NFL Divisional Playoffs 2014: Highlighting This Weekend's Biggest Mismatches
You want to know where the phrase "any given Sunday" truly comes from? It is in the matchups.
Certain teams and players just line up better against others. Hard-working NFL coaches are paid to exploit those mismatches.
Here at Bleacher Report, we are your hard-working X's and O's media guys—and we do it with far more flavor than a vanilla Bill Belichick. We highlight the matchups we feel will be most exploited in this weekend's divisional-playoff round in an eight-part slideshow.
New Orleans at Seattle: Seahawks Secondary vs. Saints Receivers
Jimmy Graham is used to being the one in a so-called mismatch, but he usually is on the right side of it. Against the Seattle Seahawks' secondary, no one matches up well—not even the Pro Bowler Graham.
Graham on the wrong side of a mismatch? Absurd, right? Nope.
Seattle had the No. 1 pass defense in football this season, and, while the New Orleans Saints had the No. 2 pass offense, Drew Brees and Co. couldn't muster much of anything in their past meeting Dec. 2, a 34-7 rout by the Seahawks. Brees was held to a season-low 147 yards passing. Graham caught just three balls for 42 yards. Marques Colston had just four for 27.
The Saints are decidedly a passing team, facing the team most geared to stop that. This is their Kryptonite.
With free safety Earl Thomas, a back-to-back AP All-Pro, and strong safety Kam Chancellor, an AP All-Pro second-team selection, the Seahawks have the best tight end-stuffing combination in football. They also have linebackers fast and tough enough to chuck Graham at the line and allow those safeties to help over the top.
The Seahawks are going to be certain to scheme Graham out of the game again. The Saints will need to find another way to win.
New Orleans at Seattle: Seahawks' Front Four vs. Saints' Offensive Tackles
This is one that might not look like a mismatch on the surface, especially if you look at the stats from the last game. The Seahawks managed just one sack in that Dec. 2 blowout. Also, the Saints have two pretty good tackles in Terron Armstead (left) and Zach Strief (right).
Still, though, Armstead and Strief are going to need help against the edge-rushing likes of Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who combined for 21 sacks this season.
Don't count on Jimmy Graham or Darren Sproles staying in to block. The Saints need those guys out running routes against the best secondary in football.
The Seahawks only had the one sack in that past meeting, but Drew Brees was forced to rush a lot of his throws and struggled to get his feet set. The Seahawks don't always need the sack, just the pressure, with the quality of players they have on the back end. They have a slew of pass-rushing talent to throw at the Saints' offensive line, too.
New Orleans at Seattle: 12th Man and the Great Outdoors vs. Drew Brees
Drew Brees is used to getting the benefit of a loud crowd when he plays in his dome in New Orleans. He gets a taste of his own medicine in Seattle, which boasts the loudest venue in football.
Brees is in control of the crowd noise and his complex offense when he plays at home. It shouldn't be shocking he would have more difficulty on the road. The Saints were 8-0 in New Orleans and just 3-5 on the road in the regular season.
A Wild Card Weekend victory at Philadelphia should not have done enough to ease concerns over Brees handling a road outdoor game in a hostile environment, if you are a Saints fan. Seattle's home field is a huge advantage and a house of horrors for any team and any quarterback—see Brees' past performance (or lack thereof) in Seattle.
Indianapolis at New England: LeGarrette Blount vs. Colts' Front Seven
When this season began, who could have imagined the New England Patriots' postseason hopes would be riding on veteran bull LeGarrette Blount. That is exactly what their season has come down to.
With Tom Brady struggling to get his timing down with his new, young receivers early in the season, and having Rob Gronkowski (knee) and Danny Amendola (groin) go down for extended periods of time, the Patriots offense has come to rely heavily on the power running game.
Heck, even if it came to that, it was supposed to be Stevan Ridley doing the damage. If not Ridley, then Shane Vereen—or maybe even Brandon Bolden. Few could have looked any further down the depth chart.
Nope. It has clearly been Blount—as in blunt force.
Blount rushed a season-high 24 times for 189 yards in the Patriots' season finale against the Buffalo Bills, who were equally ineffective against the run this season as the Indianapolis Colts were. The Colts, 26th against the run, were one of eight teams (with the Bills, 2,063) to allow over 2,000 yards rushing this season (2,002).
Meanwhile, the Patriots, a team unsure of whom its feature back was for most of the season because of Ridley's fumble issues, finished as a top-10 rushing offense.
This is a huge mismatch you can expect Belichick to exploit, especially with rainy and sloppy conditions in the Foxboro, Mass. forecast. It could be a long evening for Colts nose tackle Franklin Aubrayo and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, a former player in the Canadian Football League, as the Pats play keep away from Andrew Luck.
Indianapolis at New England: Robert Mathis vs. Patriots' Pass Protection
You don't need to be an NFL insider to know how to disrupt the New England Patriots. You could just watch Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.
