Chris Simms' Matchups to Watch in Conference Championships
The NFL is a sport that is all about the individual matchups and how teams game-plan for them. This fact is amplified during conference championship games because as a coach or player, you know you're one step away from the Super Bowl but might be facing a team that is realistically more talented than you.
How do you battle a better team? You win the individual matchups.
I was lucky enough to be on the coaching staff of the New England Patriots when they went to the AFC title game following the 2012 season. I learned a lot about Bill Belichick that year, but one thing that still stands out is that there's no one in the game better at game-planning for the individual matchups.
Belichick never asks his players to do things he doesn't believe them capable of doing, but he always focuses on maximizing his team's strengths and exposing the opposition's weaknesses. This won't always be enough to get you a win, but it usually at least keeps you in position to win.
Just look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were able to hang with the Jacksonville Jaguars for almost four full quarters a week ago. Pittsburgh was physically dominated by the superior team in that game, but it relied on the matchups—like a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger against a predictable defensive scheme—to fight back.
Individual matchups are going to be huge this weekend. The teams that win those little games-within-the-game will almost certainly be the ones that move on to Super Bowl LII. These are the matchps I'm most looking forward to watching.
Jaguars' Pass Coverage vs. Rob Gronkowski
The sexiest matchup of the weekend is the Jaguars defense versus the Patriots offense. These are two unstoppable forces going against each other. Jacksonville has a historically good defense, but no one knows how to dissect a defense better than Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady.
The first individual matchup in this battle we have to look at is the Jaguars' defensive game plan against Rob Gronkowski. Jacksonville—much like the Seattle Seahawks back in 2013—uses a simple defensive scheme and just dares opposing offenses to beat it. This isn't a defense that is going to do anything elaborate against New England's biggest receiving weapon.
There are only two people on Jacksonville's defense I would match up against Gronkowski: cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack.
When the Patriots split Gronk out in wide receiver positions, defenses often make the mistake of putting a safety on him. Now, Gronkowski is the greatest mismatch in the history of football, so when he splits out, I'd treat him like a No. 1 receiver. For Jacksonville, this means putting Ramsey on him.
Ramsey is one of the few corners in the NFL who can stand in there and take the physicality of Gronk at the line. His recovery speed also means Ramsey won't be afraid of getting burned downfield, allowing him to sit on some slants or back-shoulder routes.
When Gronkowski is playing close to the line, defenses often put a linebacker on him. That's usually a mistake because most linebackers don't have the quickness to keep up with Gronkowski.
Jack is a different talent at linebacker, though. He's one of the quickest sideline-to-sideline players in the league, and Jacksonville often asks him to cover slot receivers man-to-man. Heck, the guy was once a starting tailback at UCLA. He has the speed and the agility to keep up with Gronk.
Expect to see either Ramsey or Jack on Gronkowski on almost every play. If this combination of cover guys can contain Gronk, the Jaguars will take a big step closer to pulling off the upset.
Jaguars' Interior Rush vs. Joe Thuney
Left guard Joe Thuney has been an issue in pass protection for the Patriots all year. He hung on by the skin of his teeth against Jurrell Casey, with Brady getting rid of the ball just before Thuney was pushed into him.
Jacksonville is going to look at last week's game film and quickly realize they need to get one of their stud defensive linemen going against Thuney in obvious passing situations.
Brady has built his career on being able to buy time in the pocket. Where he struggles, though, is when he has pressure in his face and is unable to step up into the pocket and identify throwing lanes. If the Jaguars can expose Thuney, they can make life tough on the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
There are several ways the Jaguars could capitalize on Thuney's weakness in pass protection. The first is with Malik Jackson, who is one of the best hybrid linemen in the game. You can view him as either an oversized defensive end or an athletic defensive tackle, but either way, he's more than capable of creating interior pressure.
I think Jacksonville will give Calais Campbell a few cracks at Thuney as well. We know Campbell can wreak havoc off the edge, but if he impacts New England's game plan more from the interior, we'll be seeing him there.
We may even see a bit of Yannick Ngakoue—he quietly had 12 sacks this season—against Thuney. I think the Jaguars will try a variety of defensive lineups early in the game until they find the one matchup against Thuney that they love.
It's going to be up to the Patriots to figure out how to support Thuney and limit the interior pressure of Jacksonville's defense. Otherwise, it's going to be hard for Brady and Co. to operate the game plan New England wants.
Myles Jack and Telvin Smith vs. Dion Lewis
Next to Gronkowski, running back Dion Lewis is the biggest mismatch the Patriots have on offense. He has the most plays designed to go his way and, aside from Brady, may be the most important offensive piece New England possesses. Not only is he a vital part of the running game, but he also can do damage in the receiving game.
What makes Lewis so dangerous is the fact he almost always seems to make the first guy miss. This is why it will be important for Jaguars outside linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith to diagnose and react quickly to what Lewis is doing.
It will be largely up to Jack and Smith to chase down Lewis on outside runs and on screen passes. They may also be forced to cover Lewis man-to-man when he's split out wide. I'll be interested to see how the two handle him in man situations early in the game.
I'll also be interested to see how quickly Jack and Smith are able to close the gap when the Jaguars are in zone coverage because Brady is good at finding short completions in those situations. It will be up to Jack and Smith to ensure those underneath throws don't turn into big gains.
If Jacksonville can put the Patriots in 2nd-and-8 far more times than they're in 2nd-and-2, the Jaguars will be in a good spot to win the game. If New England is regularly finding 2nd-and-short opportunities, the Patriots will be in a position of power.
Stopping Lewis as both a runner and a receiver will be key to putting the Pats in long-distance situations.
Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore vs. Jaguars Receivers
The Patriots have a special cornerback duo in Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler. New England asks a lot of the two in man-to-man coverage on the outside. One thing I'll be watching for is to see if Butler and Gilmore can match up with Jacksonville's two outside receivers—whatever combination of Allen Hurns, Dede Westbrook and Marqise Lee might be there—in man coverage all game long.
New England will and should be concerned with the size and power of the Jacksonville run game. Leonard Fournette is a special back, and the Jaguars offensive line can control the line of scrimmage—especially if the Patriots don't have Alan Branch back.
If New England can rely on Butler and Gilmore on the outside, it will be able to put more resources toward stopping that run game. For that to happen, though, Butler and Gilmore will have to prove they can stop some of the staple routes of the Jacksonville offense.
The first route that jumps out is the shallow cross. Jacksonville utilizes it often because it puts cornerbacks in traffic and can clear out a clean target for Blake Bortles. The Jaguars throw a lot of deep outs, too, which often result in jump balls that receivers like Hurns and Lee are built to win.
If New England is forced to provide either Butler or Gilmore with help in coverage, it's going to be harder to battle Jacksonville's run game. If, however, Butler and Gilmore can reside on islands all game long, the Patriots will be able to do what the Steelers couldn't: limit Jacksonville's ability to consistently move the ball.
Josh McDaniels vs. Todd Wash
As previously mentioned, the biggest overall matchup of the weekend is New England's offense against Jacksonville's defense. This is why the mental matchup between Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash has to be on my list.
Jacksonville runs the same defensive scheme as the Seahawks. Gus Bradley brought it with him from Seattle, and it has remained. What the Jaguars run now is virtually the same defense the Patriots defeated in Super Bowl XLIX.
Jacksonville's defense is simple, but it's sound and it's supported by immense talent. The Jaguars also have a good idea of what teams are going to run against it because they know what plays have worked against it this season.
The problem is that McDaniels and the Patriots have gone against this scheme many times.
I fully expect McDaniels to attack the Jaguars with underneath passes because no team is better than New England at running them. No team runs more option routes, jerk routes, screen routes and underneath pick plays. These underneath routes are what won Super Bowl XLIX. Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman had huge days catching the ball underneath.
Wash will have to throw in some curveballs to keep McDaniels guessing. Otherwise, the Patriots will just incrementally work their way down the field.
It doesn't matter how talented your defense is; if the Patriots know what looks they're getting, they're going to tear you apart.
This is where the proverbial chess match comes in. Will Wash get ahead of the curve enough to stop the plays that have historically hurt his defense? Will McDaniels be a step ahead and find new ways to attack this defense that Jacksonville isn't prepared for?
The winner of this battle of wits will be giving his team a major advantage.
Rashod Hill vs. Eagles Defensive Ends
The Minnesota Vikings started Rashod Hill at right tackle last week while kicking Mike Remmers inside to guard. While Hill performed well at times, he is the weak link on the Minnesota line heading into the matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The question is if Hill is capable of handling Philadelphia's fearsome defensive ends.
The Eagles have a tremendous pass rush for a couple of reasons. One is the fact their defensive ends can often focus solely on getting after the quarterback. They're typically lined up in a Wide 9 front that puts the ends far outside and in a position that offensive tackles are not accustomed to. From there, the ends can attack, sometimes without even having to consider playing the run.
Hill—who struggled down the stretch against the New Orleans Saints, particularly against Cameron Jordan—is going to have his hands full against Philadelphia's ends. Whether it's Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett or Chris Long in front of him, Hill is going to have a battle on his hands.
I'll be interested to see who the Eagles line up over him the most often and what the Vikings do to help Hill on the edge.
Will the Vikings have to put a tight end next to Hill to chip the defensive end? Will they have to put a running back out there to take away the outside shoulder and allow Hill to sit inside? I'll be watching closely for these things early in the game, especially in obvious passing situations.
If Minnesota is forced to regularly provide Hill with help, the Vikings are going to be limited in what they're able to do offensively.
Everson Griffen vs. Halapoulivaati Vaitai
If there's a weak link on the Eagles offensive line, it's left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. While Vaitai hasn't been terrible since taking over the starting job, he isn't as reliable on a pass protection island as Jason Peters was pre-injury.
The Vikings will almost certainly have Everson Griffen, one of the top pass-rushers in the game, going against Vaitai on every possible down.
I'm intrigued by what the Eagles might do to help Vaitai in this matchup. Like the Vikings may have to do with Hill, Philadelphia may have to keep a running back or a tight end near Vaitai in order to ensure Griffen doesn't completely dominate the game.
Now, one thing going in Vaitai's favor is the fact this game is played on grass. Philadelphia is the bigger team, and Griffen's game is largely predicated on his ability to attack with speed around the edge. Minnesota's defense is going to be just a hair slower in this game, like the Atlanta Falcons defense was a week ago.
I'd expect the Eagles to indeed give Vaitai help early. If it becomes clear, though, that he can handle Griffen one-on-one, it's going to open up Philadelphia's offensive possibilities.
Vikings Defensive Line vs. The Snap Count
We mentioned that the Eagles defensive front is extremely deep. For as good as the Minnesota defensive line is, it doesn't have nearly as much depth. This is why the Vikings front can wear down more easily.
Minnesota's defensive line was one of the most frightening things I saw on the playing field early in the season. However, it wasn't as effective later in the year—particularly later in games—because there wasn't enough depth to keep it fresh.
For the most part, Minnesota plays five guys all game long on a week-to-week basis. There's definitely a big difference in the number of snaps Vikings defensive linemen play each week compared to the number played by Eagles defensive linemen.
This is why it will be extremely important for Minnesota's defense to get off the field early and often. The Eagles' defensive line is built to handle long and repeated drives. Minnesota's is not.
Just look what happened against the Saints last week. New Orleans went on a long drive in the third quarter. Case Keenum threw a pick right after that and forced Minnesota's defense back on the field. The Saints scored again.
Minnesota's defensive line was essentially on the field for 10 straight minutes in the second half, which allowed the Saints to get back into a game they had no business being in.
The Eagles offensive line is one of the biggest and most physical in all of football. The smart thing for Philadelphia to do will be to lean on the run and short passes in order to ramp up its offensive snap count.
If we're getting into the third quarter and the Vikings defensive line has already been on the field for 60-plus snaps, Minnesota is going to be in trouble. If, on the other hand, the Vikings have forced a lot of three-and-outs and their defense is fresh, that defensive line will be in a good position to close the game out in the fourth quarter.
Alshon Jeffery vs. Xavier Rhodes
Last week, I thought that Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes would have tremendous success against Saints receiver Michael Thomas. Rhodes is one of the biggest and most physical cornerbacks in the league, and I truly believed he'd be able to take away one of Thomas' biggest strengths—his physicality.
What really happened, though, is that Thomas won the battle more often than not. Because he was able to handle Rhodes' power off the line, he was able to create separation down the field. Rhodes is awesome, but he can struggle to change direction and accelerate out of breaks.
Neutralizing Rhodes' physicality allowed Thomas to expose these weaknesses.
We'll be looking at a similar matchup when Rhodes faces off against Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. While Jeffery isn't the fastest receiver out there, he's extremely physical, and he's excellent in jump-ball situations.
Whoever earns the edge in this matchup will give his team a big advantage in the game. That's because Jeffery isn't just one of Philadelphia's biggest offensive threats; he's a fantastic safety valve for quarterback Nick Foles.
Against most corners, Foles can throw the ball to Jeffery with confidence, even when he's covered. This won't necessarily be the case against Rhodes, unless Jeffery is able to handle him the way Thomas did a week ago.
Making Foles uncomfortable has to be one of Minnesota's biggest game plans because if he struggles, defending the Philadelphia offense as a whole becomes much easier.