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2020 NFL Playoffs Wild Card Round Preview: Ten Things to Watch For

Ten things to pay attention to over the course of this weekend’s six playoff games.

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Now, look, I understand, the Houston Texans franchise is going through an unsettling period of time. They haven’t listened to Deshaun Watson regarding the general manager and the head coaching search after they said they would do exactly that. Jack Easterby wriggled his way inside of Cal McNair to hire Nick Caserio so he can continue to put cute little ‘GOD HAS YOU AND YOU GOT THIS’ notes in the players’ lockers, and have the money to do what he really loves, botch interpretations of the New Testament. No one knows if Caserio is going to be good at his job or not. As of right now he’s a charlatan, another New England cretin, another tentacle sliced off the Patriots’ octopus to wriggle and flail around and fail at another franchise. Hopefully this doesn’t lead to another New England head coach, Deshaun Watson enjoys his time in Mexico, and Caserio is great at taking over the reigns and the future is bright and beautiful and sunny.

That being said, football is still good, football is still the best game to watch and love, and even though the Houston Texans are bad and sad and ridiculous, it doesn’t mean that football is.

So rather than sulk and convulse over what happened in Houston this season, and what’s occurring right now, plop that giant rump of yours on the couch, and savor playoff football. But before you do, here are ten things you can keep your eyes on, as they slowly slip out of your skull over the course of twenty of hours of your football watching weekend.

HIT IT

1. STRETCH IT WIDE OPEN

Since he was drafted, Josh Allen was mocked for being a scout’s wet dream, tall, hot, rocket launcher arm, mobile, Atlas strength, all around ridiculous athlete, while having problems actually playing the quarterback position. The world held their bellies and laughed and laughed and laughed when the Bills selected him seventh overall. And they continued to laugh as Allen overthrew vertical routes by twenty yards, and skipped drag routes, but failed to enjoy the surreal tie-dye magic that leaping Anthony Barr, stiff arming defensive linemen, and throwing easy passes from the opposite hash to the sideline that he brought to the field.

That was in 2018. It’s the 2020 NFL season and Allen was one of the five best quarterbacks. He completed 69.2% of his passes for 4,544 yards, threw 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, averaged 7.9 yards an attempt, and also ran for 421 yards and 8 touchdowns on 102 carries. He was the Bills best running back while leading one of the best passing attacks in the NFL.

One of the things that make their pass game special is their ability to go empty or to four wide receiver formations to spread the field. With Stefon Diggs, an elite number one wide receiver, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox, and John Brown, now that he’s healthy again, the Bills have the receiver talent to win against man coverage from their first receiver to their fifth, and the depth to stretch the field against zone coverage where Allen can whistle passes through the cracks.

The Colts are primarily a cover seven team. Against passing offenses like Buffalo, they can be stretched horizontally to create holes in the zone coverage and create gaps in the coverage. Although they took a leap from good to great with the additions of Xavier Rhodes and Deforest Buckner, they can still get got by spread passing teams.

From an offensive v. defensive perspective the Bills are a relentless match up for Indianapolis. If they plug up a Buffalo offense that is averaging 42 points a game over the last month of the season, including casually dropping 28 in the first half against the Dolphins blitz heavy press-man attack that was one of the ten best defenses this year, it’s going to come along the interior of their defensive line. Buckner, Grover Stewart, and Denico Autry have to win their match ups against Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, and Jon Feliciano to force Allen to scramble wide rather than step up and hit short middle passes, which will allow their edge rushes to take wide paths against tackles Dion Dawkins and Darryl Williams.

This can’t be overstated. Exterior pressure isn’t enough. Allen can easily skip around it, escape the pocket, and spike spears into the heart of his receivers in ridiculous ways.

It’s also going to be a blast to watch Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker masquerade their assignments pre-snap as they dance around the ‘A’ gaps, drop in hooks, chase the flat, spy, coffee house blitz, and sit and wait for the perfect time to chase after Allen.

The Bills have a crappy rushing game. It’s going to be up to Allen and their spread passing attack to score points against a team that has consistently wrapped their hands offenses’ throats this year.

2. TITAN UP BRAND FOOTBALL

The Titans have their own version of two toned blue jean, cousin kissing, meth addicted racoon football that no one can replicate. It’s an outside zone heavy attack that paved Derrick Henry towards 2,000 yards as he tangoed and stiff armed his way through the second level and sprinted into the open field. Then, from there, they will drop play action passing bombs against heavy boxes. They’ll also use 11 personnel that utilizes the monstrous A.J. Brown and Corey Davis in stacked and balance sets with Tannehill in the shotgun where he can win as a quick passing pocket passer.

