Divisional Playoff Preview
Deep Dive

Divisional Playoff Preview

Which teams have the edge in the NFL’s most competitive weekend of football? Breaking down offensive and defensive matchups in Chiefs-Patriots, Packers-Cardinals, Steelers-Broncos and Seahawks-Panthers

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Let’s break down the matchups for the NFL’s divisional playoffs...

No. 5 Chiefs (12-5) @ No. 2 Patriots (12-4)

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

New England offense vs. Kansas City defense

In a Week 17 loss at Miami, the Patriots turned in the worst offensive-line performance of the 2015 NFL season. Judging by their generic run-centric game plan, Bill Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels anticipated these blocking woes. The Patriots played not to have their O-line exposed. They had taken the same conservative approach a week earlier in a loss to the Jets. You can’t help but be cautious when your front five features inexperienced players across the line who were taken in the fourth round or later. (Veteran tackle Sebastian Vollmer was out with an injury.) The Patriots have never needed great pass blocking because Tom Brady is so sharp in their quick-strike system. But with Julian Edelman out of the lineup since mid-November, that quick-strike passing game has been neutered. The fallout became more apparent each week.

Edelman is expected to return from his broken foot this Saturday. He’ll replace Keshawn Martin, whose negligible receiving contributions will now come from the bench rather than on the field. Edelman makes the Patriots multidimensional in their presnap motions and stack release concepts, which means Brady has a much better chance of getting the ball out.

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He’ll need to. The Chiefs have a voracious defensive front, headlined by bookend pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who presumably is getting healthier in his second game back from a high ankle sprain. (Both pass rushers are sharing snaps with ascending second-year pro Dee Ford.) Kansas City’s interior rushers are deft as well. Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard can both shed blocks, while Dontari Poe is a 345-pounder with the feet of a 265-pounder. Factor in fluid linebacker Derrick Johnson’s play recognition and it will be a tall order for New England to run the ball. It will come down to Edelman and, of course, Rob Gronkowski.

It will be interesting to see whom the Chiefs put on Gronk. They’re a matchup-based defense that features man coverage outside and help defenders inside. That leaves them in good position to double a tight end. In these teams’ last meeting—a Monday night 41-14 Chiefs win in September 2014—versatile box safety Husain Abdullah often shadowed Gronk. Abdullah just returned from a five-week absence and played well in Saturday’s wild-card round. If he doesn’t draw the assignment this time, it could go to Eric Berry, who has been more of a free-to-roam space-oriented defender this season (though he matched up man-to-man against several elite tight ends two years ago).

Advantage: Chiefs

Photo:

Dont'a Hightower (left) and Travis Kelce

Kansas City offense vs. New England defense

As we said last week, if Alex Smith and Andy Reid know what coverage the defense will be in, Kansas City’s offense is extremely difficult to stop. Reid might be the very best at calling plays to exploit specific coverages. The evidence suggests the Patriots will be in man-to-man; that’s been their M.O. the last few seasons and, with eight former first-or second-rounders expected to start this game, they’re certainly talented enough to play straight up.

That said, predicting what Bill Belichick will do is a fool’s errand. His rich defense is capable of seasoning its coverages with zone looks. If they change things up, it will likely be from play to play rather than within the same play; the Patriots do not do a ton of disguising.

Reid will have to employ multi-option plays that have both man- and zone-beater routes. He has plenty in his arsenal, but the general nature of this approach could compel Alex Smith to hold the ball just a beat longer as he verifies the coverage. Smith plays with the cautiousness of an untrusting house cat. He can’t (and won’t) attempt throws with bodies around him. If the Patriots generate even a semblance of pass-rush pressure early in the downs, Smith will tuck the ball and take off. If you limit Smith’s scrambling options, you remove Kansas City’s safety net.

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots spy Smith with inside linebacker Jamie Collins. Or, given that the Chiefs don’t throw a lot of deep balls (especially if Jeremy Maclin is out, which will likely be the case following his knee injury in the wild-card round), the Patriots could do what they did against Russell Wilson in last season’s Super Bowl: play man-free-lurk with free safety Devin McCourty moved down as the underneath lurk defender. As a lurk defender McCourty acts as a natural QB spy as well as an extra body against inside-breaking routes—something the Chiefs love to run given Smith’s reluctance to make tight throws outside the field numbers.

