer Rating when not facing pressure, so making him uncomfortable will be key for Las Vegas.
Raiders Secondary vs Bengals Big Play Ability
The Bengals ranked second in the NFL in yards per reception and 6th in explosive passes (15+ yards), so preventing their big plays will be key for Las Vegas. Their defense ranked sixth in fewest yards per coverage snap allowed and fifth in fewest 15+ yard completions allowed, so this is a strength for them. Forecasting their defensive strategy is relatively easy, as they played Cover-3 on nearly 52% of defensive snaps, more than 100 snaps more than any other team used any specific defense. For context, Joe Burrow completed 76.2% of his passes against Cover-3 this season for a 105.8 Passer Rating.
Raiders vertical passing attack vs Bengals Secondary
The Raiders love to take deep shots, as Derek Carr had the most attempts of 20+ air yards in the NFL this season with 92. The Bengals had some struggles defending these attempts, ranking 10th worst and allowing the 11th most yards to such passes. Silencing the Raiders’ vertical passing game and forcing them into a more methodical offense would be huge for the Bengals defense.
Patriots @ Bills (Saturday at 8:15 PM EST)
Patriots rushing attack vs Bills run defense
In terms of yards, the Patriots had the 8th best rushing attack and the 14th best passing attack, so they are relatively balanced but rushed for more yards than they passed for in both games against Buffalo. Their road game in treacherous conditions in Buffalo was incredibly run heavy, and that strategy may return as they return to Buffalo. The weather will be slightly better, but still extremely cold, so expect runs. Meanwhile, the Bills have the best passing defense but just the 13th best rush defense, so rushing is New England’s best option against them. If they can dominate on the ground early and often, they can also dominate possession and keep the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands, which would go a long way.
Patriots Secondary vs Josh Allen
The Patriots are the second-best pass defense in terms of yards allowed (behind just Buffalo), so passing yards should be at a premium, though Allen was excellent in their last matchup. He did so in large part because of his success extending plays, as he completed 9 of 17 passes for 115 yards and a TD when taking more than 3.5 seconds to throw. Allen was much less successful in this area in their prior matchup, and New England has to contain this aspect of his game to stop Buffalo. Allen is dynamic and capable of winning the game inside the pocket as well, but it gives New England their best chance.
Eagles @ Buccaneers (Sunday at 1:00 PM EST)
Aggressive, vertical Buccaneers offense vs Stingy Eagles Secondary
This may surprise many, but the Eagles secondary has allowed the fewest yards per reception in the NFL this season at 9.7. They have allowed a high completion percentage but kept the ball in front of them, which would normally be a good matchup for Tom Brady, but sets them up well to defend his deep ball that has been so dynamic this season. Making Brady and the Buccaneers work for their yards and points is the best you can ask for and could work with their injury issue at the WR position.
Buccaneers Run Defense vs Eagles Running Game
The Eagles have the most rushing yards and rushing TDs in the NFL this season, showing a consistent commitment to a balanced ground game. On the flip side, the Buccaneers had the third best rush defense led by Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh inside. It is incredibly tough to run inside on them because of their size and strength. Philly had just 100 yards when they matched up in week 6, and while that came efficiently on 19 carries, they will need to establish the run more against Tampa this time around; it’s their identity.
49ers @ Cowboys (Sunday at 4:30 PM EST)
The Turnover Battle
The 49ers are 9-2 when they don’t have more turnovers than their opponent versus 1-5 when they do, including being a perfect 5-0 when winning the turnover battle. Meanwhile, Dallas has won the turnover battle in 10 of their 17 games, going 9-1 in those games, and has lost it just four times with a 1-3 record. Dallas tied for the best turnover differential at +14, while San Francisco was tied for 22nd with a -4. San Francisco needs to value their possession against a good and aggressive Dallas defense to come out victorious.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs Pressure
Garoppolo is PFF’s worst graded passer against pressure this season, with 14 turnover worthy plays and not a single big-time throw. This could prove to be an issue against a Dallas defense that generated the sixth most pressures in the NFL this season, as DC Dan Quinn will likely be aggressive and get after him, trying to force a turnover for the advantage mentioned above.
Steelers @ Chiefs (Sunday at 8:15 PM EST)
Steelers Pass Rush vs Chiefs Offensive Line
Any conversation about the Steelers’ strengths has to start with T..J Watt, Cam Heyward, and the Steelers’ pass rush. They had the most sacks in the league this season and ranked second in batted passes. The Chiefs tied for the third fewest sacks allowed, so it isn’t an easy matchup for Pittsburgh in this area, but stopping T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward is much easier said than done.
Ben Roethlisberger vs Chiefs Defense
The Chiefs defense is pretty much impossible to stop, so you have to slow them down and outscore them yourself. This is an area where Pittsburgh may struggle, as Roethlisberger hasn’t impressed. More than two-thirds of his passes travel fewer than 10 yards through the air, so he doesn’t threaten the defense vertically much at all. Fortunately for him and Pittsburgh, Kansas City gave up the sixth most yards in the NFL to such passes, so they can find some success in this area and will need to in this game.
Cardinals @ Rams (Monday at 8:15 PM EST)
Rams Passing Game vs Cardinals Secondary
The Rams have the top passing game in terms of EPA/play despite tying for the fifth most interceptions in the league. Arizona will need to force at least one interception because stopping the Rams consistently without takeaways is difficult. The Cardinals had the 10th best defense in EPA/play but didn’t excel at forcing takeaways, finishing tied for 14th in interceptions. Covering Cooper Kupp will obviously be a huge key for the game because of how dynamic and consistent he has been all season.
Cardinals Downfield Passing Game vs Rams Deep Secondary
Kyler Murray was the highest graded passer on throws of 20 yards or more this season and registered a big-time throw rate of almost 44%, also highest among QBs with more than two attempts. The Rams have the third best defense against these plays in terms of EPA/play allowed, which bodes well for them. Arizona has struggled at times this season when forced to drive the ball methodically, so that has to be Los Angeles’ plan in this game: to take away the vertical passing attack.
Wild Card Weekend Notes:
- A 2015 story found that 65.5% of playoff rematches result in the regular season winner emerging victorious again. Every game in this Wild Card round is a rematch of at least one regular season game with the exception of San Francisco vs Dallas
- The last 3-seed to win a game was Jacksonville in 2017-18 and both haven’t won since 2016-17
- The lower seeds have had a winning record in each of the last 3 seasons and haven’t had a losing record in the last 4 seasons