NFL

5 Things Every Playoff Team Needs to Do to Get to the Super Bowl

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

5 Things Every Playoff Team Needs to Do to Get to the Super Bowl

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    The marathon portion of the NFL season has been completed. Now it's time for the sprint to the championship.

    After 17 weeks and 16 games, the NFL has eliminated 20 teams and 12 remain in the running to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in early February.

    We know that seedings don't always matter, because a hot team may be able to overcome a team that's been consistently productive in the regular season. It's about matchups, and coaches who can put their players in a position to succeed will often find a way to survive and advance in the playoffs.

    In this piece, we look at each of the playoff teams and what they will need to do to come out victorious in Super Bowl XLVIII.

     

San Diego Chargers

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

    Record: 9-7, third in AFC West

    Seed: No. 6 seed in AFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: at Cincinnati, Jan. 5; 1:05 p.m. (ET), CBS

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Attack with Ryan Mathews in the running game. Mathews gained 1,255 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry, and a decent running game will take pressure off of quarterback Philip Rivers.
    2. Rivers must concentrate on the short- and medium-range passing game. Rivers eschewed the deep pass this season, and completed 69.5 percent of his passes.
    3. Get Danny Woodhead involved on third-down plays. Woodhead is elusive and will not get tackled easily. If he catches the ball in the flat, he can make the catch that keeps drives alive.
    4. Turn on the pass rush. Defensive end Cory Liuget led the Chargers with 5.5 sacks, and the Chargers ranked 29th in that category. That's not good enough.
    5. Take advantage of interception opportunities. The Chargers had 11 picks during the regular season and let a number of chances slip through their hands. That can't happen if they hope to advance in the postseason.

     

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Tamba Hali
    Tamba HaliKyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-5, second in AFC West

    Seed: No. 5 seed in AFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: at Indianapolis, Jan. 4; 4:35 p.m. (ET), NBC

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Have an attacking mentality on defense. The Chiefs have been aggressive on the defensive end all season and they have 21 interceptions this year. Those takeaways have set them up for success.
    2. Give the ball to Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs' running back gained 1,287 yards on the ground and is also their leading receiver. He needs to have the ball in his hands.
    3. Don't hesitate to go downfield with the pass early in the game. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is thought of as a game manager. He's much more than that. If the deep pass is available, he needs to take that.
    4. Get big plays from outside linebacker Tamba Hali at key moments. Hali had 11.5 sacks this year, and he needs to come up an impact player in the postseason.
    5. Dominate on special teams. The Chiefs had four punt and kickoff return touchdowns this season and they need to win the battle in every postseason game they play.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano
    Andrew Luck and Chuck PaganoMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-5, first in AFC South

    Seed: No. 4 seed in AFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: vs. Kansas City, Jan. 4; 4:35 p.m. (ET), NBC

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Avoid overconfidence against the Chiefs. The Colts registered a relatively easy 23-7 win at Kansas City in Week 16. Head coach Chuck Pagano cannot allow his team to think that his team will roll over the Chiefs again.
    2. Give Andrew Luck the freedom to throw the ball all over the field early. There is no doubt that the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. However, Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has often had Luck dial it down and avoid mistakes. That's not the way to win a championship.
    3. Find opportunities to run the ball. The Colts ranked 20th running the ball and Trent Richardson was a disappointment. However, Donald Brown averaged 5.3 yards per carry and he can take pressure off of Luck by running the ball effectively.
    4. Turn up the pass rush. Defensive end Robert Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and he needs to pressure the quarterback from start to finish.
    5. Don't give away the game on special teams. The Chiefs have the top-ranked special teams in the league, and are capable of taking punts and kickoffs back for touchdowns. Don't give them any big plays on special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-5, first in AFC North

    Seed: No. 3 seed in AFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: vs. San Diego, Jan. 5; 1:05 p.m. (ET), CBS

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Give quarterback Andy Dalton a couple of easy throws to complete early in the game. He threw four interceptions in the regular-season finale against the Ravens and his confidence is not at its peak. He needs to start the game on a positive note.
    2. Charge with the two-headed running attack of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard. Green-Ellis is a heavyweight puncher who can get key yards between the tackles, while Bernard is a speedster who can make big plays running outside.
    3. Get the ball to wide receiver A.J. Green. He is one of the best receivers in the game and if he makes a couple of big plays early, he will get on a roll.
    4. Allow linebacker Vontaze Burfict to set the tone. He had a monster regular season in leading the team with 171 tackles.
    5. Shut down the interior run. The Bengals lost defensive tackle Geno Atkins (knee) earlier in the season and they have managed to do a good job against the run. However, postseason opponents will likely challenge them up the middle. 

