The NFL’s big guns are coming to play this weekend, as the Chiefs, Rams, Patriots and Saints will all host divisional-round playoff games. Those four teams looked like the class of their respective conferences this season, and this weekend they get to prove it.
Which individual matchups will prove most pivotal? We identified one for each game, using Pro Football Focus player grades and statistics.
Indianapolis at Kansas City
Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill vs. Colts defensive backs Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker
Don’t be surprised if the Colts don’t even attempt to play man coverage on a single snap against the Chiefs this weekend. The played 65 snaps of man coverage during the regular season, the second-lowest total in the NFL, and unless you have cornerbacks who can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, that’s usually the correct coverage to play against Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs’s speedster racked up 562 yards against man coverage this season — third-most in the NFL — at a ridiculous 19.4 yards per catch.
It’s not like teams fared amazingly against Hill playing zone, either, though. The Chiefs will regularly counter soft zones by sticking Hill in the slot and letting him get a free run at the safeties. The speed with which he gets to the second level of the defense and quickness with which he breaks off his routes is a nearly impossible task for most safeties to match. He racked up 597 yards from the slot against zone coverage — the most in the NFL.
Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker have been successful matching up with slot receivers down the field so far this season, having allowed all of five catches between them. Hill presents a rare challenge, however, and on one play he can completely change the game.
Dallas at Los Angeles Rams
Rams’ play-action passing game vs. Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith
This is the biggest strength versus strength matchup of the entire weekend. Goff led the NFL with 1,971 yards off play action this season, as the Rams employed it more often than any other team in the league. On those plays, he averaged 10.0 yards per attempt and had a 112.3 passer rating. For the most part, however, play-action exists to attack the area vacated by linebackers who are drawn forward by the run fake, and no team in the NFL has linebackers who can cover more ground than the Cowboys.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith finished the regular season as PFF’s fifth- and sixth highest-graded linebackers, respectively. Opposing offenses only gained 1,029 yards off play-action against the Cowboys this season, the eighth-lowest total in the NFL. Smith and Vander Esch combined to allow 16 total catches in their coverage this season off play-action, with only seven going for first downs. That sort of stinginess will be necessary to keep the Cowboys in this one.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England
Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers vs. Chargers guard Dan Feeney
The key to this matchup for the Chargers is to simply keep their heads above water. Flowers has the versatility to play any technique up and down the line of scrimmage, meaning they could easily stick him over Feeney’s outside shoulder all game long if they like. And that spells trouble for Los Angeles. Feeney’s 46 pressures allowed this season were the most of any guard in the NFL. It’s not just that he allows them, but the speed with which they came that could be a nightmare for quarterback Philip Rivers. Feeney allowed eight pressures where he lost within 2.0 seconds of the snap, which is also the most of any guard in the NFL.
Flowers, on the other hand, notched 65 pressures this season, the 13th-most of any player in the league. That number was also 33 more than any interior defender on the Patriots. Flowers is truly the only player the Chargers offensive line has to worry about on the interior. Avoiding letting Flowers go one-on-one with Feeney should be a top priority in their protections.
Philadelphia at New Orleans
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas vs. Eagles’ backup cornerbacks
It appears, on paper at least, that the Eagles did better than expected in containing Michael Thomas in their Week 11 blowout loss to the Saints. Thomas was held to four catches, 92 yards and a touchdown. In actuality, it took them double-teaming Thomas almost the entire game to only hold him to those figures. In that 48-7 defeat, Jim Schwartz dialed up some of the quirkiest coverages you’ll ever see — not only doubling Thomas, but also double-covering Alvin Kamara out of the backfield on the same play. The result was Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith going off for 157 yards on 10 catches.
Therein lies the problem with facing Drew Brees: He only needs a step of separation to burn your defense. In PFF’s advanced quarterback charting, we found that Brees completed 79.1 percent of his attempts when his receivers had only a step of separation — the highest figure in the league by 5.3 percentage points. The Eagles may have been able to get away with their ragtag secondary in the elements against Mitchell Trubisky, but that seems doubtful in the Superdome against Brees. We’ll likely find out very early on if the Eagles trust their corners to go one-on-one with Thomas, and how they hold up will go a long way toward deciding the game.
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