Their defense has been a bottom five unit. Jadeveon Clowney was skinny, out of shape, and had zero sacks before he opted for season ending knee surgery. Adorre Jackson was injured for most of the year before being replaced by terrible back ups, and they actually relied on Jonathan Joseph at the beginning of the year. Vic Beasley was released midseason. The pass rush is empty. They mainly play man coverage now since their zone defense was picked apart in the early part of the season, especially against Joe Burrow and Cincinnati. Mike Vrabel was a lackluster defensive coordinator in 2017. He is once again in 2020. It’s up to the offense to carry them entirely.

There’s more to it than this though. The Titans have to get a lead. In their 11 wins they ran 376 plays with a lead. In their five losses they ran 15 plays with a lead. The Titans have to play ahead, or tied, where they can dictate and control the game with their offense. In addition to this, they have to win the turnover battle, bleed the clock, hit their fourth down decisions, win their challenges, and make sure the intrinsic and zany goes their way.

In the last two matchups the Titans are 2-0 against Baltimore. In their Divisional Round win, the Ravens went 0-4 on fourth down, had three turnovers; sat back and watched the Titans go 3-3 in the redzone thanks to a one handed Jonnu Smith touchdown catch, a Derrick Henry jump pass, and a Tannehill zone read keep; and despite outgaining Tennessee 530 to 300, Baltimore still lost 28-12.

In their regular season win earlier this year, the Titans picked up the blitz well, won their outside receiver matchups, converted a fake punt, sacked Lamar Jackson in overtime to force 3rd and 17 and an eventual punt, and clinched it with a Derrick Henry game winning touchdown run from 29 yards out, to ensure their kicker couldn’t blow it. It was the rare win where the Titans struggled in the redzone, kicked their field goals, and came back from behind to win.

The Ravens have been unable to leave their crabs in the bucket and handle this raucous and ridiculous brand of football. Early on, it’s going to be pretty easy to tell if it’s a Titans game or not. If it is, get ready for the hilarious and confounding, and an eventual Titans win. If it isn’t, and the Ravens get an early lead and are allowed to big blitz Tannehill in the shotgun, then Baltimore should be able to finally vanquish their Wal-Mart demons.

3. TIGHT END TIMES

Again, the Titans have an atrocious defense. Their weakest point is covering tight ends. This season they have a pass defense DVOA of 36.5%, which is last, when covering tight ends. Despite playing a lot of Nickle and three safety sets, they’ve had problems against this position since they have to stay deep middle while keeping their eyes on whoever the non-Malcolm Butler cornerback is covering. Having Adoree Jackson back helps this, but the Titans have struggled in these matchups all season.

Mark Andrews is one of the three best receiving tight ends even if his 2020 season saw a bit of a drop off due to injuries. In their previous two matchups, Andrews has 9 catches on 14 targets for 135 yards and 1 touchdown.

Lamar Jackson is the purple Tetris piece. He can throw short, and deep middle, but struggles down the sideline. This has been the hole in his game since his NFL career began. In three years he hasn’t been able to improve on this fatal flaw. As a result, their deep passing offense is based around the deep middle, a section of the field closed by the Titans’ defense. Throughout the last two seasons Jackson has struggled hitting his pure wide receivers in the deep passing game.

They are going to need Andrews to have the production he’s had in the last two games in this one alone. He’s their best receiver, and the only consistent receiving threat they have. Corner and post routes are especially important, routes that get him away from the deep middle safety.

And they will also need to tag him in route combinations with another receiver to create big play chances for him like they did in their 2020 regular season match up.

The Ravens are similar to the Titans since each team wants their run game to drive their offense, instead of the other way around. The Titans have been able to load the box, tackle well, and force Jackson to win in the pocket as a passer. In these last two games their run pass ratio is 62 to 88. This season, the Ravens run pass ratio is 555 to 406. If the Titans force Lamar Jackson to win the game from the pocket he’s going to need to rely on his connection with Andrews to create offense. He’s their best matchup and this is the weakest link in an already flimsy Titans’ defense.

4. THE FOUNTAIN OF KEYSTONE ICE

The Steelers’ offense isn’t the Steelers offense it used to be. It isn’t a grinding power run scheme where Ben Roethlisberger hits deep shots as he trounces around the pocket like a Garnecia Elefantis. This season Roethisberger is a point guard. He’s Andre Miller. Throwing quick crossing routes to turn their passing game into their run game.

Last week Mason Rudolph was terrible as he always is, but he could do one thing. He could hit sideline passes to Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson v. Robert Jackson and Terrance Mitchell since both Kevin Johnson and Denzel Ward were out of the lineup.

Johnson and Ward are both doubtful this week too. The Steelers offense can luck their ways into enough competent drives to scrape past twenty points with the defense they have. Often this is enough. For this game the biggest mismatch is going to be along the sideline. Throws like this that provide instant flashes of points for a team that is often strangling to come up with some is crucial for Pittsburgh.

