The Wild Card Round signals the start of the NFL playoffs. Although some teams have been playing win-or-go-home games for a few weeks, this is the official beginning of the postseason.
On Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs will visit the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card Round, and the New Orleans Saints will visit the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round. On Sunday, the San Diego Chargers will travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals in the other AFC game, while the San Francisco 49ers will visit the Green Bay Packers in an NFC showdown.
As the last few seasons have proved, teams that participate in the first round of the playoffs are just as likely to win the Super Bowl as the top seeds. Both the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants won the last two Super Bowls from the No. 4 seed, while the Green Bay Packers won the 2010 Super Bowl from the No. 6 seed.
For that reason, no team can be overlooked at this point of the season.
Eric Fisher/Donald Stephenson versus Robert Mathis
When the Chiefs and Colts faced off two weeks ago in Kansas City, Indy came away with a convincing 23-7 victory. Although the Colts ran out as comfortable winners, they didn't pull away until the second quarter.
At the start of the third quarter, the score was just 13-7, and the Chiefs had the ball on offense close to midfield.
They were facing a 3rd-and-16 at their own 44-yard line. This allowed the Colts to rush only three defenders and drop the remaining eight deep into coverage. Robert Mathis lined up in a Wide 9 defensive end spot to the left, across from Eric Fisher.
At the snap, Mathis exploded to attack Fisher's outside shoulder. He was too quick for Fisher to get out to him and cut off his path to the quarterback. Importantly, the Chiefs made a mistake in how they set up their offensive line. Fili Moala, the Colts defensive tackle, attacked the right guard at the snap and drew three defenders initially.
After Foala's initial movement, the Chiefs left guard moved to double-team the right defensive end. This meant that the Chiefs doubled every pass-rusher except for Mathis, who is the Colts' best rusher and a defensive player of the year candidate. This couldn't have been by design.
Mathis easily beat Fisher and got to Alex Smith just as he was winding back to throw the ball. The veteran defensive end hit Smith's arm enough to make the ball loop into the air for an easy interception.
That play changed the game. It set the Colts up at midfield before Donald Brown scored a 51-yard touchdown. Instead of coming out after halftime to take a one-point lead or cut the Colts' lead to just a field goal, the Chiefs fell behind by 13 points, 20-7.
In Indianapolis, Mathis will feel that he can take over this game. Thirteen of his league-leading 19.5 sacks came at home. The pressure will be on Fisher if he plays. The rookie is dealing with a groin injury, so it's unclear if he will start. If he doesn't, backup tackle Donald Stephenson will be asked to step into a very tough situation.
This is the first playoff game for the Colts' home crowd since the Peyton Manning era.
Andrew Luck should be more motivated than he has been during his short career so far, and the Colts offense has already proved that it can put up points against the Chiefs defense. Even though Kansas City has seemingly improved on offense over the second half of the season, it faces a tall task to avoid turnovers and score enough points to win this game.
Nick Foles versus Rob Ryan
Eagles starting quarterback Foles has had an exceptionally productive season. However, he has also had many displays that were lucky not to be disastrous. Twice he looked underwhelming against the Dallas Cowboys, and he was fortunate to avoid four interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals earlier in the regular season.
He can't afford to have one of these performances in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite Drew Brees and the Saints' past struggles on the road in the playoffs, it would be foolish for the Eagles to take them for granted. There has been a new attitude in the Saints defense this season. Not only is the performance on the field different from last season under Steve Spagnuolo, but New Orleans' resiliency suggests the team won't fold against Chip Kelly's offense.
Containing the Eagles offense is the first step to winning this game. Although the Eagles defense has played well at times this year, asking their secondary to match up to the Saints passing attack seems like a stretch.
Naturally, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will want to be aggressive with a young quarterback who is starting his first playoff game. However, it's difficult to be aggressive against Kelly's offensive design. Ryan can try to confuse the quarterback, but he needs to be smart in what plays he uses and when he calls them.
