Three of this weekend's four NFL Divisional playoff games are rematches from earlier this year. The Panthers beat the Niners, 10-9, in Week 10, and the Seahawks beat the Saints, 34-7, in Week 13. The Chargers and Broncos split their AFC West series -- San Diego triumphed over Denver, 27-20, in Week 15 but lost, 28-20, in Week 10, giving the Broncos a one-point edge in aggregate. Only the Patriots and Colts have yet to face each other this season.
Regardless of prior history, when you get to this point in a sudden-death tournament, every game is interesting, and the way the two teams match up with each other becomes the main focus, in my mind. Who has the edge? Which team matches up better? Does one team's approach and identity favor it over the other? What trumps? Power running or high-octane passing? Stout defense or electrifying offense? Tough to say.
Going even deeper than that, what specific matchups have the potential to put one team over the top? Which players are the X-factor in each game? In a group of teams that now makes up the Elite Eight of the NFL, it's hard to choose just one for each game, but here goes.
Saints vs. Seahawks
The Seahawks' defense led the NFL with the fewest opponent points per game, yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per attempt and interceptions. In their first matchup with Drew Brees earlier this season, the Seahawks held him to 147 yards passing (first time in 43 games he was held to fewer than 200), and 3.9 yards per attempt (worst of his Saints career).
To say Seattle matched up well in that particular game would be an understatement, but Drew Brees did not come two games shy of the NFL record 45 straight games passing of 200+ yards without making excellent adjustments game to game. Along with Sean Payton's offensive mastermind, Brees will be ready to exploit some of the things they weren't able to in the first game.
For me, it all starts with TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles. Most offenses would be happy to have one "joker" type player who can move all over the formation, do a number of things in the scheme and provide the coordinator with mismatches against just about every look, but New Orleans has two.
Take this play below on third-and-6, early in the second quarter -- the Saints are driving and looking to put six on the board instead of settling for three. New Orleans comes out of the huddle in a two-tight end, one-back set -- "heavy" by some standards -- but Seattle responds with its nickel pass defense. The Saints align two receivers and a tight end to the right in a bunch look that grabs Seattle's attention. On the backside, Graham is aligned as a receiver on the outside with Darren Sproles in the slot, close to the formation.
Here's where the idea of mismatches comes in. In this particular look, New Orleans gets a defensive end in coverage on Sproles and a 6'0 cornerback matched up versus a 6'7 freak of nature with a 38" vert.
The safety to the weakside here, Earl Thomas, is the only help to that side, and the Sproles out-route is convincing enough to get the All-Pro to bite. If you watch Earl, you can see that as the play unfolds, he's initially in great position to take Graham away, but a subtle shoulder shrug by Brees to the outside is enough.
Earl breaks on Sproles -- an extremely dangerous receiver himself. Brees is keyed on Earl, and once Thomas makes his choice, Brees lets it fly. There's not much that an inside leverage-playing Byron Maxwell can do here, other than make the tackle once the ball is caught.
That's not the only time the Saints went to Graham at the sidelines. I tend to think of Graham as a killer up the seam and in the red zone, but he's also really good at settling into soft zones toward the sideline and he's a deadly purveyor of the wheel route.
Below, you can see Graham motion across the formation into the slot, and run what looks to be a simple 12-yard out for the sticks. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner follows in coverage and nickel back Jeremy Lane drops in front of the route toward the sideline.
Seattle is in a cover 3 here and if you watch closely, you can see Byron Maxwell pass off his receiver up the sideline to Earl Thomas in the middle. Simultaneously, he keeps his eyes in the backfield and as Graham runs his wheel route, Maxwell reacts to Brees' throw.
This is another wheel route out of a different route combination that the Saints ran, with Graham, that got them six points the week prior in Atlanta.
The Seahawks did well in limiting Graham's impact in the two teams' first matchup (though he did score a touchdown), and if they are going to make it to the next round of the playoffs, they'll need to keep an eye on him. Problem is, he aligns everywhere, runs routes all over the place and has about a 25-foot catch radius. Seattle threw the kitchen sink at him in Week 13, matching him up with Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Byron Maxwell and a few others, so it'll be a real team effort.
Colts vs. Patriots
The Colts, more than maybe any other team in the NFL, are hard for me to gauge. They've beaten the Seahawks, Broncos, Niners and Chiefs, twice. They can and did hang with some of the league's best teams over the year. They also lost to some good teams as well -- the Dolphins, Chargers, Rams, Cardinals and Bengals. When it comes to their "type" though, as far as projecting how they'll match up against the Patriots, I'm pretty lost.
After beating the punch-you-in-the-mouth teams like the Seahawks and Niners, they were blown out by the Cardinals, Rams and Bengals, so I'm not sure if they're really a smashmouth team at this point. But they're not a high-octane passing offense either. They're somewhere in between. It doesn't help that they haven't really played a team like the Pats since probably Week 7.
So, how do you project this? Here's what I do know. T.Y. Hilton is a dangerous receiver, particularly when paired with Andrew Luck. The Patriots have managed to hold their season together strongly, and grab a two seed despite an absurd amount of injuries (plus Aaron Hernandez going to jail), so I'm certainly not projecting they'll lose. That said, after we saw what Luck did to an injury-depleted Chiefs defense last week, it makes you wonder if Brandon Spikes going to the IR is going to exacerbate an already struggling Patriots pass D.
When you have injuries, you have guys playing out of their natural position. You have communication issues. You have talent issues. And then you have issues.
49ers vs. Panthers
This game is strength on strength. This game is all about the trenches. You're going to see a matchup between the team with arguably the best offensive line in the NFL (San Francisco) take on the team with maybe the best defensive line in the NFL (Carolina), and both sides' respective philosophies are centered upon those units.