Additionally, if the Steelers are going to be something more than a Divisional Round flameout this season, they are going to need Roethlisberger to find the fountain of Keystone Ice and hit these passes he used to. The Steelers don’t have the precision a typical quick spread attack has, and their run game is sickening and stubborn. This weekend this will be the focal point of their offensive production, and an important primer for what next week holds in store if they beat Cleveland.

5. BEND THE EDGE

Don’t let the Watt family loving national media fool you. Myles Garrett has been the best edge rusher in the NFL this season. He had 4 forced fumbles, 12 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 31 pressures in 14 games this year. He’s the source of high impact plays on a malodorous defense whose strength is him, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson.

The Browns are going to have a headache trying to move the ball against Pittsburgh. The Steelers front seven is back to full health aside from Bud Dupree, who has been adequately replaced by Alex Highsmith’s pass rushing production, and Devin Bush, who Avery Williamson has stepped in for after a midseason exchange with the New York Jets. They miss Dupree’s run defense and Bush’s coverage, but they are still a bomb that detonates every offense they go up against.

As great as Cleveland’s outside zone blocking scheme is, as magical as Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are, the Browns are going to struggle running the football. They are going to rely on Baker Mayfield to convert third downs from shotgun formations and pray he isn’t confused by the camouflage or bakes a disgusting cake thanks to too much baking powder by casually drifting too deep and into sacks.

The Browns’ defense needs to create short fields to create scoring opportunities for their offense. Roethlisberger isn’t immune to tip passes bounding into defenders hands over the course of his 60 pass attempts. That being said, the most viable turnover source is Garrett in his matchup against Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers left tackle is one of the better ones in the league, Garrett is a supreme talent. He’s going to rely on wide looping edge rushes, and will run the arc, not to take down the quarterback, but to instead reach his arm out and try to pry it loose for this defense. Last week he was close a few times and couldn’t quite get there. He’ll need to this week.

6. SHORT AND QUICK AND BORING

The first five weeks of Russell Wilson’s season were scorching and mystifying.

Russ did more than cook. He created a universe of his own for him to manipulate with wind, a ball, and the turn of his arm taking on the same metaphorical impact as breathe into the dirt, or a flash of light in a black and brutal and empty sky. He was an easy MVP candidate, and was playing like a top three quarterback.

Since Seattle’s loss to the Rams their offense has shifted. The Rams were able to big blitz Seattle and generate interior pressure to derail their deep passing game. Since then the Rams have thrown more slants and flats and drags in an effort to create a more stable and efficient passing attack, saving the bomb drops for when they needed them, and designing them specifically for when they were necessary.

This soured Wilson’s MVP run, and the utility the Seahawks provided. Yet, this helped set up the Rams for games like this one against the Rams. Los Angeles plays a lot of quarters and man match schemes with two safeties deep. The hole in this defense is the flat. These throws can create coverage change ups that gets the corners squatting to open up the intermediate corner along the sideline.

Get ready for Wilson to hold the ball, float around the backfield like a purple bearded djinn, and then dump it off to Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson in the flat where they can scamper after the catch. This offense is necessary to limit turnovers and disastrous plays, but it has a low ceiling that even the average male would have to stoop under. 24 points will be enough this weekend, but afterwards, Wilson and the Seahawks will need to regain their high flying purple mountain scouring deep passing majesty.

7. THE WOLFORD OFFENSE

Are we sure the Rams aren’t better with John Wolford instead of Jared Goff?

Now, I wouldn’t go that far, but the Rams are dramatically different with Wolford. In 2019 the Rams tried to deploy a spread passing offense with Jared Goff. It lasted for one half against Carolina before he skittered backwards with a pale face, unable to deal with the pass rush. Because of Goff’s inability to win from the pocket in a spread offense, the Rams have to do things like run counter with wide receivers pulling, use jet sweep motion to confuse the defense to set up their screen game and vacate space for their run game, and utilize play action and the middle of the field play after play. The central parts of the Rams’ offense have been stretched across the universe, but the typical shotgun quick passing component has been missing when Goff is playing quarterback.

Wolford is different than Goff, because Wolford is a race car. When the terrorizing pressure comes he can simply outrun it and create on his own. To play quarterback from spread sets you either have to beat defenses with your brain, or with your body if you can’t find something open before the clock runs out. Wolford doesn’t have the arm, or the accuracy that Goff has, but he does allow the Rams offense to open up and play the four and five wide receiver sets that Goff doesn’t permit, all because he can turn the line of scrimmage and move the chains, instead of hurdle deep and backwards into the depths of hell once a defensive lineman breaks free.

8. EARLY ENDZONE SHOTS

Tampa Bay’s source of scurvy is their rushing attack. Despite having an enormous, stinking, sweating, and monstrous offensive line, they are heavy and rigid, and have never really gelled in the run game with Ronald Jones hurt. Jones is back just for the postseason though, which shrinks the one problem the Bucs have to a minimum.

