The cliche tells athletes to "take one game at a time." However, everyone still alive in the NFL playoffs is thinking about how to get to the Super Bowl.
There are a lot of differences among the eight teams remaining in the postseason in regards to strategies, styles of play and overall experience. The biggest divergence can be seen at the quarterback position, where four teams are led by veterans while four others have players in their second or third season.
Still, the squads have the same goal at this stage. The only question is what it will take for each team to get there. Here is a look for the keys for success for every remaining contender.
No. 1 Denver Broncos: Put Pressure on Opposing Quarterback
As good as the Broncos offense has been this season, the team could still be held back by the poor play of the defense. The unit ranks 27th in passing yards allowed, which helps contribute to being only 22nd in points allowed.
One of the problems has been an inconsistent pass rush, which is mostly due to the absence of Von Miller. The All-Pro linebacker was suspended to start the season and now will miss the playoffs with a torn ACL.
Shaun Phillips has had an impressive year, and he sometimes gets help from Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers. Still, the squad has to do a better job of making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable on every play.
The last time the Broncos played the San Diego Chargers, Philip Rivers was only hit twice in over 38 minutes of possession. This has to change or else Denver will once again be watching the AFC Championship Game from home.
No. 2 New England Patriots: Stick with the Run
Heading into the year, how many people would have predicted LeGarrette Blount would play a huge role in the playoffs? In all likelihood, even Blount could not have imagined that.
However, the veteran running back ended the year as strong as anyone in the league with 265 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the final two games. Unsurprisingly, this led to some of the Patriots' best scoring games of the year.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com called Blount the "face of this weird, surprisingly effective New England Patriots season." One way the running back gets it done is by continuing to make plays after contact, as noted by Cecil Lammey of ESPN:
Most Yds/Rush After Contact This Season Donald Brown 2.7 Rashad Jennings 2.2 LeGarrette Blount 2.2 Chris Ivory 2.1 Adrian Peterson 2.1 #NFL— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) January 4, 2014
His effective running—along with Stevan Ridley when he holds the ball—helps the Patriots control possession and sustain long drives. Additionally, this pair helps finish off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals, something that has been difficult without Rob Gronkowski this season.
It is weird when Tom Brady is on the roster, but the Patriots need to continue using the running game to survive and advance in the postseason.
No. 4 Indianapolis Colts: Win Turnover Battle
One of the reasons the Colts were so successful this year was that they held onto the football. They led the NFL with only 14 giveaways during the regular season, which helped keep both the offense and defense in position to win.
However, you would not guess this to be the case by watching the latest win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Indianapolis went down 28 points early in the second half thanks to four turnovers by the offense.
Fortunately for the Colts, Andrew Luck was able to pull out a miraculous comeback to win that received plenty of high praise:
A Peyton Manning-esque performance from Andrew Luck. Colts fans have been treated over the years.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 5, 2014
Still, Indianapolis should not have been put in that position to begin with, and you cannot always count on an incredible comeback. The Chiefs were inexperienced when it comes to the playoffs, but that will not be the case with the Patriots or Broncos.
The Colts have to make sure to do what they do best and win the turnover battle in every game going forward.
No. 6 San Diego Chargers: Control Possession
After riding Philip Rivers to wins and losses over the first part of the year, the Chargers realized that they can be much more effective if they simply slow things down and run the ball.
The team leads the league in time of possession thanks to an effective rushing attack between Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, as well as a quarterback that leads the league in completion percentage.
Most importantly, the Chargers lead the NFL in third-down conversions, which helps sustain drives. They put themselves in manageable situations and then come through when necessary.
This strategy was huge in the regular-season games against the Broncos, as noted by Dave Krieger of 805 KOA:
If San Diego can hold the ball for two-thirds of the game again, it will have a strong chance of pulling off the upset in the playoffs.
No. 1 Seattle Seahawks: Get Creative Offensively
The Seahawks' offensive philosophy is pretty simply: Run the ball until you can stop it.
Only the Buffalo Bills had more rushing attempts than Seattle this season, and only LeSean McCoy had more individual carries than Marshawn Lynch. Considering the team used this to win 13 games this year, there are few people that will complain.
Still, a stagnant offense will not be successful in the postseason when everyone knows what is coming. The squad's last two losses came against the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, two of the best run defenses in the league.
This puts the pressure on Russell Wilson to make plays through the air, but it also requires the coaching staff to be creative with the offense. Maybe the unit will utilize the deep ball more to Golden Tate or Doug Baldwin, or maybe there will be a few more trick plays at their disposal.
According to Terry Blount of ESPN, receiver Percy Harvin might also play against the New Orleans Saints. This gives the Seahawks plenty of offensive weapons, but the key is to use them correctly going forward.
No. 2 Carolina Panthers: Keep Pressure off Cam Newton
Cam Newton is making his playoff debut, something that is rare in this postseason. Nick Foles was the only other quarterback making his first playoff start this year, and he lost immediately.
Although Newton obviously has the talent to be successful, he also has shown the potential for getting rattled when things do not go his way. This is when we start to see turnovers and mistakes that cost the team dearly.
On one hand, this means that Carolina must make sure to physically protect the quarterback to avoid sacks and give him time to make plays. Additionally, the squad must make sure to mentally protect him to make sure he does not need to do too much.
Therefore, the defense must be as strong as ever to keep the games low-scoring, and the offense must utilize the run early and often in each game. Otherwise, Newton could end up collapsing under the pressure.
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers: Score in the Red Zone
When Colin Kaepernick is playing well, it seems like the 49ers offense is unstoppable. At least, this is the case until they get into the red zone.
Including the playoffs, the 49ers rank 14th in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Only two teams still remaining have a worse mark than their 54.24 percent.
This was a big problem early in the game against the Green Bay Packers, as noted by Turron Davenport of Pro Football Central:
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone. That's what you have to do. Packers did it on one visit, 49ers haven't in two. As a result 7-6 Packers.— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_BSN) January 5, 2014
Fortunately, the 49ers were eventually able to get into the end zone. Still, they leave valuable points on the board when the offense stalls a few yards short of the goal line. This better change if the 49ers want to return to the Super Bowl.
No. 6 New Orleans Saints: Keep Road Momentum
The Saints entered the Wild Card Round with a 3-5 road record on the season and an 0-5 road record in the playoffs all time. With a win over the Philadelphia Eagles, they will certainly hope the monkey is off their back.
On the other hand, things get much tougher this week as they must travel to Seattle. On NewOrleansSaints.com, head coach Sean Payton discusses what makes CenturyLink Field such a tough place to play:
It is deafening. They do a great job. Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured the noise stays in. We’ve experienced it a handful of times now and you just try to simulate it as best as you can and turn these speakers up real loud and go about trying to communicate and making sure you are still getting off on the ball and all of those things.
The good news is that the Saints have already played there this year and now know what it is like. This experience could help with some of the younger players on the roster.
In all reality, New Orleans has a championship roster that has been unable to win consistently outdoors. This will be a challenge every step of the way if the squad wants to win a Super Bowl this year.
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