The Biggest Roadblock Each NFL Playoff Team Faces on Road to Super Bowl

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2022

The Biggest Roadblock Each NFL Playoff Team Faces on Road to Super Bowl

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    After a Wild Card Weekend that was, for the most part, fairly mild, a slate of thrilling matchups awaits in the divisional round.

    We have the league's third-best offense in the Kansas City Chiefs facing off against its best defense in the Buffalo Bills. We have a Shanahan coaching tree showdown between San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan and Green Bay's Matt LaFleur. We have two teams in the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans who are looking to win their first Super Bowl. And we have a potential shootout between the Los Angeles Rams' Matthew Stafford and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tom Brady.

    Yes, all these teams are here because they were among the league's elite this season. But no team is perfect. These franchises have been able to mitigate their biggest flaws well enough that they're all playing for a shot at a conference championship.

    But if those weaknesses rear their ugly heads this weekend, with the highest of high stakes, it could spell disaster.

    Let's break down the roadblock each team faces on its journey to Super Bowl LVI. While there are plenty of external roadblocks to be found—the 49ers, for instance, have had the Packers' number in the playoffs recently, winning the last three meetings—we found that the most compelling ones came from within.

    It's hard to predict how teams will actually fare when they have apparent mismatches on paper. But when teams have displayed a pattern of a particular weakness over the season, it's all too possible it might show up again at the worst possible time.

No. 6 San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo

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    It's too reductive to say that when Jimmy Garoppolo protects the ball, the 49ers win, and when he doesn't, they lose. But that was largely the reality of the 2021 regular season, which saw Garoppolo throw 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and fumble eight times (three lost).

    In the 49ers' nine wins, Garoppolo turned the ball over four times. In their six losses, the signal-caller was responsible for 11 turnovers.

    Despite the fact that his offensive line was ranked the third-best in the league by Pro Football Focus (PFF), San Francisco went 2-6 in the regular season when Garoppolo threw an interception. In his past three starts (playoffs included), the 30-year-old has thrown two touchdowns compared to five picks.

    Garoppolo's QBR of 52.7 in 2021 was his lowest as a starter (minimum of four starts). Yet he's also credited with three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives. The 49ers' playoff hopes are largely dependent on which Garoppolo shows up Saturday.

    And who do the 49ers have next on the docket but the Green Bay Packers, whose defense has been terrorizing quarterbacks all season. The Packers have 18 interceptions (tied for sixth-most) and 167 total quarterback pressures (11th), per Pro Football Reference.

    The 49ers will try to limit what they ask of Garoppolo, relying on short completions to the likes of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk. That's especially true given his shoulder injury. But if Garoppolo is forced to throw down the field, Kyle Shanahan may have to move to a section of the playbook he would have rather kept closed.

No. 4 Los Angeles Rams: Matthew Stafford

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    In the Wild Card Round, the Los Angeles Rams showed the football world how dominant they can be, blowing out the division rival Arizona Cardinals 34-11.

    While the Rams didn't need perfection from Matthew Stafford given their pounding run game and suffocating defense, he nearly provided it anyway, going 13-of-17 for 202 yards (with three of the four incompletions being drops from receivers), two passing touchdowns, 22 rushing yards with another rushing score and, most critically, zero turnovers.

    Stafford, however, has also shown himself to be the Rams' greatest liability at times this year. While he ranked second in the NFL with 41 touchdown passes, he also was tied for the league lead in interceptions with 17, including four pick-sixes.

    Stafford has proved streaky, playing several games of exceptional football followed by runs of turnover-laden stains to his record. While Stafford has led the Rams to a handful of comeback victories (most notably in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens), in many of those instances, the Rams arguably wouldn't have been in a hole to begin with if not for Stafford's errors (see that Baltimore game, for instance, during which Stafford had two interceptions, including a pick-six, and a fumble right as the Rams were marching to score).

    Matchups in Weeks 9 and 10 against Tennessee and San Francisco, respectively, also come to mind as games in which ugly Stafford turnovers led to early deficits from which the Rams were unable to claw their way back.

    We've seen both the highest highs and the lowest lows from the Rams this year. If Stafford continues to play turnover-free, efficient football, the Rams could be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. If Stafford starts to become plagued by turnovers again, he could also be the reason the Rams exit the playoffs.

