Weekend Slate: Analyzing Wild-Card Matchups

Breaking down play-calling tendencies, key matchups and vital schemes for the Chiefs-Colts, Saints-Eagles, Chargers-Bengals and 49ers-Packers

Andy Benoit
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Chiefs QB Alex Smith and Colts QB Andrew Luck. (Robert Beck and Andrew Hancock/Sports Illustrated)

Chiefs (11-5, fifth seed) at Colts (11-5, fourth seed)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. EST, NBC

Chiefs offense vs. Colts defense

In Week 16, the Chiefs opened with a four-play, 59-yard drive capped by a 31-yard touchdown on a beautifully executed zone-lead run by Jamaal Charles, who got great blocks from fullback Anthony Sherman and center Rodney Hudson. That turned out to be the lone highlight for Andy Reid’s squad. The rest of their performance was an exhibition of ineptitude. Major concerns included limitations of Alex Smith’s arm strength, the receiving corps’ inability to separate from man coverage (including plodding “No. 1” wideout Dwayne Bowe) and repeated individual breakdowns in pass protection.

Branden Albert being back at left tackle could alleviate some of the protection woes, though Albert’s replacement, Donald Stephenson, wasn’t really the problem. That’d be rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, who is fundamentally sounder than he was early in the season but remains wildly inconsistent. It was evident two weeks ago that the first overall pick in last year’s draft can’t yet be trusted on an island against a top-flight speed-rusher such as Robert Mathis. Lately, the Colts have been aligning Mathis at nickel defensive tackle and looping him around on stunts, which hasn’t fooled any offense (including the Chiefs’). The Colts should just split the veteran in a wide-9 stance and dare the Chiefs not to double him.

Even if the Chiefs can hold up in pass protection, Smith’s arm strength and the receivers’ inability to shake man coverage (which the Colts have played increasingly well) are weaknesses that can’t be hidden without a rushing attack that’s capable of creating eight-man boxes and manageable third downs. Jamaal Charles did not get consistent touches to find his rhythm in the last matchup; it’s imperative that he does this time.

Colts offense vs. Chiefs defense

Both teams deviated from their usual modus operandi when they met two weeks ago at Arrowhead. The Colts predominantly used three-receiver personnel, with Griff Whalen, T.Y. Hilton and undrafted rookie Da’Rick Rogers. (The slippery-handed Darrius Heyward-Bey played just nine snaps.) With this finesse personnel grouping, the Colts relied less on their power running game and more on three-step drops, leaning on Luck’s increasing aptitude at the line of scrimmage. The quick-release passing game helped the offensive line settle in, paving the way for the unit’s best pass-blocking performance of the season.

The Colts used a little more of their customary play-action in the second half, having built a lead by being extremely prepared for the Chiefs’ dime package pressure concepts. Donald Brown’s 33-yard touchdown catch is a perfect illustration: he blocked for a few seconds before leaking out of the backfield opposite a crossing pattern that drew the underneath coverage to the other side. Brown went uncovered because he released just as his man-defender, safety Quintin Demps, green-dog blitzed—a staple of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme. It was a perfectly designed play to defeat the Chiefs.

Demps typically plays farther back in the dime package, but he operated at linebacker against the Colts while Kansas City’s regular box safety, Eric Berry, shadowed tight end Coby Fleener man-to-man. Berry kept Fleener quiet, but the Chiefs may be reluctant to remove him from the dime linebacker position again, as it deprived them of a key blitzer and run-stopper. Kansas City’s other change in Week 16 was made at outside nickel corner; rookie Marcus Cooper was benched in favor of seldom-used veteran Dunta Robinson. That will probably be the case again on Saturday, though it won’t matter who plays corner if the pass rush can’t get more pressure on Luck.

Continue on for the Saints-Eagles, Chargers-Bengals, and the 49ers-Packers …


Surprised it took McArthy two series to realize that the 49ers front seven is the strength of their defense. Green Bay's only chance is to challenge their safeties and corner backs, but maybe he knows that they can't protect Rodgers long enough to let that happen? This could be a no win situation on that side of the ball for Green Bay.


Note to McCarthy:  Kaepernick likes to throw to Boldin.