Because Foles often has quick options after the snap and Philly has dangerous runners throughout the roster, Ryan can't abandon gap-integrity with aggressive blitzes. If he sends too many defenders after the quarterback, LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson can easily and repeatedly turn short passes into huge gains in the space that is created behind.
Ryan needs to find a balance between aggression and caution with his play-calling.
At the beginning of the third quarter during the Eagles' Week 17 clash against the Dallas Cowboys, there was a perfect example of how to find the right balance between aggression and caution. How the Eagles lined up was crucial here, because the defense knew what direction the read-option would be run in.
The first thing that the Eagles had to do was account for the read-option. At the snap, the defensive line attacked the inside shoulder of each offensive lineman. This allowed the right defensive end and the right defensive tackle to immediately take away McCoy's first and second gaps.
In this situation, if the Eagles were running the ball, Foles would keep it. However, the Cowboys brought their right linebacker outside of Ware so that they had an unblocked defender in the third gap outside the left tackle.
By bringing that linebacker outside and sending their other linebacker with the flow of the defensive line, the Cowboys created a space in the middle of the defense. This is normally dangerous, but because the right defensive end and right defensive tackle were filling both gaps up the middle, there was no danger.
After accounting for the potential read-option run, the Cowboys defense had to react to Foles dropping back to pass.
Because Ware was the right defensive end and he is exceptionally quick at the snap, Eagles left tackle Jason Peters was unable to get back to the outside linebacker. Instead of dropping backward after realizing the Eagles weren't running the ball, the linebacker aggressively moved toward the quarterback as a blitzer.
The edge rush immediately made Foles work backward. He could have found his tight end who was running underneath, but the other linebacker had settled into a spot that was directly in the throwing lane. The Cowboys defense actually blew a coverage on this play that left the tight end wide open in the flat, but because of the perfectly designed pass rush, Foles had no chance to get the ball to him.
While the Cowboys defense played well last week, the Saints have more talent on the field, so they should expect to execute better even when playing away from the dome.
Over the past five weeks of the season, Foles has been sacked 16 times. That is an average of more than three per game, but it should also be noted that he was sacked five times in two of those games and four times in another. This suggests that there is a way to expose the pass protection with the right approach.
Putting the Eagles in bad down-and-distance situations appears to be the best way to stop their offense.
That may seem simple and apply to every team in the league, but because of their big-play ability, it's more important against the Eagles. If McCoy is consistently keeping the offense ahead of the down-and-distance, then the Eagles will have a much easier job of setting up those big plays.
While the players need to execute, Ryan needs to get his game plan exactly right for the Saints to win the game.
Ladarius Green/Antonio Gates versus the Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Spine
Dalton struggled to run the offense, which has regularly happened throughout the season. The Chargers couldn't execute either, but they had more players to blame than just their quarterback. This Sunday's matchup should prove to be a different affair.
One of the pivotal performers during the Week 13 game was Antonio Gates.
The 33-year-old tight end has enjoyed a remarkable season. He played all 16 games and caught 77 passes for 872 yards and four touchdowns. Against the Bengals in Week 13, he should have added to those numbers even more than he did.
He finished the game with five receptions for 41 yards, but he also had one lost fumble and saw the ball ripped away from him on Dre Kirkpatrick's interception.
Gates can't repeat his roles in those turnovers. Turning the ball over is never a good thing, but it hurts twice as much when you lose the ball deep in the opposition's territory and you are a pivotal part of the offensive game plan.
Both turnovers that day came in Bengals territory, and Gates had been a crucial part of the offense up until the interception in the third quarter. On the opening drive of the game, he had three catches. His fourth came early in the second quarter. The Chargers had obviously identified him as a key cog for success against the Bengals.
That makes sense, because while the Bengals have talent at the linebacker and safety positions, their coverage down the middle of the field can be exposed.
Gates repeatedly caught first-down passes, but Ladarius Green also made a notable impact. Green finished the game with just two receptions in Week 13, but he had 45 total yards with one 30-yard touchdown reception that was the offense's only touchdown of the game.
