Take 5: Divisional playoff keys
Rarely is a 1-vs.-6 matchup so juicy, but with the Indianapolis Colts riding a 10-1 run, the Kansas City Chiefs will have their hands full Saturday.
With excellent offenses and defenses with very specific strengths, both sides of the ball feature intriguing matchups. We’ll touch on both before diving into the other three divisional games.
1. Fireworks in Arrowhead’s trenches
No team has protected its quarterback better than the Colts since Week 5, but the Chiefs’ defense — built to protect leads — boasts three viable star pass rushers.
Chris Jones’ 15.5 sacks and 29 QB hits, especially eye-popping from a defensive tackle, might actually undersell his pass-rushing impact. Even when he doesn’t get there, he routinely powers blockers backward, creating opportunities for teammates when quarterbacks can’t step up.
Dee Ford (13 sacks, 29 hits) has been the biggest beneficiary. His lightning first step favors speed rushes, and turning the corner is much easier with QBs deep in the pocket. Four-time Pro Bowler Justin Houston (9.0 sacks, 12 hits in 12 games) is no slouch, either.
Sparks should fly, as Jones will often line up opposite All-Pro rookie left guard Quenton Nelson. Both have tremendous power with enough complementary quickness. Can Nelson hold up like few others have against Jones this season?
On the edges, left tackle Anthony Castonzo is a rock, while right tackle Braden Smith has been steady but occasionally susceptible. Smith could struggle some with Ford, whose diminutive frame (6-foot-2, 252 pounds) offers an awfully small target when he’s bending to turn the corner.
The Colts chipped J.J. Watt often last week while rarely doubling Jadeveon Clowney, so it will be interesting to see whom they key on. Ford would make sense, as chip blocks would neutralize his first step. Indy could also slide center Ryan Kelly to Jones’ side, hoping right guard Mark Glowinski can handle Allen Bailey (six sacks, 10 hits) alone.
Indianapolis should have a major advantage in the run game, where Jones and Bailey are undisciplined and struggle to anchor. The Colts might be best exploiting that edge relentlessly … assuming they can avoid a huge deficit.
2. Colts’ defense must pick its poison
Coordinator Matt Eberflus’ unit is thriving. His Cover-2 heavy scheme lets defenders to play fast and improve during the season, but has enough wrinkles to keep opponents off balance and probe at weaknesses.
But the Chiefs’ offense has few weaknesses.
If Eberflus relies on his front four for pressure, even their stunts and twists might not trouble Kansas City’s O-line, giving Patrick Mahomes time to break Indy’s zones down. Eberflus could turn to his slot blitzes (featuring cornerback Kenny Moore), but those risk flushing Mahomes from the pocket, where he might be more lethal.
Another conundrum is how to handle Tyreek Hill. Cover-2 is supposedly safe against deep throws, but it inherently makes two safeties and a linebacker the deepest defenders. Giving Andy Reid chances to get Hill — especially from the slot — against a safety or linebacker is playing with fire. Containing Hill with proper depth would open gaping underneath windows. Mahomes and Travis Kelce have torched zone defenses up the seams, and Reid loves dagger concepts with Hill clearing out space for dig routes.
The Colts should mix up coverage more than usual — that’s how teams have best contained Mahomes anyway — but they won’t plug every leak.
3. Cowboys have ingredients for L.A. upset
Dallas’ 8-1 stretch has been fortunate — the Cowboys’ point differential is just plus-14 in that span — but they match up well against the 13-3 Rams.
Like the Seahawks, the Rams’ offense is built around its run game. L.A. is much more pass-oriented than Seattle, but Sean McVay’s scheme is centered around outside-zone runs and complementary play-action.
The Cowboys have been susceptible to play-action (112.6 rating allowed during the regular season), but they have the horses to stop the run. If they can do so with a lighter box, an extra safety deep could help neutralize the Rams’ two-man downfield concepts off play-action.
More importantly, Dallas’ greatest strength (running game) aligns perfectly with L.A.’s biggest weakness (run defense). The Cowboys’ line is still excellent without Travis Frederick, and Ezekiel Elliott has been even more impressive. He is outstanding at coming downhill path to force linebackers to commit before jump-cutting into a different lane or veering outside.
One Rams edge could come against Amari Cooper. Cornerback Aqib Talib has the physicality and quickness to handle Cooper. In seven games against Talib — often covered by Talib but not always — Cooper has caught 18 of 40 targets for 169 yards and two scores, including one catch for 9 yards in Week 1.
4. What will Gus Bradley do in Foxborough?
The defenses that have bothered Tom Brady most this season have used blitzes and zone exchanges to get free rushers, but the Chargers’ Cover-3 defense is as static as they come, at least on early downs.
Will Bradley change up? He has versatile pieces: Derwin James, Desmond King and Adrian Phillips can all blitz, and Melvin Ingram is capable dropping in zone or even man coverage. Bradley might simply hope Ingram, Joey Bosa & Co. can get home, but using obvious Cover-3 looks over and over is asking for trouble against Brady.
We’ll also find out if L.A. trusts any of its linebackers. Last week’s “dollar” package (seven DBs) was catered to stop Lamar Jackson, but it was also borne of necessity by the injury to Jatavis Brown (joining linebackers Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White on IR). The Chargers probably won’t use dollar on 60 snaps again, but they’ll at least play plenty of dime (six DBs).
That heavily contrasts New England, which uses 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) on far more snaps (35 percent) than any other team but the 49ers (44 percent; nobody else over 19). The Patriots can bully opponents by running straight at them with Sony Michel following James Develin, but would they do so — and give Brady fewer chances to throw — in a playoff game? The Chargers might force them to choose.
5. Clean slate for Eagles’ offense in New Orleans
Philadelphia’s offense was horrendous in Week 11’s 48-7 drubbing, but so much changed since.
Obviously, Nick Foles is in for Carson Wentz, so Doug Pederson’s approach will be quite different. Philly relied on slow-developing play-action designs early in that game, most of which — for various reasons — failed. Pederson tends to get Foles delivering faster, meaning more shotgun and quicker play-action concepts.
Meanwhile, the Eagles’ protection should be better. Center Jason Kelce left after six snaps in Week 11 and Stefen Wisniewski struggled in his stead. Philadelphia had major issues picking up second-level blitzes and stunts, allowing far too many free rushers, and Wisniewski had some shaky snaps.
But there are problems that must be fixed. Despite a quiet stat line (no sacks, one QB hit), Cameron Jordan gave right tackle Lane Johnson serious trouble, especially going inside. Jordan was inches from two sacks and disrupted Wentz four or five other times, despite playing just 31 snaps in the blowout. Johnson’s highs are very high, and he’s played to that level in the postseason, but he must rebound in the rematch with Jordan.
Likewise, the Eagles’ wideouts must separate more from man coverage. New Orleans was all too comfortable playing straight man with five rushers in the first meeting.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media