No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Line

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    The Bengals finished the season with a No. 20 offensive line ranking by PFF, a vast improvement from 2020's No. 30 spot. But a glaring weakness that becomes a lesser weakness is still a weakness, and those flaws are magnified in the win-or-go-home nature of the playoffs.

    It all starts with keeping Joe Burrow upright. Burrow was sacked 51 times and the Bengals gave up 55 sacks overall this season, which was the third-most in the NFL.

    Cincinnati's quarterbacks were sacked on 9.0 percent of plays in 2021, per Team Rankings, the second-most in the league (and one of only two playoff teams higher than 6.2 percent). That's up from 7.6 percent in 2020.

    Left tackle Jonah Williams has been terrific in pass protection, despite allowing eight sacks, per PFF. And injuries have wreaked havoc on the line. Starting right tackle Riley Reiff was placed on injured reserve, with Isaiah Prince taking his place. Prince has allowed 18 pressures and three sacks, per PFF.

    They're going to be stretched to their limits when they face the Tennessee Titans, who posted 43 sacks this season, tied for ninth-most in the league.

    Zac Taylor has done what he can in the game plan to mitigate this weakness; thankfully, that style of play is also what suits Burrow's skills best. A quick-passing attack limits the amount of time Burrow has to languish in the pocket and wait to be hit.

    Still, a few failed possessions in a playoff game (or, far worse, a strip-sack) can mean the difference between advancing or not.

No. 3 Buffalo Bills: Running Backs

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    The Bills have relied heavily on their run game this season; it has net them 20 touchdowns, tied for seventh-most in the league, and they averaged 8.2 rushing first downs per game, which ranks fourth.

    If only they could have gotten more from their running backs. Buffalo averaged 27.1 rushing attempts per game, but only 19.1 of those came from running backs. Josh Allen, meanwhile, had 122 rushing attempts on the year—which is enough to have been the No. 2 running back on many teams.

    To finish out the 2021 regular season, Allen achieved a significant milestone: He became the first player in NFL history to total more than 4,000 passing yards and 750 rushing yards in a single season, with 4,407 and 763, respectively.

    While that's a huge testament to the kind of game-changing player Allen is, it's also an indictment on the Bills' running backs and play-calling in the backfield. Of the Bills' 2,209 rushing yards in 2021, Allen counted for 35 percent of them. That is not good balance!

    Thankfully for the Bills, Devin Singletary is coming on at just the right time. His 92 carries in the last five games, including the playoffs, are almost as many as he had the entire season to that point (112). His rushing touchdowns in that same span (seven) are five more than he had in the games before that.

    The run game is of supreme importance in the playoffs, but the Bills can't expect Allen to shoulder so much of the rushing load, as that lack of balance could cost them against the Kansas City Chiefs.

No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs: Turnovers

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    It's true that Patrick Mahomes threw a career-high 13 interceptions in 2021, compared to 37 touchdowns. It was a worrisome trend for the defending Super Bowl MVP, especially given that 10 of them came within the first eight games.

    Mahomes settled down after the Week 12 bye, throwing just two picks thereafter. But even if you're not ready to clutch your pearls over the 13 interceptions (after all, eight quarterbacks had more this season), consider this: Mahomes, a risk-taker, has always been able to counteract any blemishes on his passing record with the heroics he's capable of.

    But what if that weren't the case?

    In 2021, defenses have started to figure out Mahomes' game. Per PFF, the signal-caller had 23 big-time throws (which it defines as "a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window") and 22 turnover-worthy plays ("throw a pass that has a high percentage chance to be intercepted or do a poor job of taking care of the ball and fumbling") during the regular season. 

    That is worrisome, because in past seasons Mahomes has had up to twice as many big-time throws as turnover-worthy plays. And his turnover-worthy plays are resulting in actual turnovers more often this year.

    He's still Mahomes, and he can still make magic happen. But an uptick in turnovers and a fall in the kinds of big plays that he's become so well-known for is a bad confluence of events, and it helped lead directly to four of the team's five losses this season.

    Kansas City can get the job done on the ground and with quick strikes. But if Mahomes gets forced into a shootout in these playoffs, he may commit a deadly mistake.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Wide Receiver Depth

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    Even those who don't follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers closely nevertheless know that they did not finish the season with robust depth at wide receiver.

