We have reached the second stage of the playoffs, leaving us with the NFL’s version of the Elite Eight. We have already seen both the reigning Super Bowl champs and a 13-3 Saints squad leave the tournament due to upsets at home and if it wasn’t for an epic collapse by the Bills in Houston, we would have seen all four division champs kicked out already. However, now the four teams coming off a bye will be well rested to take on those aspiring contenders. The bookmakers have three of those home teams favored by at least a touchdown, with the Seahawks being the only ones to keep it really close, but as we have seen plenty of times, the playoffs have different rules and there always seems to be one surprise outcome in this round. I looked at each matchup and who has the advantage at every offensive and defensive position. In the column underneath I also mentioned if anything stood out to me with special teams and/or coaching.
When looked at the Vikings and 49ers, a lot of what they do on offense is very similar due to the Mike Shanahan that both Gary Kubiak and obviously Kyle are coming from. They build off the inside/outside zone run game with bootlegs and shots down the field. When it came to the quarterbacks I gave Kirk Cousins the slight edge because even though there is this stigma about him not being able to win big games, he has played an excellent season and actually has come up clutch in the playoffs while Jimmy G has only been able to watch from the sidelines in New England. While I like the trio of backs in San Francisco, I think with Dalvin Cook turning into one of the most dynamic players in the league and a similar type of runner in rookie Alexander Mattison, this one was fairly easy. I also think the duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is up there among the very best, even if I like the depth of young pieces for the Niners, who have all seemed to step up once Emmanuel Sanders was acquired. Kyle Rudolph just caught the game-winner in overtime last week and C.J. Ham is actually an underrated fullback, but George Kittle is the best all-around tight-end in the game today and Kyle Juszczyk is a crucial piece to their rushing attack, while contributing as a pass-catcher as well. And finally the O-lines both look better than the actually are because of the offensive scheme taking pressure off them by rarely asking them to protect in obvious passing situations, but I like Minnesota here because some of the young talent they have assembled in the recent drafts, with rookie Garrett Bradbury giving them a lot of flexibility thanks to his athleticism.
Defensively, I might have given the 49ers the advantage at all three levels, but when it comes to the front-seven at least, I thought they were really close. The way the Vikings used Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter rushing over the guards really created problems for Drew Brees and the Saints and I think especially Joe Staley can be had by power rushers, but I gave San Francisco the slight edge here. Dee Ford is finally back healthy and I love the depth they have up front, with my only concern being the absence of big D.J. Jones right in the middle. When it comes to the linebackers, it is also the return of an injured player in Kwon Alexander that swung the pendulum. That duo of Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr has been great for Minnesota for a while now, but with Alexander, rookie Dre Greenlaw making some big plays down the stretch and Fred Warner being a flying missile for them, this ended up being my pick. And then there’s the secondary, which used to be one of the Vikes’ biggest strengths in recent years, but with Xavier Rhoades stepping back the way he has and Mike Hughes rarely being available, even that outstanding safety tandem couldn’t convince me. The Niners don’t play a lot of complicated coverages, but they have two long corners on the outside, an underrated nickel in K’Waun Williams, Jimmie Ward roaming the deep middle and now Jaquaski Tartt being back as a type of Kam Chancellor for this unit, I chose them.
When I look at special teams, I really like Richie James potentially setting up San Francisco with a short field once in this game, while both kickers have delivered from long range for the most part – even if the 49ers had some problems with their long snapper-holder combination early on. This will be a fascinating coaching matchup between Shanahan and Mike Zimmer, as I expect those D-ends to stay home to take away easy throws on bootlegs. The guy who has a chance to shine now that he has most of his pieces back is Niners DC Robert Salah, who was looked at as a prime head coaching candidate before all those recent signings.
In this clash between the AFC’s number one and six seed, we will see two top three rushing attacks with the MVP frontrunner on one side and the hottest player of the tournament on the other. As great as Ryan Tannehill has been for the Titans since he took over mid-season, Lamar Jackson was named First-Team All-Pro and will likely be named league MVP for a reason. As far as running backs go, I had to give Tennessee the edge. Derrick Henry has been on an absolute tear since the team has had a somewhat competent passing game and if they are looking for another upset, this is the guy they lean on, with Dion Lewis getting some work on third downs. However, I also like the trio in Baltimore. The receiver category clearly goes to the underdog. Marquise Brown has given the Ravens someone who can kill defenses over the top once they start loading the box, but A.J. Brown has been the best rookie receiver and with Corey Davis being a former top-five pick as well as Adam Humphries returning to the slot, this is a very capable group. A big reason why Baltimore ended up second among the wide receivers is that most of their passing game runs through the tight-ends. The trio they have there is absolutely phenomenal and Patrick Ricard is a true throwback guy, playing defense and special teams, when he isn’t opening holes in the run game. When it comes to the offensive line, I was definitely considering Tennessee, because they did upgrade inside and have two former first-rounders at either tackle spot, but as a unit the Ravens have been a little more consistent. Ronnie Stanley has quietly put his name into the conversation for the best tackle in football and Marshal Yanda is still kicking butt for them, while they haven’t taken a step back as a group despite some injuries.
Looking at the defensive line, it doesn’t get much bigger than what Baltimore has in store. Now with Domata Peko added to the mix, they often have just over 1000 pounds on the field with just three guys. It will be up to the Ravens edge defenders to contain against the outside zone with Henry, because I don’t see him running right up the middle against those big boys. As much as I like Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor, the linebacker category goes to Tennessee after the show they put on last week. Rashaan Evans absolutely smacked those Patriots backs in the face, making a huge goal line stand for them. You have also heard me rave about Harold Landry’s talent rushing off the edge and that Jayon Brown is one of the most underrated players in the league. When it came to secondaries, it wasn’t very hard for me to pick since I believe the Ravens have the premier defensive backfield in the NFL. Their trio of Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters includes three guys who I have all made Pro Bowls and I have considered top-five at one point of their careers. Earl Thomas might not be as rangy as he used to be, but he is like another coach on the back-end for them. However, you can’t ignore what the Titans have when they are completely healthy either.
There are plenty of connections between both these squads. Tennessee’s DC brought up Wink Martindale under him before briefly retiring and coming back with the Titans. Both teams also put a lot of focus on special teams, with John Harbaugh being a former ST coordinator and the Titans making a bunch of big plays through that facet of the game, whether that is leading the league in blocked kicks or Brett Kern pinning opponents deep with punts inside the 20 all year long. The big difference here being the field goal kicking. The visiting team has gone eight for 18 through the regular season, while Justin Tucker is the most accurate kicker in the history of the league.
In the matchup we are looking at two offenses very capable of putting up points, but one of them has put up some historical numbers and the other has failed to put up over 20 points five times this season, which reflects itself in the first five categories. We truly have two special quarterbacks going up against each other here. You could argue that there is no better big-game performer left in the AFC than Deshaun Watson and he put together some magic in that comeback effort against Buffalo last week, but Patrick Mahomes might just be the most talented quarterback I have ever watched. I also like the Kansas City backfield, because even though they don’t have a true workhorse, everybody has produced for them in some capacity and I wouldn’t be shocked if rookie Darwin Thompson was the one to shine as we go forward. The receivers category certainly wasn’t easy because of the body of work Deandre Hopkins has put together and the way Will Fuller can change the offense when he is healthy, but KC simply has too many weapons and nobody is tougher to guard than the man they call Cheetah, who can run by anybody on any given play. Since the Texans don’t really use a fullback and Anthony Sherman is one of the best utility guys, this really is more about the tight-ends and while the Texans have a pretty room, Travis Kelce is the premiere pass catcher at the position, with the ability to run away from linebackers or rumble down the middle. Offensive line is the only group I could give Houston the edge, which is crazy since they just gave up seven sacks last week, but a lot of that was due to Watson holding onto the ball and they are the better run-blocking unit in my opinion.
On defense these teams have really struggled for different parts of the season. For about half the year, the Chiefs could not slow down opposing rushing attacks, which was the defining factor in consecutive losses to Indy and Houston, since it also kept their explosive offense off the field. However, since Chris Jones has come back for them and Steve Spagnuolo got more aggressive on early downs, that has really improved. They have a bunch of big bodies on the interior and Frank Clark has come up with clutch plays for them. The linebacker play for Houston has been outstanding in a bunch of games. Whitney Mercilus has been a problem for opponents, they have gotten contributions from some other additions on the edge Zach Cunningham just put together a clinic against Buffalo, when he made a textbook play in one-on-one coverage against a running back and then blew up Josh Allen when a QB sweep looked like it would go for a big gain. And then there’s the defensive backfields. I am a huge fan of the Texans second-year safety Justin Reid and they have collected a couple of cast-off first rounders at cornerback from other teams, but these Chiefs have really improved on the back-end, largely thanks to the guidance of Tyrann Mathieu. Their trio of corners have all stepped up in the later portions of the seasons, especially Charvarius Ward, even though it will be a challenge to replace the injured rookie safety Juan Thornhill.
