NFL Playoffs 2013: Breaking Down Biggest X-Factors in Sunday's Wild-Card Games
Saturday's slate of games gave a great start to Wild Card Weekend, but it's Sunday's two contests that arguably pack the most intrigue.
In the AFC, we'll see the culmination of one captivating storyline. Either the Indianapolis Colts win and Ray Lewis' historic 17-year NFL career comes to an end, or the #Chuckstrong movement sees its final game with a Baltimore Ravens victory. Either way, it's highly unlikely we'll see a dry eye at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
In the NFC, the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks may simply be the two best teams playing this weekend. They head into Sunday having won their last 12 games combined and are led by two of the most exciting rookie quarterbacks in recent memory. Truth be told, it almost feels like a disappointment they're playing this early.
With that in mind, let's take a look at both games and analyze the biggest X-factors for all four teams in action on Sunday.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
Can Andrew Luck Pull Off More Late-Game Heroics?
There's plenty that can be said about the luck (no pun intended) the Colts needed to reach the playoffs. They went 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, played one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and have a Pythagorean Expectation of seven wins based on their minus-30 point differential.
None of that necessarily matters on Sunday. Those factors gave Indianapolis a ticket to the postseason despite all odds. Now it's up to the team to take advantage.
We can, however, state one thing for certain: If the Colts win, they won't do so by blowing out the Ravens. Only two of their 11 wins came by more than a touchdown, and one of those was against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The other was last Sunday against the Houston Texans in what was Indianapolis' best win of the regular season.
That means, barring an anomaly, this game will be close if the Colts are going to win. With that comes a heavy burden on quarterback Andrew Luck.
Based on what opposing teams saw during the regular season, that should be no problem for the rookie signal-caller. Luck led seven game-winning drives, which is tied for the third-most in a single NFL season. It's that innate ability to come back in the fourth quarter that has kept the Colts afloat in games they had absolutely no business winning.
Just don't confuse Luck with some fourth-quarter savant because the stats don't back it up. Though it's true Luck does improve somewhat from the second and third quarter in the final 15 minutes, his quarterback rating of 75.3 in the fourth is below his season average.
It's actually the first quarter where Luck truly excels. In that quarter, he threw seven touchdown passes and not a single interception in 105 attempts.
Obviously, he could simply be one of those guys who rises to the occasion. That's a phenomenon that statistical evidence can't account for and will need to happen again on Sunday for the Colts to win.
Will the Ravens Finally Unleash Ray Rice?
While Indianapolis will put its fate in the hands of its quarterback, Baltimore would be best served doing the exact opposite.
This may be the most well-rested Rice has been heading into the playoffs in a long time. The Ravens star received only 318 total touches (rushing and receiving) this season, which is his lowest total since his rookie year.
In fact, head coach John Harbaugh went even further last week to rest Rice, giving him only three carries against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ostensibly, that should mean he's raring to go against Indianapolis on Sunday. If that's the case and the Ravens plan on featuring Rice heavily, they should have no problem carving up the Colts' front seven.
Indianapolis' problems in run defense became an in vogue criticism after the Kansas City Chiefs rushed for 352 yards in Week 16, but it's been a season-long problem. Per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Colts rank last in the NFL against the run. That's an important distinction because DVOA measures for things like schedule strength that regular stats do not.
Even if you prefer the old-school measurements, Indianapolis doesn't look much better. It finished 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (137.5 per game) and also was the league's second-worst in yards allowed per carry (5.1).
If he gets enough carries, Rice should run all over the Colts defense. It's just highly questionable whether the Ravens are willing to commit to the run. Rice only received 20 or more carries six times during the regular season, and Baltimore was 5-1 in those games.
All it will take is a similar commitment for Baltimore to find success early and often.
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins
Can the Seahawks and Russell Wilson Perform Up to Their Potential on the Road?
A common misperception being bandied about as state-of-the-art football stadiums become in vogue is that home-field advantage no longer matters. While it isn't as obvious in some years, that's completely untrue. Home teams went 146-109-1 this season, which is good for a 57.03 winning percentage.
What is true, though, is that we rarely see a massive chasm between how teams play on the road and at home. Bad teams (for the most part) are among the worst squads at home, and good teams are usually among the best on the road.
The biggest exception to that rule this season is the Seahawks. At CenturyLink Field, they are 8-0 and have regularly looked like the best team in the NFL. They have beaten the 49ers, Patriots, Packers and Vikings at home, a group that comprises exactly one-third of this season's playoff teams.
On the other hand, Seattle is 3-5 away from home, losing to non-playoff teams such as the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams. The team's only impressive road win came against the Chicago Bears. No, folks, playing in Toronto against the Buffalo Bills doesn't count.
Outside of the win-loss column, the place where the difference in home-road splits is most striking for the Seahawks is at quarterback. To do it justice, here is a complete comparison of Wilson's stats at home and away from home:
Home: 64.6 completion percentage, 188 passing yards per game, 17 TDs, 2 INT, 123.6 QB Rating
Away: 63.8 completion percentage, 201.8 passing yards per game, 9 TDs, 8 INT, 83.1 QB Rating
By no means is Wilson bad on the road. He's just nowhere near as good. With Washington being a better matchup than anyone realizes, Wilson will have to buck that trend and come up huge on Sunday.
Will Robert Griffin III Play Like He's 100 Percent?
Even considering the Seahawks' road woes, Washington can't win with the version of RGIII we've seen the past couple weeks. Since returning from a sprained lateral collateral knee ligament, Griffin has looked like a hollowed-out version of himself, a guy who looks and sounds like the player who mesmerized the nation's capital but doesn't play like him.
The Redskins' schemes have noticeably reflected Griffin's injury. He ran the ball just twice for only four yards in Week 16's victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and was noticeably shadowed in last week's win over the Dallas Cowboys.
While Griffin ultimately ran the ball six times for 63 yards and a touchdown in that game, he was mostly used as Alfred Morris' decoy. Utilizing Griffin to freeze the Cowboys' aggressive linebacking corps, Morris went for career highs in carries (33) and yards (200) in the Redskins' division-clinching win.
Unfortunately, Morris can't be the singular lifeblood of Washington's offense on Sunday.
The Redskins need Griffin to be in midseason form against Seattle's defense. Though Pete Carroll's unit has athletes who can undoubtedly stop the Redskins' read-option attack, the Seahawks also suffer from over-aggressiveness at times on the edges. If Griffin is able to fool guys like Bruce Irvin the same way he did DeMarcus Ware a week ago, the Redskins could have a field day running the ball.
They just need a fully healthy RGIII to make that happen. Unlike the Cowboys, Seattle has enough athletes to make up for some overly aggressive plays by its edge rushers. Even a half-step of hesitation from Griffin on Sunday could prove to be the difference in the game.
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