    In the Buccaneers' 9-0 loss to the Saints in Week 15, Chris Godwin suffered a season-ending torn ACL. In that same game, Mike Evans, the team's receiving yards leader, suffered a hamstring injury and was out the following week.

    Then, in Week 17, Antonio Brown left the game against the New York Jets in the middle of the third quarter after a disagreement with coach Bruce Arians. The team formally released Brown on January 6.

    Godwin and Evans were Brady's top targets in 2021, with 127 and 114 apiece, and both had 1,000-yard seasons. The third wideout (not counting tight end Rob Gronkowski) was Brown, with 62.

    Now, ahead of the divisional round, the Bucs are without two of their top three wide receivers on the year. They'll have to lean heavily on Tyler Johnson and Breshad Perriman, who saw 55 and 18 targets on the year, respectively, against the Los Angeles Rams. Scotty Miller, who also missed half the season with an injury, can be the next man up as well.

    With anyone else lining up under center, the Bucs would be in big trouble. Brady has the ability to elevate an average receiving corps into something that gets the job done. But against the Rams' high-octane offense, it's going to be a major challenge.

No. 1 Tennessee Titans: Slow Starts

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    If the Tennessee Titans are going to punch their ticket to the AFC Championship Game, they're going to have to come out swinging.

    The Titans averaged just 3.6 points in the first quarter this season. It wasn't the worst mark in the league—it puts them at No. 19—but it got worse in their final three games of the regular season, dropping to 2.3. That ranked 26th.

    First quarters tended to set the tone in Tennessee games. The Titans averaged 15.2 points per game in losses compared to 28.6 in wins. (Weirdly, in four of their five losses, they scored 13 points.) Points scored in the first quarter in those five games? The average was 2.6, but in three of them they scored no points at all.

    The good news for the Titans is they often right the ship in the second quarter. Their first-half average of 13.4 is actually seventh in the league.

    But in the playoffs, laying a goose egg in the first 15 minutes can dig a hole that's not so easy to climb out of. That's going to be especially true against the Bengals, who were tied seventh in the league in points per game (27.1) in the regular season.

    But the most worrisome part of the Titans' slow starts is that they're not easily diagnosed. When asked about them in the Week 6 win over the Buffalo Bills (when the Titans had 24 yards of offense after the first quarter), Ryan Tannehill said: "It's tough to say. Sometimes, things just aren't going your way." They didn't have better answers as the year went on and it kept happening.

    If it happens again in the divisional round of the playoffs, the reason won't matter.

No. 1 Green Bay Packers: Special Teams

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    Packers kicker Mason Crosby has suffered from a bout of the yips before in his 15-year career in Green Bay. Though his career field-goal percentage is 81.1, in 2012 it fell to a ghastly 63.6. In 2018, he had an especially no good, very bad day against the Detroit Lions, missing four field goals and an extra point.

    And this season, Crosby's field-goal percentage is down at 73.5, the second-worst mark of his career. Starting with a particularly bad outing against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5 when he made 4-of-7, he went 12-for-21 up until the Week 13 bye.

    Since then, Crosby has gone 100 percent. But unfortunately for the Packers, he hasn't been their only special teams worry this season.

    Per Ben Kotwica's special team rankings for The 33rd Team, the Packers finished the regular season with the league's worst unit. Specifically, they ranked No. 32 in starting field position after a kick, No. 31 in opponent punt-return average and No. 31 in field-goal percentage.

    Corey Bojorquez ranked 19th with a net punting average of 40.0, though to be fair to him, his net average of 10 against the Chicago Bears in Week 14 weighs that down considerably.

    That's not even to mention all the strange plays from this group this season, from allowing a 97-yard punt-return touchdown, muffing a kickoff return out of bounds at the 5-yard line and failing to recover an onside kick—all in that Week 14 game alone—in addition to having a field goal blocked and fumbling three punt returns and one kickoff return.

    Maurice Drayton's group seems to have gotten it together at exactly the right time as the Packers prepare for their first playoff game. But committing any of the above miscues in a game with as high of stakes as this, especially if it results in points for the other team, could be fatal.