New England Patriots

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 12-4, first in AFC East

    Seed: No. 2 seed in AFC playoffs

    Divisional playoff opponent: Cincinnati (3), Indianapolis (4) or Kansas City (5).

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Employ a possession game. The Patriots are much stronger offensively than they are on defense, and the longer they hold the ball the less pressure they put on the defense.
    2. Get Tom Brady involved early in the game. While it's been another sensational year for Brady, he has had a few less than stellar games. He does not want to get off to a slow start in the playoffs.
    3. Hold onto the football. The Patriots fumbled the ball 24 times during the regular season, while opponents fumbled 21 times. Running back Stevan Ridley had four fumbles. That can't happen in the postseason.
    4. Stay aggressive with the pass rush. The Patriots were fifth in the league with 48.0 sacks, and they must continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks if they plan on winning their fourth Super Bowl.
    5. Listen to Bill Belichick. He has been through the playoffs so many times with the Patriots and he excels at preparing his team for all situations. 

     

Denver Broncos

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 13-3, first in AFC West

    Seed: No. 1 seed in AFC playoffs

    Divisional playoff opponent: Indianapolis (4), Kansas City (5) or San Diego (6).

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. The Broncos are the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the second year in a row. They lost in the divisional playoffs last year, and the pressure will be intense. They need to relax, which is much easier said than done.
    2. Spread the ball out. This should be easy for Peyton Manning, because that's what he did during the regular season and the Broncos' offense set records. They need to stay on the same path in the postseason.
    3. Make sure Knowshon Moreno remains involved. Manning may have thrown a record 55 TD passes, but he is not a machine. He needs the support of a productive ground game and Moreno ran for 1,038 yards and had 10 rushing touchdowns.
    4. Tighten up the pass coverage. While no team can trade points with the Broncos, they were 26th against the pass in the regular season and the secondary is vulnerable. 
    5. Don't give opponents hope with lax special-teams coverage. The Broncos gave up 29.3 yards per kickoff return, and that was last in the league. Allowing one or two big special-teams plays could give a lesser opponent hope that it can stay in the game.

New Orleans Saints

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

    Record: 11-5, second in NFC South

    Seed: No. 6 seed in NFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: at Philadelphia, Jan. 4; 8:10 p.m. (ET), NBC

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Forget about the reputation. Everyone knows the Saints are a much better team when they are indoors playing at home in the Superdome. That's not going to happen this time around. The Saints will be on the road throughout the playoffs, and the elements are likely to come into play in every game. They can't worry about that, they just have to go out and play.
    2. Drew Brees does not have to force the issue. The Saints have the fourth-ranked defense, so they don't have to outscore everyone. They can win with a balanced gameplan and a strong defense.
    3. Get the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham as much as possible. Graham is the best player at his position in the league. He caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards with 16 touchdowns. When Graham gets his hands on the ball, the Saints' offense is dangerous.
    4. Turn up the pass rush pressure with defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette. They combined for 24.5 sacks during the regular season and are capable of tormenting opposing quarterbacks.
    5. The Saints need to have a consistent kicking game if they are going to have postseason success. The Saints got rid of longtime placekicker Garrett Hartley after 14 games and replaced him with Shayne Graham.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Record: 12-4, second in NFC West

    Seed: No. 5 seed in NFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: at Green Bay, Jan. 5; 4:40 p.m. (ET), Fox

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Attack early with the passing game. The 49ers had more explosiveness a year ago than they did this season as there was some hesitation to Colin Kaepernick's game. The regular season is over, and if the 49ers are going to make another run at the Super Bowl, they need a passing game that functions at a much higher level.
    2. Punish opponents with the running game. Frank Gore is one of the toughest and most consistent running backs in the game. He rushed for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and his physical running style wears down opposing defenses.
    3. Push the defensive pace by going after the quarterback. While the Niners can pressure opposing quarterbacks without blitzing, they can send a message by bringing extra pressure early.
    4. Get cornerback Tramaine Brock involved. Brock has excellent coverage instincts and he led the Niners with five interceptions during the regular season. When he gets his hands on the ball, he can make things happen.
    5. Give Phil Dawson a chance to put points on the board. Dawson is one of the most dependable placekickers in the game. He made 32-of-36 FG attempts, and he is cool when the game is on the line.