On 1st-and-10 early in the second quarter, the Chargers offense set up at the Bengals 30-yard line. Danny Woodhead was in the backfield next to Rivers, with two players in receiver positions to the right, one to the left and a tight end to the left.
The tight end to the left was Green.
After the snap, the Chargers ran a strong play action that occupied the attention of both Bengals linebackers. The left tackle aggressively blocked down inside, while the right guard pulled behind the line of scrimmage to pick up the right defensive end. This motion caught the attention of both linebackers and dragged them forward.
Meanwhile, Green released into a route with enough width to stay out of the view of Vontaze Burfict, the right outside linebacker.
The right guard picked up the right defensive end, while Rivers quickly recognized the space between the two linebackers. Green had already got in behind both linebackers because they bought the play fake, so Rivers had a relatively easy throw to make.
Both deep safeties were split wide to account for the receivers on this play, so once the ball found its way to Green, nobody could prevent him from reaching the end zone.
The Chargers have the athleticism at the tight end position to expose the Bengals linebackers and safeties. With Woodhead also available on the field, the Chargers should feel good about their ability to move the ball methodically down the field. Add in Ryan Mathews and Keenan Allen, and it becomes clear that this won't be an easy outing for the Bengals defense.
Randall Cobb versus Carlos Rogers
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned in stunning fashion last week. His performance played a huge role in lifting the Packers into the playoffs, and he showed very little rust after missing six weeks with a broken collarbone.
While Rodgers deserves a huge amount of praise for what he did on the field, the display of receiver Randall Cobb should also be highlighted.
Cobb was arguably returning from a tougher injury. He broke his leg earlier in the regular season and was only taken off short-term injured reserve a few days before the regular-season finale. While Rodgers was returning from a broken collarbone, it wasn't his throwing shoulder, which made the impact of that injury less severe.
As a slot receiver who has to work over the middle of the field at speed, Cobb had to worry about his leg.
The 23-year-old didn't play every snap, but he made two of the biggest plays of the game by catching two touchdowns. One of those passes was the biggest play of the game, as it came late in the fourth quarter to give the Packers what turned out to be the game-winning score.
Nobody needed to be reminded of Cobb's talent, but those two touchdowns corrected those who thought he wouldn't be 100 percent effective. The 49ers have already failed to handle Cobb once this season, so they will need to heed those warnings this Sunday.
In Week 1, he caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. While 38 of those yards came with seconds left in the fourth quarter, that didn't take away from the good work that the receiver had done earlier in the game. Often working against slot cornerback Carlos Rogers, Cobb was able to come free underneath and down the field on many occasions.
Maybe his most important contribution was that touchdown reception. Not because it was worth six points, but because it was a play that not every NFL receiver could make.
Five yards out from the end zone at the end of the first quarter, the Packers were facing a 2nd-and-goal. Cobb was lined up in the slot, with Rogers across from him in off-coverage.
Because the Packers ran a quick play action and Rogers was in man coverage, there was very little space between Cobb and the coverage when Rodgers threw him the ball. The ball arrived at the line of scrimmage, so Cobb was in position to be tackled by Rogers five yards away from the goal line.
While the ball was in the air, Cobb turned his feet quickly so that he was already shifting his momentum back toward the quarterback when he caught the ball. Rogers isn't as quick as the young receiver, so he kept moving past him away from the goal line.
That tiny window of space that he created gave him the opportunity to stretch out and break the plane with the football before he hit the ground.
Very few receivers in the league have the quickness to escape a defender in such a small area of space. Even fewer have the understanding of how to set themselves and the defender up with body movement before the ball arrives. This all comes natural to Cobb, so he is able to make these kinds of plays.
If the 49ers are to beat the Packers in Lambeau Field this Sunday, they will need to limit Cobb's impact as much as possible.
Cian Fahey is a columnist for Football Outsiders, Football Guys and Bleacher Report. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf.
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