The road to the Super Bowl begins this Saturday.
This year’s wild-card round features more intrigue than usual as the NFL expanded the playoffs to include one additional game per conference, so teams that would usually be on bye this week (Buffalo and New Orleans) now have to play first-round games.
We get to see a great group of quarterbacks, including Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, while veteran staples Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are hoping for another kick at a playoff run while their careers are winding down.
With that in mind, here are key questions and storylines heading into each of the six wild-card games this weekend:
Are Bills in danger of an upset?
Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills could not have finished the regular season any stronger, closing the year with three straight victories of 25-plus points, but they did not get a friendly draw to open the playoffs. The Indianapolis Colts, despite being the No. 7 seed in the conference, are a dangerous opponent built for outdoor playoff football with a veteran quarterback, a top-10 defence and an emerging running attack led by impressive rookie Jonathan Taylor, who finished third in the NFL in rushing. The Colts’ game plan will likely be focused on running a heavy time-of-possession offense to keep the ball away from Allen and his dynamic passing attack, but the Colts’ chances of an upset will hinge on Philip Rivers’ ability to limit turnovers, which has haunted him in the past. Rivers has 10 interceptions and three fumbles in 11 career playoff starts with a completion percentage below 60 per cent. They can not afford to give Allen any extra possessions.
Can Russell Wilson snap out of his slump?
Seattle was able to turn things around defensively, leading the NFL in scoring defence over the final eight games of the season, but the elephant in the room has been the middling play of Russell Wilson.
PFF QB ranks since Week 9, min. 50% of snaps:
19. Russ (!)
20. Alex Smith
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) January 5, 2021
The Seahawks quarterback had four games with just one touchdown pass in his final six starts and has struggled to find big plays, while the explosive deep ball that is a hallmark of their offence has disappeared. It does not help matters that Wilson is going up against the team he has struggled with historically in the Los Angeles Rams. He was sacked 11 times in two games (1-1) this year against the Rams, who boast the NFL’s best passing defence. While a lot of the conversation about this game is focused on who will start for the Rams at quarterback or the health of safety Jamal Adams, the simple truth is the Seahawks’ best opportunity to make a playoff run relies on their ability to rediscover their passing game.
Can Washington’s defence repeat history against Brady?
Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady (still feels weird to type that) is the most successful postseason player of this generation with 30 playoff wins and six championships, but the one area that has slowed him historically in the playoffs has been a great pass rush. Brady lost two Super Bowls to the New York Giants due to their great defensive line, and the same could be said about the quarterback’s previous playoff losses to the Denver Broncos (2015 season) and Baltimore Ravens (2012 season). While this is a clear mismatch on paper and at the quarterback position, Washington’s lone strength is its defensive line. It features five first-round draft picks, including star rookie pass rusher Chase Young, who is a freak athlete and finished with 7.5 sacks in his first NFL season. Young blew up a game in which they upset the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season and Ron Rivera’s team will be hoping for the same formula against the Buccaneers. Washington was the second most productive defensive line in terms of total sacks and it’s going to need to consistently get in the face of Brady, who is not very mobile at age 43. If Brady can get the ball out quick, this game will be as one-sided as it looks.
Will Lamar Jackson come through in playoffs?
Lamar Jackson was the 2019 MVP and emerged down the stretch in 2020 after an inconsistent regular season. He won each of his last five starts, throwing 11 touchdowns and running for four scores against a weaker crop of opponents. The narrative around Jackson, however, is about his playoff history. He has lost both his playoff starts and played rather poorly in both, including last year’s divisional round loss to the Tennessee Titans, who they will be seeing again this season. On one hand, the Titans have the least productive defence — they finished last in the NFL in sacks and were consistently atrocious in coverage — left in the playoffs so Jackson will have every opportunity for a breakout.
Steve Young on Lamar Jackson:
“He can be the greatest player that ever played the position if (Ravens) can develop some more sophisticated passing talent. I’m telling you that he will be on the Mount Rushmore of QBs with this talent, with this ability.”https://t.co/4hICag9X9V
— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) January 6, 2021
But Mike Vrabel did a good job game planning for Jackson last year, as Baltimore’s offence is not built to play from behind because of how much they rely on the run game, so it will be crucial for the Ravens QB to get off to a strong start and show he is a more consistent passer than the regression he displayed in 2020. If the Ravens can’t find offensive playoff success against this lowly Titans defence, there’ll certainly be some questions about Jackson’s ceiling going forward.
Was Bears surge simply a product of bad opponents?
The Chicago Bears emerged in the final month of the NFL season, ranking sixth in the NFL in points per game (31.2) after Week 13. David Montgomery finished with a career high 1,508 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns, but the Bears’ spike in productivity also coincided with a very weak schedule, including four matchups against teams (Minnesota, Jacksonville, Detroit and Houston) that ranked 25th and below in defence. That slate is where Montgomery and Mitchell Trubisky’s stats began to pop so there are a lot of questions whether it was legitimate.
.@Mtrubisky10: "We know everybody’s overlooking us. We’ve been playing with that chip on our shoulder."
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) January 6, 2021
It’s hard to believe in the Bears’ chances against New Orleans. They were just 1-6 against teams with winning records, and were smoked at home in Week 17 by a quality opponent (Green Bay) in a game that should have decided their playoff fate. Matt Nagy’s offence will need to defy the statistics and maintain its productivity against the best defence it has seen in over a month. The Saints do not get enough credit for how good they were defensively this season.
Will bad-luck Browns finally win in Pittsburgh?
It was exciting for the Browns to clinch their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, but almost immediately Cleveland’s infamous bad luck re-emerged. The Browns will have to be without their head coach, Pro Bowl left guard and starting safety due to COVID-19-related issues. This puts Cleveland at a real disadvantage, considering how much it struggled against the Steelers, who rested key starters such as Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward in a close Week 17 Browns victory. On top of that, Cleveland has lost 17 straight games at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, last winning there in 2003, and will not have a healthy secondary to defend against the Steelers’ group of wide receivers. Canadian wideout Chase Claypool got downfield on multiple occasions in Week 17 and scored in both games against the Browns. Things are lining up for the experienced Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger, who looked rather terrible down the stretch, to move on to the divisional round.
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