Against the Football Team, they get one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Football Team, built around their rookie contract first round selected defensive line, create easy tackle chances for Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic, and the rush necessary to allow Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby to ride the bull for minuscule seconds instead of the full eight.

The Bucs redzone offense has been hot and cold all season. Despite finishing seventh in redzone touchdown rate, they often find themselves in third and ten after frustrating incompletions. To save themselves from these situations they love to take shots into the endzone from the 30-40 yard range to save themselves the difficulty of strangling the defense in the endzone. The worst thing that can happen is an incompletion, and even then, Brady has drawn 395 yards off defensive pass interference penalties, the most in the league.

These deep throws should be available, especially from the tight alignments they love to throw from. With the offensive line they have, they can hold of Washington for the time needed for Chris Godwin, and even the soulless Antonio Brown to get open, along with their overkill selection of skill players that includes Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Scottie Miller, and hundreds of others.

It’s also my personal favorite part of the Bucs. These 30-40 yard shots are always riveting, and Brady has delivered all season. At age 43 he finished third in DYAR and fourth in DVOA, and has completed 60 (3rd) of his 131 (1st) passes over 15 yards for 1,777 yards and 11 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Tight alignment. Fade routes to the spacious sections of the field. January is when Brady evolves to his highest form.

9. HOW TO MOVE THE BALL

The Bears have averaged 31.5 points a game and have had an offensive awakening the last month of the season. They had a passing offense DVOA of 38.3% against Houston, 21.5% against Minnesota, 27.3% against Jacksonville, and 17.4% against Green Bay. Mitch Trubisky has completed 96 of his 31 attempts for 986 yards and is averaging 7.52 yards an attempt. This doesn’t sound like much, but this transcendence, a higher state of being for the Bears.

The two players that have led their passing attack are Allen Robinson, who is this era’s version of Andre Johnson, incredible wide receiver stuck dealing with terrible quarterback play, and Darnell Mooney, who consistently suffered while Nick Foles heaved garbage up to his seagulls in his direction. Robinson has 22 first downs and 346 receiving yards during this time, and Mooney has 21 catches on 27 targets for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The Saints have the best overall roster in the NFC. They have a top five pass defense and run defense. The Bears are a team that wants to run the ball, but can’t, and see a lot of games where David Montgomery has 32 carries for 93 yards. Riveting. This won’t change against New Orleans.

The one hole in the Saints defense is the deep middle. They have allowed 13 catches on 27 targets for 420 yards to this section of the field, and have a pass defense DVOA of 43.2%. The Bears have found success using Robinson in the slot recently have been able to hit him on the occasional deep post route. Mooney has stampeded through the seam enough times this season for it to be a possibility again this week. Plus, the Saints cornerbacks in general have had problems running with vertical assignments, as seen in their loss to Green Bay earlier this year.

If the Bears are going to score enough in what they need to make a nose bleed, it’s going to come from splash plays to the center of the field. It’s going to be up to Mitch to hit when it’s open, and manage the game by taking what he can with his legs, and playing missionary style mistake free football.

10. HIDING THE 41 YEAR OLD QUARTERBACK

As stated previously, the Saints have the best roster in the NFC. The problem, as it has been the last three seasons, is their quarterback and his old balls, ugh, gross. They’ve done everything they can to try and water his horse for one last ride. They’ve added additional pass catchers, they turned Taysom Hill into a fun deep passing replacement, and they’ve solidified the interior of their offensive line by drafting Cesar Ruiz and Eric McCoy, so the little goblin doesn’t have to worry about interior pressure squishing him into a loud SPLOOSH.

To cover him up they do everything from make Alvin Kamara the focal point of the offense, throw Jared Cook seam and corner routes to create a shorter deep pass game, manufacture man coverage chances for Michael Thomas to run slants against, bring Hill in as run game change up and deep passing quarterback, have Latavius Murray get the eight carries needed to replenish Kamara’s health bar, run outside zone and toss plays over and over again, and have now integrated Emmanuel Saunders into the lineup as a viable receiving option too.

The defense is here. The offense is here. Everything is here for Brees to be just good enough for the Saints to not only beat a crappy Bears team—thank God they added two new playoff teams so the Colts and Bears could get in—but also make an actual Super Bowl run. How they make up for Brees twilight limitations is going to be the key to their postseason.

PICKS:

Indianapolis Colts v. Buffalo Bills (-6.5)

Baltimore Ravens v. Tennessee Titans (+3.5)

Cleveland Browns v. Pittsburgh Steelers (-6)

Los Angeles Rams v. Seattle Seahawks (-3.5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v. Washington Football Team (+8.5)

Chicago Bears v. New Orleans Saints (-10)

SUPER BOWL:

Kansas City Chiefs over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers