Fundamentally, football is a team sport. Eleven vs eleven. However, there will be those among the twenty-two players that will be larger factors in the outcome. For every team involved it is important to identify those opposing players. This creates key matchups throughout any NFL game, but that aspect is certainly magnified in the playoffs. As we prepare for the first round of post-seasons games, let us take a look at which players could make massive impacts in their respective contests. Here is NFC Wild Card – Key Matchups.
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints
Chicago Pass Rush vs New Orleans O-Line
Last year, the Saints lost at home during Wild Card weekend. While they enter this game has heavy favorites, there is a risk that history will repeat itself in New Orleans. The 2019 Saints season ended in part due to a potent pass-rush. The dominant duo of Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter terrorized Drew Brees for most of that game. The two of them alone combined for 3 sacks, and 6 QB hits. The intense pressure contributed toward two turnovers and the 26-20 loss for New Orleans.
Four of the five starters on the Saints offensive line in last year’s playoffs remain on the team. Therefore, that unit will need to play much better than they did in the previous Wild Card game. This is among the stronger offensive line in the league. However, according to Football Outsiders, the Saints line ranks 13th in adjusted sack rate. Barely above league average may be a disappointment for a group that is 4th in adjusted line yards (Football Outsides metric of run blocking). What we saw in 2020 was a group that was stronger in the run-game than they were in pass-protection.
Like their division rivals demonstrated last year, the Bears have a dynamic duo rushing the passer.The biggest name is Khalil Mack, but for good reason. He is dominant at getting after the passer and can do so from different positions. Both Saints offensive tackles, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, could be tasked with difficult one-on-one pass-protection duties. On any given play, either could be facing Mack. Although, Mack will also at times move to the interior to join Akiem Hicks. Both players need to be accounted for on every snap. Center Erik McCoy will have his hands full all game both with pre-snap reads as well as execution of the plays themselves.
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
Metcalf vs Ramsey
As NFC West rivals, the Rams and Seahawks have played each other twice this season. In both of those meetings, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was tasked with a shadow coverage role. His matchup: D.K. Metcalf. The second-year receiver had an efficiently productive 2020 season with 83 receptions for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns. In spite of such impressive numbers, he did struggle in certain games. The first time Metcalf and Ramsey squared off, the wide out only caught 2 passes for 28 yards. He fared a little better the second time around with 6 receptions for 59 yards. Still, 8 catches and only 87 is somewhat of a disappointing outing for Metcalf. Let alone two games combined.
All of this to say, that Ramsey has held Metcalf down in their two regular-season meetings. In those games, the Seahawks offense as a whole failed to produce to their lofty early-season standards. During the entire 2020 regular season, Seattle was held to 20 points or less in only 4 matches. Half of those were against the Rams. In fact, the second of those contests was the first time all year that the Seahawks offense produced less than 300 total yards.
The point is, that Seattle’s offense struggles when Metcalf is not producing as a top tier receiver. In those Rams games for instance, the defense’s trust in Ramsey to shadow allows other players to provide extra attention to other playmakers. If Metcalf wants to best help his team in the Wild-Card round, then he will need to get open and make catches against Ramsey both early and often. That will force the Rams safeties to provide help. That in itself could allow Russell Wilson more space to find other players and explode against this defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team
Tampa Tackles vs Washington Defensive Ends
We have all seen enough of Tom Brady‘s career. At least enough to know the best chance at a victory against him. To beat Brady you need to get pressure with only four pass-rushers. Putting seven players in coverage has always been the best formula vs Brady. If given time, Brady will pick apart any defense, no matter how good the coverage. Defending against interior pressure is obviously a must but in rush-4 situations, there can usually be a double-team to handle priority problems. The key will be the edge rushers in one-on-one matchups vs the offensive tackles. The Buccaneers’ offensive production may hinge on how well the tackles can play.
The addition of an elite pass-rushing prospect with the 2nd-overall pick has transformed the Washington defense. Chase Young entered the NFL as advertised and has completely turned around this pass-rush. The rookie has produced in the pros in spite of all the attention he has received for opposing offensive lines Young’s presence has allowed Motez Sweat to produce a career-high 9 sacks.
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The men tasked with keeping Sweat and Young at bay are Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. The pass-protecting duo brings a mix of experience and energy. Smith is a six-year veteran who finally gets his first taste of the NFL playoffs. Meanwhile, Wirfs is a rookie who was a first-round pick himself. It will be interesting to see if Wirfs and Young end up squaring off in one-on-one matchups. This will be a great showcase on the national stage for both rookies.
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