The Panthers' entire defensive coverage scheme is reliant, for the majority of the time, with a four-man pass rush. Behind that non-blitz rush, they have Luke Kuechly and a horde of talented and instinctual defenders, and it makes it very hard on opposing quarterbacks to find open receivers in the pass game. It's a numbers game -- when your defensive line is talented enough to pressure and get home with only four rushers, you're looking at seven defenders deep against, likely, four to five receiving options, maximum. This is, I'm sure, why the Panthers drafted two interior studs in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks in the draft this past year.
Not only can Carolina's four-man front get to the quarterback, it can plug up run lanes with the best of them. The Panthers finished second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, and tied for tops in the NFL in rushing touchdowns allowed on the year with four. Beef up front played a big part in this.
Conversely, the Niners' offense flows through the offensive line, more so than most teams, even. San Francisco ran the ball the third-most of any team, and no team threw the football less. San Francisco is a grind-it-out, ball-control run team at its core. While Michael Crabtree's return has helped the Niners' passing game see a very definite uptick over the past few weeks, San Francisco's strength, running, also happens to be Carolina's strength -- stopping the run.
Seeing another 10-9 style defensive slugfest wouldn't surprise me one bit. My key matchup for this game is actually a double matchup: Charles Johnson vs. Joe Staley and Greg Hardy vs. Anthony Davis. In other words, the edges.
In the first matchup between these two teams, the Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times, stifling his ability to sit in the pocket to make reads, and the dynamic quarterback finished 11-of-22 for 91 yards. Getting very solid pressure with four while dropping seven into coverage meant Kaepernick finished the day with 4.14 yards per attempt -- a lot of checkdowns and dumpoffs because of solid coverage in the secondary.
A few examples: Charles Johnson wins one-on-one with an easy stack-and-shed type move. Davis is a very good right tackle, but Johnson is one of the best defensive ends in the league. He'll have to bounce back in the rematch.
Again below, amazingly, the Panthers get a sack by rushing four against a six-man protection scheme, if you count Frank Gore. Once Kaepernick comes off his first read, it's already too late. This is the type of challenge that San Francisco will have in protecting its quarterback while giving him options at receiver. The Niners were missing Michael Crabtree in this game, so his ability to get open will make a big difference. Vernon Davis missed the second half of the game as well, so his presence will make a big impact in the quick passing game. He's a matchup nightmare.
Below, on a key third down in the fourth quarter, you can see just how Carolina is able to be so effective on defense. With a four-man rush, the Panthers not only flush Kaepernick from the pocket after forcing him off his first read, they chase him down enough to the point where he doesn't have much room to run. He throws a bit late and too high and the Panthers get their defense off the field.
The bottom line in this one? It's going to be a battle. I think that the 49ers will have a few of their key players back in this game, which will surely help matters in terms of executing their offense, but Carolina's defense poses a big challenge.
Chargers vs. Broncos
You know how some teams just match up well against particular teams? As a Seahawks fan, this is St. Louis. The Rams could go 2-14 and still give Seattle trouble both times they face off -- they just match up well, for some reason, and every game seems to be excruciatingly hard-fought. This seems to be a common theme within divisions, and for the AFC West rivals Chargers and Broncos, it holds true.
The Chargers come in as the Cinderella team, sneaking into the playoffs and then beating the Bengals handily in Cincy. Though San Diego is the No. 6 seed this year, I'm guessing the Broncos were not hoping this would be their Divisional round opponent.
Consider: in the Chargers and Broncos' two games, San Diego absolutely dominated the time of possession, to a tune of ~77 min to ~43 minutes. That's 38 minutes to 21 minutes per game, roughly, and the Chargers were able to do that by rushing for 308 yards combined (154 per game). As I said above, the two teams split the season series and the aggregate score was 48-47 in favor of Denver. This just feels like it could be anyone's game.
For me, the key to San Diego's upset chances is Ryan Mathews, assuming the Chargers' lead back can play. Though Mathews is battling an ankle injury at the moment, he's very, very quietly put together an excellent second half of the season. You may not realize that over the final eight games of the season, only the NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy had more rushing yards (874) than Mathews' 775. Mathews averaged 4.61 yards per carry in that time and scored five touchdowns. In fact, if you narrow the scope to the final three weeks of the season, the time frame starting with the Chargers' win over the Broncos in Denver, no one carried the rock more than Mathews. The Chargers went 3-0. They're leaning on him.
A lot is made of the way that the Broncos use their tight ends -- namely Julius Thomas -- in creative ways. I really like the things that the Chargers do with Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green. Green, the "move" tight end #89 on the end of this stretch play to the left, makes a nice block to spring Mathews.
The cool thing about Green, much like how the Broncos use Julius Thomas, is that with his speed, he can get deep on plays from the same formation. Green has 11 catches for 253 yards (23 yards per catch!) in the second half of the season, and has scored three touchdowns. Great use of personnel by San Diego.
Another example below of creative use of personnel: the Chargers use Green to slice across the formation and seal the defensive end, springing Mathews for a big gain.
The logic is simple, particularly when it comes to playing Peyton Manning's Broncos. The longer you hold onto possession of the football, the longer you keep the ball out of Manning's hands. By dominating the past two games in time of possession, the Chargers have given themselves a shot at staying in games.
While Mathews is a talented runner even between the tackles, I think he's most dangerous in space, where he can get outside the tackle box, make people miss and accelerate downfield. I would say the same is true of Danny Woodhead. Look for the Chargers to work the stretch runs outside on Sunday, whether it's with Mathews, Woodhead or Ronnie Brown.
Just a few key matchups and concepts to keep an eye on this weekend.