NFL wild-card round’s trio of rematches enhance the intrigue
|Toronto Star 03 Jan 2019 at 14:51|
The NFL playoffs kick off on Saturday, and adding to the intrigue of the wild-card round is that three of the four games are rematches from the regular season. Each team will have lots of information to work with in writing their game plans and identifying the matchups that they can best exploit to come away with a victory.
Which individual battles will matter the most in determining the outcomes?
Using statistics and player grades from Pro Football Focus, we’ve identified the one-on-one matchup in each game that should prove most pivotal in deciding which teams move on, and which ones go home for the off-season.
INDIANAPOLIS at HOUSTON
Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton vs. Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph
We’ve seen this movie twice already, and both times it ended poorly for Joseph. Of Hilton’s 316 yards in the teams’ two contests this season, 148 came against the Texans’ veteran cornerback. That’s more than one quarter of the total yardage Joseph allowed on the entire season.
In his prime, Joseph was one of the fastest corners in the league, but 34-year-old legs don’t quite move the same. Getting the speedy Hilton matched up one-on-one with Joseph should be a priority for Colts coach Frank Reich and he should know where to find him. The Texans play strictly sides with their corners, and over 90 per cent of Joseph’s snaps since Week 10 have come at left cornerback. Hilton’s usage over the course of the season has been far more varied, but the majority of his routes have come on the right side — expect that to be the case Saturday, and for quarterback Andrew Luck to look his way early and often.
SEATTLE at DALLAS
Cowboys edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence vs. Seahawks right tackle Germain Ifedi
While the Seahawks’ improvement along the offensive line this season has been a revelation for quarterback Russell Wilson, it is still a middling unit across the board. Ifedi, in particular, has had issues with penalties (10 this season) and losing quickly in pass protection (six sacks allowed). In their Week 3 matchup, Lawrence notched a sack, a hit and three hurries on only 23 pass-rushing snaps. Seattle mostly protected Ifedi by running the ball and only having 21 dropback passes.
While this is a clear mismatch in pass protection, it is also a crucial matchup for how it impacts the running game. Lawrence’s 11.8 run-stop percentage was the second-best of any edge defender this season, while Ifedi’s 48.0 run-blocking grade was the seventh-worst of any starting tackle in the league. The Seahawks help their offensive line with a lot of option looks, but when Lawrence and Ifedi are matched up one-on-one, it’s not a favourable situation for Seattle.
L.A. CHARGERS at BALTIMORE
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson vs. Chargers safety Derwin James
What Lamar Jackson did for the Ravens’ rushing attack cannot be overstated. Through 10 weeks, the Ravens were 27th in rushing yards (834) and 31st in yards per carry (3.6). Over the last seven games of the season, they ran for 415 more yards than any other team in the NFL and were third in yards per attempt (5.1). Had Jackson maintained the pace he set in seven games over the course of a full season, he would have rushed for 1,271 yards, shattering the single-season quarterback rushing record of 1,039 yards set more than a decade ago by Michael Vick.
This is a quarterback-based rushing offence the likes of which we’ve never seen in the NFL — but this week the Ravens are facing the defence that gave them more fits than any other during its playoff run. The Ravens’ offence managed only 16 points in Week 16 before a late defensive touchdown sealed their victory. Jackson called the Chargers defence the fastest they’ve played all season, and no Chargers defender is more explosive than Derwin James, their star rookie safety.
James was mostly neutralized in that Week 16 loss, with just one stop and a missed tackle, but he is already one of the league’s most dangerous hybrid weapons in his first year. His 40 defensive stops were the second-most of any safety, as were his 19 quarterback pressures. The Chargers defence will keep him in the box to deal with Baltimore’s varied rushing attack, and his ability to track down Jackson could be crucial for the Chargers.
PHILADELPHIA at CHICAGO
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles vs. the Bears’ secondary
One of the biggest changes from Nick Foles over the course of last season’s playoffs and the 2018 regular season has been his much-improved decision-making. On 333 dropbacks since the start of last year’s divisional round, Foles has just six turnover-worthy plays. That’s good for a 1.8 per cent rate that is well below the 2.9 per cent league average, and is actually even lower than what Drew Brees produced during his MVP-calibre campaign this year (2.0 per cent).
He’ll be put to the test Sunday, however, facing a Bears defence that has forced opposing passers into turnover-worthy plays 3.5 per cent of the time this season. The Bears’ 27 interceptions are six more than the next-closest team, and they’ve dropped six more passes that should have been picks. If Foles, who used to struggle to take care of the ball, can protect it against a defence such as Chicago’s, there are some higher powers at work for the Eagles.