Green Bay Packers

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Record: 8-7-1, first in NFC North

    Seed: No. 4 seed in NFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: vs. San Francisco, Jan. 5; 4:40 p.m. (ET), Fox

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Put last year's playoff defeat at the hands of the 49ers out of their minds. The Packers were unable to stop Colin Kaepernick and the 49er offense and the Packers dropped a 45-31 decision. The Packers can't think about that game or the fact that they were outplayed badly.
    2. Establish the running game. The Packers have had a solid ground attack with Eddie Lacy and James Starks this year, and they have to continue with this in the postseason. 
    3. Protect Aaron Rodgers and his still-healing left shoulder. While Rodgers returned to action and threw the game-winning TD pass against the Bears in the final seconds, he is still vulnerable. The offensive line must protect him from opposing pass rushers.
    4. Find a way to get to the quarterback. Linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) will miss at least one playoff game and he led the Packers with 7.5 sacks. His teammates are going to have to pick up the slack.
    5. Make big plays on special teams. Micah Hyde has already scored on a punt return and has had several big plays. He's going to need to assert himself in the postseason.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Record: 10-6, first in NFC East

    Seed: No. 3 seed in NFC playoffs

    Wild-card opponent: vs. New Orleans, Jan. 4; 8:10 p.m. (ET), NBC

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Continue to attack on offense. Chip Kelly installed a fast-paced offense when he was hired as head coach, and it took hold at midseason. There's no need to back off in the playoffs. Play the game at the same pace.
    2. Run the ball with LeSean McCoy throughout the game. The Eagles have skilled receivers, but they cannot put too much pressure on their defense by throwing the ball constantly. McCoy led the league in rushing with 1,607 yards and if he has success on the ground, it will give the defense time to breathe.
    3. Throw the ball downfield early. DeSean Jackson is one of the best big-play receivers in football, and he has the speed to burn any defense. If he can stretch the field, it will also help the Eagles' ability to run the ball.
    4. Kelly must make sure Nick Foles does not suffer a loss of confidence if he makes any mistakes. Foles threw just two interceptions this year, and he can't go into a shell if he makes an error or two.
    5. Play tighter on special teams. The Eagles gave up one punt and two kickoff returns for touchdowns, and that could prove decisive if they can't improve that area.

Carolina Panthers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Record: 12-4, first in NFC Sout

    Seed: No. 2 seed in NFC playoffs

    Divisional playoff opponent: Philadelphia (3), Green Bay (4) or San Francisco (5).

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Encourage Cam Newton to make plays running with the football. He ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns, and Newton makes big plays when he decides to tuck it and run.
    2. Punish opponents with continued hard hitting. Head coach Ron Rivera's defense is the backbone of his team and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly sets the tone with his aggressiveness. He needs to put his signature on the game early.
    3. Force turnovers to create opportunities on the plus-side of the field. The Panthers recorded 20 interceptions and recovered 10 of the 11 fumbles they forced, and it's vital that they continue to force the action.
    4. Get the ball to Ted Ginn. While Ginn caught just 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns, he is the fastest player on the team and he can make explosive plays that can turn the game in Carolina's favor.
    5. Pressure the quarterback. The Panthers led the league with 60.0 sacks, and none of Rivera's players was more productive than defensive end Greg Hardy (15.0 sacks). As long as the Panthers continue to put the heat on, they have a chance to make a promising run at the Super Bowl.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Record: 13-3, first in NFC West

    Seed: No. 1 seed in NFC playoffs

    Divisional playoff opponent: Green Bay (4), San Francisco (5) or New Orleans (6)

    Surviving the postseason: 

    1. Set the tone with the aggressive defense. The Seahawks led the NFL with 28 interceptions and also forced 20 fumbles. Cornerback Richard Sherman led the Seahawks with eight interceptions, and he is an outstanding playmaker.
    2. Russell Wilson needs to play relaxed football. Wilson has been a sensational leader in his first two seasons, but he has a 4-3 TD-interception ratio in his last four games. He needs to pick it up in the postseason.
    3. Get explosive Percy Harvin in the lineup. Harvin was troubled by a hip labrum injury this season and played just one game. However, he is returning to practice and head coach Pete Carroll hopes to have him in the lineup for the first playoff game.
    4. Ride the beast. Marshawn Lynch is one of the toughest runners in the NFL, and the Seahawks need to use him to punish opponents. Lynch ran for 1,257 yards and had 12 rushing TDs.
    5. Dominate on special teams. The Seahawks were air-tight covering punts, giving up an average of 3.2 yards per punt return. Steven Hauschka was successful on 33-of-35 FG attempts.

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