NFL Playoffs 2013: Matchups Each Team Must Exploit on Sunday

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 09: Running back Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Redskins during the fourth quarter of the Ravens 31-28 loss at FedExField on December 9, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

After four-plus months spent scratching, clawing and fighting to get to this moment, the NFL playoffs finally kicked off on Saturday. And the early returns have been...well, boring.

The first iteration of wild-card games left a lot to be desired, with only 66 combined points put up on the board. That's a yawn-inducing average of 16.5 per team. But what were we supposed to expect on a day where Andy Dalton and Joe Webb started playoff games? 

With Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin and Russel Wilson all lining up under center, Sunday promises to be a much more delightful day of pigskin. 

Here's one mismatch each team would be wise to exploit this afternoon/evening.

Indianapolis Colts

WR Reggie Wayne vs. CB Cary Williams

Injuries to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata have stolen much of the headlines (and rightfully so), but Lardaius Webb's torn ACL might have actually been the most malignant.

In the shutdown corner's place, Cary Williams has emerged to do a job that can only be described as "not horrible."

He's struggled in particular on short to medium routes, which could come back to haunt him against the Colts. Per Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz:

"[Williams] spent most of the season giving up a steady stream of 8-to-12-yard completions ... [which] doesn't sound like a particularly strong skill set if you have to cover Reggie Wayne, master of the 10-yard curl. Wayne was targeted this year on 43 passes that went between 8 and 12 yards in the air, more than any receiver except Brandon Marshall."

Baltimore's pass rush has been underwhelming all season, so Reggie Wayne should have more than enough time to outmaneuver Williams on the second level.

The Colts would do well to get those two matched up as often as possible.

Baltimore Ravens

RB Ray Rice vs. Colts Run Defense

Football Outsiders is not the be-all, end-all of playoff prognostication. I think the gurus who crunch those numbers would agree wholeheartedly.

But when a playoff team finishes DEAD LAST in their run defense rankings, it's impossible not to raise an eyebrow or two.

Indianapolis allowed 2,200 rushing yards on just 428 carries this year, an average of 5.1 yards per pop. Only the New Orleans Saints, who edged them out by one-tenth of a yard, fared worse. Just two weeks ago, they managed to beat the hapless Chiefs despite allowing 352 yards on the ground.

Even against a normal opponent, Baltimore's offense is most effective when it flows through Ray Rice. Against an opponent that couldn't stop a nose bleed, he'll be even more imperative.

Seattle Seahawks

WR Sidney Rice vs. CB DeAngelo Hall

DeAngelo Hall is a brilliant athlete, a bona fide playmaker and a charismatic personality. 

He's also one of the worst cornerbacks in the league.

Hall allowed 1.66 yards per coverage snap this season, placing him 69th out of 76 eligible cornerbacks (h/t Pro Football Focus). Football Outsiders gives him an even more censorious review:

"...According to our own preliminary game charting, DeAngelo Hall was the worst starting cornerback in the league, with a 41 percent defensive success rate in coverage and 10.1 yards allowed per pass."


He is coming off one of his best games of the year against Dallas, which seems like a promising sign. But the Cowboys' struggles could also be attributed god-awful pass blocking and Dez Bryant being at less than full strength.

If Washington leaves Hall on an island with Sidney Rice, the Seahawks must make them pay.

Washington Redskins

Redskins Blitz vs. QB Russell Wilson

The Seahawks are one of the most well-rounded teams in recent memory (if not ever), so it's hard to find an exploitable mode. But further review suggests the Redskins might be able to explout them with the blitz.

Per Aaron Schatz, on the B.S. Report Podcast:

"Seattle was the worst offense in the league when the opposing defense blitzed a defensive back. And Washington does that a lot.

Wilson, for all of his mobility...was much better against a standard pass rush than he was against the blitz, and he really struggled when teams blitzed defensive backs." 

It's hard to discern exactly WHY Wilson struggles so much against the blitz, but for whatever reason, he much prefers a four-man rush.

They need to give Sidney Rice as little time as possible to shake loose of DeAngelo Hall. And the best way to do that is to get in Russell Wilson's face, to impede his line of vision.

If they don't blitz effectively, it'll be hard for them to pull the home upset.