Advantage: Patriots

Overall Advantage: Patriots

* * *

No. 5 Packers (11-6) @ No. 2 Cardinals (13-3)

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

Green Bay offense vs. Arizona defense

When these teams met three weeks ago, the Cardinals sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times—a fact you’ll hear repeated hundreds of times over the next few days. The Packers had deficiencies at both offensive tackle spots that day, plus Rodgers wasn’t playing in a rhythm. Both issues were ameliorated in Green Bay’s win at Washington last weekend. At right tackle, starter Bryan Bulaga was healthy and made no major mistakes in pass protection. At left tackle, backup center J.C. Tretter played in lieu of porous backup tackle Don Barclay to fill the void left by an injured David Bakhtiari. Aside from giving up an early sack in the end zone, Tretter held up well. Bakhtiari’s health will determine whether Tretter starts again this week. The Packers are notoriously secretive; the only information that can be trusted regarding who starts at left tackle is the information that comes out shortly before game time.

Then there is Rodgers. Aided by better protection, he looked more like his usual self last second, especially in the second and fourth quarters. This came after an iffy start in which he continued to leave throws on the field, either inaccurate balls or not pulling the trigger to semi-open receivers within the timing of the play design. Emphasis on “semi-open,” which is the best Green Bay’s receiving corps has done all season. Undoubtedly the Packers will assume a “we’re back and we’re here to prove all our haters wrong!” attitude now that they’ve returned to a level of decency on offense. But one week should not outweigh the previous 16 when analyzing a team headed into a road contest against a 13-win club.

The Packers exploited a so-so Washington defense; facing Arizona, with its stifling corners and byzantine blitzes, is another story. To have a chance, they must do what they did to stabilize things in taking control last week: run the ball effectively out of two-back sets. Fullback John Kuhn was a demon on lead-blocks last Sunday. Having him chauffer Eddie Lacy, James Starks and, at times, Randall Cobb will be critical in this contest.

Advantage: Cardinals

Photo:

Damarious Randall (left) and Larry Fitzgerald

Arizona offense vs. Green Bay defense

The Cardinals have veteran QB who is an elite pocket passer and a quartet of dangerous wideouts who play in a smart, aggressive, multi-faceted downfield passing system. But scary as this is, it’s rookie running back David Johnson who will be the key factor Saturday night. In the Week 16 matchup against Green Bay, Johnson was crucial as a receiver—both as a checkdown target and a feature in muti-player route combinations. He’s a swift, strong long-strider who can beat you out of the backfield, from the slot or even split wide. The Packers played a litany of different coverages against Arizona in their last meeting, but at their core they’re a man-to-man defense. They are versatile and athletic at safety and corner, but one area of weakness has been in coverage at the inside linebacker spot next to Clay Matthews. In this scheme, that man is generally the one who takes the running back in man-to-man. In base and nickel sets, it will be fourth-round rookie Jake Ryan, an emerging run-chaser but unreliable pass defender. In dime packages, where Matthews often rushes the passer, it will be undrafted second-year man Joe Thomas.

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Green Bay’s best hope is to generate pressure on Palmer. The Cardinals, for all of their empty sets and deeper dropbacks, have only a mediocre pass-blocking O-line. Defeating that line is much easier than handling Palmer, his fine-tuned receivers and their ingenious route combinations.

Advantage: Cardinals

Overall Advantage: Cardinals

* * *

No. 6 Seahawks (11-6) @ No. 1 Panthers (15-1)

Sunday, 1:05 ET, FOX

Carolina offense vs. Seattle defense

Another story you’ll hear 100 times this week: how soon-to-be league MVP Cam Newton’s turning point was his Week 6 road comeback over a Seahawks team that had beaten Carolina five straight times, including last year in the Divisional Round. Indeed, Newton was sensational late in that game and we began to see him in a different light. Since then, he’s only gotten better. But so have the Seahawks. They’re back to playing the basic Cover 3 zone and various straight man-to-man concepts that have defined their success.

Seattle’s pass rush is potent, but Carolina does so much with max protection (i.e. keeping seven blockers in rather than just five) that the key becomes maintaining coverage discipline downfield. Few offenses are as good with deep zone-beater route combinations as offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s. The system’s reliability is one reason the mega-armed Newton has become a top-tier pocket passer. In this game, stopping Carolina down the seams is crucial; it’s where Greg Olsen resides and where Cover 3 zones can be vulnerable depending on the accompanying routes from the outside receivers. So is combatting Carolina’s deep in-breaking routes, something Seattle didn’t do well in Week 6.

