The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These X-factors could determine which NFL teams win on wild-card weekend

Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is a big play waiting to happen. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images )

No team that has played on wild-card weekend has made the Super Bowl since the Ravens back in the 2012 season. But that Baltimore team was the third straight champion (after the 2010 Packers and 2011 Giants) to play on the opening weekend and win four games in the playoffs. With all the talent playing this weekend, we could see one of these teams hoisting the Lombardi trophy next month. Let’s take a look at the X-factors that could decide the outcomes of each of the wild-card games.

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

X-factor: Kansas City WR Tyreek Hill

There’s not a ton of fancy data needed for this one — Hill can bury you in the blink of an eye. There were 70 touchdown passes this season that occurred before the offense had even reached midfield. Hill received five of them. That’s one such play every three games. If he were his own team, Hill would have led the NFL in touchdown catches longer than 50 yards. That doesn’t even take into account the work he can do as a runner and returner. He’s been utilized far less often in such roles this season, but still has four return touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns of more than 60 yards in his career. One has to believe Andy Reid will do everything in his power to get the ball to his most dynamic playmaker in a win-or-go-home situation.

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams

X-factor: Sean McVay’s play-calling against Cover-3

While the Seahawks moved away from their Cover-3 roots a bit this year, the Falcons and Coach Dan Quinn are still dialing it up on more than half their snaps. Only Gus Bradley and the Chargers ran Cover-3 on a higher percentage of snaps than the Falcons (54.6 percent vs. 52.1 percent). That sort of static look means that McVay knows exactly what to prepare for, and that should terrify the Falcons. We’ve seen concepts before that “break” the new-age Cover-3 defense. This season, Jared Goff has already picked apart the Cover-3 defenses he’s seen, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt, the fourth-highest figure of any quarterback in the NFL. If Atlanta is content to sit in their base defense throughout the game, there’s little doubt that McVay will have an answer for it.

Analysis: NFL wild-card playoff picks and Super Bowl odds: Jaguars and Saints win easily

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars

X-factor: Bills’ playmaking secondary

This one is actually a combination of the Bills’ playmaking secondary and Blake Bortles’s penchant for turnover-worthy throws. The members of Buffalo’s secondary got their hands on 51 passes this season whether through interceptions or pass breakups, the most of any secondary in the NFL. The Bills’ safeties, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, were second and third, respectively, among all safeties in combined interceptions and pass breakups. That’s a dangerous combination.

While Bortles has curbed his bad decisions — his 3.28 turnover-worthy throw rate is a career low — they have crept back in recent weeks. Of his 20 TWTs on the season, six have come over the past two weeks. Unsurprisingly, the Jaguars lost both of those games as Bortles’s risk-aversion gets seemingly thrown to the wind when playing from behind. If the Bills could get an early lead, this matchup could spell trouble for Jacksonville.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

X-factor: The Saints’ screen game

No one in the NFL gained more yards on screens than the Saints (634) this season. Essentially an extension of their running game, they averaged 6.9 yards per play and completed 87 percent of them. Their 32 first-down/touchdown conversions via screens were nine more than any other team in the NFL.

One might think with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, the Panthers would be well-equipped to shut down the screen game, but the fact that they run zone among the highest rates in the NFL (78.3 percent of snaps, third-highest in NFL) makes screens a viable option. Their 17 first downs allowed on screens this year was the eighth-most of any defense. With the Saints dialing up screens as frequently as they do — they ran 12 in Week 4 against the Dolphins — one missed assignment or broken tackle on Alvin Kamara could decide the game.

Read more on the NFL:

Does NASCAR CEO Brian France want to buy the Carolina Panthers?

Is Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant still elite?

One team eligible for ‘Hard Knocks’ 2018 already is lobbying against it

Does Carson Palmer belong in the Hall of Fame or merely the Hall of Very Good?

The fatal flaw that could stop your favorite team from winning the Super Bowl

Will there be a Sean McVay Effect on this year’s NFL head coaching searches?

Loading...