When Brady is rushed, he is far more of a normal human being.
This is where NFL sack leader Robert Mathis comes in. Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles, so the Colts will try to move around their 3-4, pass-rush outside linebacker all night to create some big plays.
Whether it is backup right tackle Marcus Cannon, playing for the injured Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg), left tackle Nate Solder or banged up guard Logan Mankins (ankle), Mathis will be schemed to get pressure on Brady and disrupt his already shaky timing with his receivers.
Blount and Shane Vereen will be called upon to help out on Mathis, too, which takes a weapon away from Brady in the passing game. Brady and the Patriots love throwing to the backs, but it will be hard to do when they have to pick up Mathis on the blitz.
This mismatch puts a lot more importance on the Patriots being able to run the ball effectively and slow the Colts rush with the play-action pass.
San Francisco at Carolina: Vernon Davis vs. Panthers Safety Mike Mitchell
Score Round 1 of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis vs. Carolina Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to Mitchell by TKO.
Heck, Mitchell literally knocked Davis out of their past meeting, sending the tight end to the locker room for concussion testing with a big hit in the 49ers' 10-9 loss against the Panthers on Nov. 10, as Alexis Terrazas of the San Francisco Examiner explains.
We are going to favor Davis in exacting revenge here.
"I didn't play in that game," Davis vaguely recalled to Terrazas. "I think I went out before the half with a concussion."
He did indeed, getting held to one catch for two yards. Poor guy hardly even remembers.
Since then, though, Davis has caught touchdown passes in seven of eight games, including one in a victory over the Green Bay Packers last week. The return of Michael Crabtree (Achilles) has helped open things up over the middle for Davis late in the season.
"Those are two very dynamic weapons in our offense,” offensive tackle Joe Staley told Terrazas. "They do a terrific job of opening up the defense and creating mismatches."
Davis is always a matchup nightmare, particularly for a Carolina Panthers defense that has done just about everything well except limit opposing tight ends. Only four teams have given up more touchdowns to tight ends than the Panthers this season (nine), according to FFtoday.com.
Davis has a myriad of reasons to come to play well in this one—the favorable matchup just as much as a measure of revenge.
San Diego at Denver: Demaryius Thomas vs. Richard Marshall, Shareece Wright
The Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas is 6'3", 229 pounds. San Diego Chargers cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright are both 5'11" and sub-200.
You do the math.
Even if you think size should not matter—clearly it does, but we will let you humor us—Thomas is an NFL superstar at his position. You could make a case for him being as high as the third-best wide receiver in football behind Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green.
Meanwhile, Marshall and Wright are borderline backup quality, even if they are the Chargers' starting corners. Marshall (101st) and Wright (102nd) both rank outside of the top 100 qualifying cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus' rating system (subscription required).
But don't take the tape measure or a rating system's words for it. The proof is in the production.
The Chargers were one of three teams in football to allow more than 3,000 yards receiving to wideouts this season (3,050), per FFtoday.com. Thomas contributed to that in a big way in the Denver Broncos' Nov. 10 victory over the Chargers, reeling in seven passes for 108 yards and a season-high three touchdowns.
You can make a case for Eric Decker, big and fast tight end Julius Thomas or the returning Wes Welker (concussion) to do the damage in any given week. We go with Demaryius Thomas this week for the above reasons. When the chips are down for Peyton Manning, he is going to go with the big man on the outside against those corners.
San Diego at Denver: Philip Rivers vs. Overmatched Broncos Secondary
Philip Rivers has an advantage no other road team has this weekend: He has already proved he can beat his opponent, the Denver Broncos, at their place. Rivers and the San Diego Chargers were the only team to beat the Broncos in Denver this season, stealing a 27-20 victory on the road Thursday, Dec. 12.
That was just the latest win in Denver for Rivers. The Chargers have won six of eight meetings there since Rivers rose to the top of the San Diego depth chart.
Rivers hasn't had a great game yet against the Broncos this season, totaling fewer than 400 yards in the two games, but he will need to put up yards and points here—especially with Peyton Manning having his full arsenal with everything at stake. The shakiness of the Broncos secondary suggests Rivers will be able to do some damage.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy knows the John Fox Broncos defense well, having faced it in practices last year as Broncos offensive coordinator. That defense has proved to be porous against the pass this season, too. The Broncos are one of six teams to have allowed over 4,000 passing yards (4,070).
Rookie Kayvon Webster did not play well against the Chargers last time out, making Keenan Allen a legit threat in this one. Also, the Broncos safeties are patchwork, including Michael Huff (released in October by the Baltimore Ravens), Duke Ihenacho (undrafted sophomore) and Mike Adams (32 years old). Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead should find some space to work with.
The Broncos are a better team, but Rivers has overcome them once already, and he lines up for a nice passing day in this third meeting of the season.