The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs is a couple of weeks away, and the 12 remaining teams are chomping at the bit to get going. The season ended with the a number of teams fighting tooth and nail to earn a spot in the postseason, and once the dust cleared, we were left with a number of pressing questions. The wild-card weekend features the youngest QB to start playoff game in NFL history in the form of Lamar Jackson, the reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, two potential candidates for Comeback Player of the Year squaring off against each other, a formidable Chicago Bears defense ready to capture the glory of the ’85 championship team, and the America’s Team (lol).
With the matchups only a few days away, it’s finally time to dive into the biggest questions concerning the first weekend of the playoffs.
Will the Ravens defense continue to dominate?
The Sunday slate of games contains the more intriguing pair of matchups. The first game is from the AFC, and it features the San Diego Chargers (12-4) visiting the Baltimore Ravens (10-6) in a repeat of their Week 16 battle in which the Ravens won by a score of 22-10. That matchup was controlled by the juggernaut that is the Baltimore defense. San Diego were one of the best offenses in the league this year, ranking third in offensive DVOA, 10th in passing yards per game (255.6), seventh in total touchdowns (51), and sixth in total points (428).
But against Baltimore, they were suffocated by the pass defense, which held QB Phillip Rivers to a measly 181 yards and an interception. The Chargers’ offense itself only amassed a total of 198 yards. They did it using a number of complicated blitz packages, which they had done all season. As they lined up five to eight defenders at the line of scrimmage, the overlapping rushers and stunt blitzes got to Rivers often, racking up four sacks and hitting him another eight times. The formidable, ultra-athletic front seven of the Ravens’ defense has consistently gotten to the quarterback, ranking 10th in sacks (43) and sixth in pressure rate (32.0). Their constant and confusing pressure has been a nightmare for opposing passers, with the unit ranking second in opponent passer rating (80.6).
Along with their all important pass defense, they’ve been able to shut down the run game. They allow the third lowest yards per attempt (3.4) and the fourth lowest rushing yards per game (82.9). Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has crafted a blitz-happy, complicated defensive scheme that has allowed his talented personnel to flourish. As mentioned before, Martindale likes to load up the box before the snap. This allows the defense to disguise its blitz packages, sending the quarterback, offensive line, and backfield into disarray as they try to figure out where the pressure is coming from.
The Ravens defense OWNED Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16, but it should be understood that the Chargers are liable to bounce back. They are the number six rushing attack in the league, and boast the second-ranked passing unit in DVOA. It’s unlikely that they put up a stinker similar to the performance in their previous matchup, but the Baltimore defense has few holes in it. In fact, it can be argued that they have no holes. As the second best defense in the NFL, they have the potential to set the tone early in this matchup.
Who blinks first: Nick Foles or the Bears defense?
*This is the second game on the Sunday slate.
Who could have seen this coming? Nick Foles, the reigning, defending Super Bowl MVP, who regained the starting job for the Philadelphia Eagles when Carson Wentz went down, capped off an amazing run this past week. A dominating 24-0 win over the football team from Washington, in combination with a Chicago Bears win over the Minnesota Vikings, allowed Philly to secure the number six seed in the NFC. When Wentz went down late in the season once again, Foles has led the Eagles to three straight victories, pulling them from mediocrity and propelling them into the playoffs. He did it in astounding fashion: in Week 16, he set the franchise record passing yards (471), and in Week 17, he tied the NFL record for consecutive completions (25).
He’s done it by playing out of his damn mind, similar to the way that he did in the NFC championship game and in the Super Bowl last year, in which he delivered arguably one of the best Super Bowl performances of all time. With a similar roster playing to its best potential right now, there is a likely chance that he can produce the same type of output as he did last year.
The only thing in his way is the best defense in the NFL. The Chicago Bears have run roughshod over almost every offense they have encountered. They rank first in defensive DVOA, have given up the least amount of points (283), and have given up the third-least yards per game (299.7). There are few holes in their personnel: their front seven may be the best in football, spearheaded by Khalil Mack, and their secondary is rife with ball-hawking defensive backs. This defensive unit posted the third-most sacks (50.0), the most interceptions (27), and the most defensive touchdowns (5).
It will be a battle of epic proportions: the immovable object of the Bears defense against the irresistible force of Big Dick Nick. I, for one, cannot wait.
Who is the real Comeback Kid?
At the beginning of this season, the AFC South was meant to be a murky swamp ran by the Jacksonville Jaguars as they capitalized on their AFC championship last season. However, what actually occurred was a revitalization of the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, with both being led by two quarterbacks coming off of injury.
This time last year, Deshaun Watson was rehabbing his torn ACL after a ridiculous start to his rookie campaign was cut short. He came back to lead the Texans to the division title, posting an 11-5 record, throwing for 4,165 yards, and completing nearly 69 percent of his passes. He reduced his interception percentage to 1.8 and also increased his passing yards per game by 18 yards. His dynamic, dual-threat quarterback play has provided a shot in the arm to the Texans, who rattled off an impressive nine game win-streak in the middle of the season. He would be the leader for NFL Comeback Player of the Year if it was not for the guy on the other sideline this Saturday.
Andrew Luck missed the entirety of the 2017 season due to persistent shoulder issues. There were genuine fears about his arm strength and the quickness of his release. Before his injury, he had the third slowest release of qualifying quarterbacks at 2.88 seconds. But, upon his return and him warming up to the position again, Luck returned to a superstar level form. He threw for 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns, and his highest yards per game since his Pro Bowl selection in 2014. Due to the offensive game plan based on deliberate, shorter passes, Luck was able to quicken his release and avoid sacks, which undoubtedly aided his health status. He achieved career highs in completion percentage and passer rating, all while leading the Colts on a 9-1 record to make the playoffs.
2018 was a marquee year for both quarterbacks. This wild-card matchup serves as a crucial rubber match for two teams, as they split their regular season divisional battles. More importantly, we get to see one final matchup between two QBs who have clawed to get back to their best form.
Are the Seattle Seahawks actually for real?
There was a slight blip in Seattle’s plan to reach the Super Bowl once again. Not a major blip, but an event that causes for some concern. This past Sunday’s victory against the Arizona Cardinals was a nail-biter by the score of 27-24. Against the worst team in the entire league, that is not a welcome sight to see. It wasn’t just the score that is cause for concern, it was the matter in which the game was so close. Russell Wilson was under pressure throughout the entire matchup, being sacked six times and hit eight times as the Seattle pass-protection failed shield their quarterback. For a team that has issues with protecting the QB before, this was not an encouraging result.
Where the Arizona pass defense was able to hold Wilson at bay, the Seahawks rushing attack of Chris Carson and Mike Davis combined for 166 yards and two touchdowns as they carved up the Cardinals defense. It was representative of the way the Seattle offense had operated this season: with heavy reliance on the run game to complement Wilson’s ability to run the play action and deliver decidedly accurate deep-balls. Wilson has been masterclass the entire season at delivering the ball downfield. He had the second highest deep passer rating (128.1), had a 15-1 touchdown to interception ratio on deep balls, and amassed the third most yards from deep balls in the leg (1,108).
The Seahawks have been comfortably chugging along behind a formidable offense that has procured a solid rushing attack to coincide with the talent of Wilson. They have one of the most efficient offenses in the entire NFC, and have an average defense that has been serviceable despite facing numerous injuries to important personnel. It will be be interesting to see if Seattle will be able to hold its on in an NFC side that seems to be up for grabs.