KC has the advantage on special teams to me, with three outstanding options in the return game, and Harrison Butker gives me a much better feeling to make big kicks than a somewhat shaky Ka’imi Fairbairn. Coaching-wise Andy Reid might have had his bad moments in the playoffs, but he is still much more creative and aggressive. I also like what Spagnuolo has done improving throughout the year, even though I also liked the adjustments Romeo Crennel made last week. This game features the only rematch of this round and I think the Chiefs are reasonably favored by just over a touchdown, considering the defensive improvements they have made.
This has become a classic matchup through the years, basically ever since the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson and went on a couple of Super Bowl runs. That also brings me to my first matchup, where I had to go with Russ because of the way he has carried his squad this year, even if Aaron Rodgers has been such a special player for the last decade and has started to become kind of underrated, with the ability to get hot down the stretch. When it comes to the offensive backfield, Seattle’s abundance of injuries didn’t really make this a fight, even if the name Marshawn Lynch might make it seem that way. The Hawks have lost their top three backs before signing Beast Mode and Travis Homer showing off, but Aaron Jones was a Pro Bowl snub with the Pack transitioning to a a more balanced offense and Jamaal Williams is an excellent number two for them. When it comes to receivers, Green Bay has the top overall guy in Davante Adams, but as a group I would give Seattle the nod. Tyler Lockett is back healthy, D.K. Metcalf has looked like the WR1 I had him going into last year’s draft and they always seemed to find that third guy, who can contribute for them. With the Seahawks barely utilizing a fullback and being on their second tight-end, the next category goes to the Pack. Jimmy Graham has been largely disappointing in the Green & Yellow, but he can have his moments, and I really like what Dan Vitale has brought to the offense, with some nice runs after catching the ball in the flats as well. And then the offensive line is a pretty solid win for the home team as well. Duane Brown is expected to be back for the Seahawks this week, but we all saw what Fletcher Cox did to the interior of that group and I always say – they can not protect when there is no threat of the run. Green Bay has one of the best combination of tackles, Billy Turner has been a nice addition for them and rookie Elgton Jenkins has lived up to my draft rankings.
For the defensive breakdown it is important to note that I looked at base sets, meaning the Seahawks 4-3 versus the Packers 3-4, since if we went with nickel packages those two guys on the edge for Green Bay would probably put them over the top. As it stands, Seattle at full strength is not be ignored. Jadeveon Clowney’s numbers will never be super-impressive, but the way he has dominated some contests by destroying tight-ends in the run game and being the QB’s has been huge. Ziggy Ansah has made some noise when available, they have four legitimate options on the inside and Rasheem Greene is a guy who has stood out over the past few weeks. The way I structured this, I also had to give the Hawks the edge at the linebacker level. The Smith brothers have been phenomenal for the Pack and Blake Martinez is actually a very underrated player, but that combination of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright is still up there with the class of the NFL, blowing up running backs but also making outstanding plays in space. In the secondary is where the Packers finally got them. Seattle has taken a step forward ever since acquiring Quandre Diggs from Detroit and they have the length on the outside Pete Carrol is looking for, but they have been susceptible to the deep ball for most of the year. Green Bay’s young core on the other hand has put together some good showing, if they didn’t have to compensation for a poor interior run D. Jaire Alexander is young star, Adrian Amos has been very reliable for them and I love the little wrecking ball Darnell Savage.
Special teams-wise there is nothing that really stands out to me. Both teams have young, strong-legged punters and reliable veteran kickers, while the Packers have upgraded at returner with Tyler Ervin mid-season. When it comes to coaching, I like the way Matt LaFleur puts together gameplans and I think Green Bay has a pretty large advantage when it comes to defensive scheme. While Seattle primarily runs that single-high safety scheme they are famous for, Mike Pettine’s group is very unpredictable with the coverages they run and he is a master at creating one-on-one opportunities for his pass rushers, which could result in another big day for the league’s leaders in QB pressures in Za’Darius Smith. If the Seahawks win this game, it will once again be on the shoulder of Russell Wilson and his late-game heroics potentially.