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Newton’s greatest value remains in the ground game, where he’s either a runner or a significant decoy who forces linebackers and edge defenders to think more and thus play slower. Here the Panthers are also extremely well designed. Their running game, with its myriad pull-blockers, misdirection fakes and option ghost threats, presents more variables than any other in the league. Consider it strength against strength; the Seahawks are outstanding with gap discipline and have the speed to overcome missteps. With middle linebacker Bobby Wagner healthy (he wasn’t in the first meeting), this matchup is even in every facet.

Advantage: push

Photo:

Russell Wilson (left) and Luke Kuechly

Seattle offense vs. Carolina defense

The Seahawks passing game has improved in design, and Russell Wilson has responded by playing extremely well from the pocket. And because of his mobility, Seattle’s ground attack remains multipronged, forcing defenders to play slow. For Carolina, it’s often a pure zone-based approach, likely with one high safety on early downs and two high safeties in Tampa 2 on passing downs. The Panthers have improved in man-to-man this season, which they’ll employ in some of their select pressure packages. But given the importance of keeping eyes on Wilson, expect to see almost all zone.

The difference could be Carolina’s linebackers. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly have the speed to combat Wilson. Also, they’re heady enough to counter a tactically challenging running game and rangy enough to act on their shallow route reads, which impacts Doug Baldwin from the slot. Wilson has become a more disciplined player down the stretch, but he has hurt Carolina over the years with movement late in games. When the quarterback leans on his movement skills, there becomes a fine line between smart and sloppy offensive play. Overall, the better the defense, the more likely the sandlot plays are to be sloppy. But of course, the Vikings learned something on the Tyler Lockett catch, which came after the fumbled snap, that set up Seattle’s first touchdown last Sunday: with Wilson a sloppy play can still yield good results.

Advantage: push

Overall advantage: I’d say push. But if forced to pick one team, I’d narrowly select the Seahawks.

* * *

No. 6 Steelers @ No. 1 Broncos

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

Denver offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

Peyton Manning is back, which means the Broncos will often find themselves audibling into the smartest running play. As far as what Manning brings through the air, that remains to be seen. He only threw nine passes in Week 17 against the Chargers. A few of those were completions outside the field numbers, which require a certain amount of arm strength. But all of them were against a Chargers secondary that was down to its backups.

The Steelers don’t have great secondary personnel, but the group has lately overachieved in coordinator Keith Butler’s pressure-heavy scheme. Manning might be the most cerebral quarterback of all time, but against voluminous, disguise-based defenses he’s been known to stress and overthink things. There can be an upside to this, of course (see Manning’s 539 career touchdowns and 71,940 passing yards). But there’s also the potential for a downside, which, with the 39-year-old seeing his first full 60-minute action since Nov. 8, would come in the form of a fragmented out-of-rhythm passing game.

If Pittsburgh’s blitzes don’t generate disruption and the occasional big-play opportunities, the Broncos will have a shot at scoring 30. It’s hard to envision safety Mike Mitchell and corners Antwon Blake and William Gay handling the likes Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

Advantage: push

Photo:

Bradley Roby (left) and Martavis Bryant

Pittsburgh offense vs. Denver defense

What happened when the Steelers posted 34 points and 354 yards through the air against Denver’s top-ranked defense in Week 15 was simple: Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris failed in man coverage against Antonio Brown. (Harris is far from the only one in the NFL.) In almost any other scenario, a player as good as Harris would get the benefit of the doubt and be given an opportunity to avenge the game as a pure man defender against Brown. But the Broncos seemed snake-bitten after Brown’s 189 yards. Head coach Gary Kubiak even made the case for the sixth-year wideout being the league’s MVP.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the two games following the loss to the Steelers, the Broncos changed up their approach. In Week 16 against Cincinnati, they went with their usual man-to-man for much of the first half but shifted to zone in the second half. They did the same the next week against San Diego. It would be surprising if they don’t continue incorporating more zone this Sunday.

It will also be surprising if the Broncos do not keep both safeties back in coverage, inviting Pittsburgh to run the ball. Ben Roethlisberger has become a cerebral QB. One of the byproducts of his maturation is a willingness to check into running plays against a light defensive box. Roethlisberger will do this regardless if it’s DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint or Jordan Todman in the backfield. All three have shown the necessary vision and short-area agility to create their own yards between the tackles. But sturdy as the backs have been, and adept as Pittsburgh can be with pull-blockers in the ground game (namely All-Pro right guard David DeCastro), a defense is far better off taking its chances against these guys with a light box than it is daring Roethlisberger and his receivers to beat them.

Advantage: Steelers

Overall advantage: Steelers

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