SportsPulse: E News All Sports’ Jarrett Bell breaks down all the story lines coming out of wild-card weekend in the NFL.
The NFL playoffs can serve as a stage for some of the league’s biggest stars to shine brightest, but it’s often overlooked players or aspects that decide which team moves on.
Here are two X-factors for each team during the divisional round.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu: Philadelphia led the NFL in rushing defense (79.2 yards a game), so Atlanta – even with a talented tandem of backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman – will need plays in the passing game. Expect second-team all-pro receiver Julio Jones to draw additional help. That could leave Sanu in single coverage.
Eagles CB Jalen Mills: Atlanta’s most prominent threat is Jones. In last year’s Week 10 game between both these teams, he caught six balls for 73 yards in the first half. Then Philly put Mills on Jones after intermission. When in coverage on Jones in the second half, Mills allowed just two catches for 37 yards the rest of the game, though he was called for a 17-yard pass interference.
Bend but don’t break: Atlanta’s defense was effective all season in limiting big plays, but where the defense often was at its most formidable its back against the wall. The Falcons ranked fifth in defensive red zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns on just 45.8% of opponents’ trips inside the 20. That trend continued in the wild-card round, with Atlanta holding the Rams to only 13 points while Los Angeles converted just one of four red zone tries.
Third downs: In the three games after Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament, Philadelphia moved the chains on just 23.7% of its third-down attempts, including three of 25 in its last two games.
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Saints’ leverage: Carolina provided a possible blueprint for slowing the multi-purpose threat of running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (68 yards from scrimmage combined). And like the Panthers, the Vikings have athletic linebackers who can match up against the two. Both Ingram and Kamara, therefore, must use their speed, savvy, and elusiveness to get to the outside and force Vikings defenders out of position.
Vikings NT Linval Joseph: The Panthers slowed down New Orleans’ potent rushing attack, in large part, because of the penetration of their interior defenders. For the Vikings to have similar success against the Saints, Joseph is going to have to push back blockers and disrupt the timing of plays.
Saints’ pass protection: Even though the Panthers contained the Saints’ ground game, another stellar pass protection performance gave quarterback Drew Brees enough time to find open targets as he racked up 376 yards and two scores. New Orleans allowed the second-fewest sacks (20) of any team this season. The Vikings ranked a ho-hum 17th with 37. Keeping Brees clean will be integral to attacking a defense that gave up the second-fewest yards through the air.
Vikings RB Latavius Murray: Murray’s play has been overshadowed by backup quarterback Case Keenum. But fifth-year veteran – who took on the starting role after a season-ending injury to starter Dalvin Cook in Week 4 – is a key piece of Minnesota’s offense. In the final 10 games of the year, he has posted 747 yards and all eight of his touchdowns.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jaguars LB Telvin Smith: In Jacksonville’s 30-9 victory against Pittsburgh in Week 5, Smith tied for a team-highs in combined tackles (10) and tackles for loss (two) and added an interception. Smith’s range as a tackler helped limit Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell to just 47 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey: If Steelers unanimous all-pro receiver Antonio Brown (calf) is healthy enough to play, Ramsey – who said Brown was “easily” the top player he has faced in his career – will likely draw him for most of the day. Brown has game-changing ability and caught 10 passes for 157 yards as one of the lone Pittsburgh bright spots in that Week 5 defeat.
Steelers’ run defense to the left: During the regular season, Pittsburgh yielded an average of 6.6 yards a carry when opposing offenses rushed the ball over their left tackle and 6.79 when backs bounced those attempts outside to the left end, ranking last in both categories. The Jaguars have Leonard Fournette and the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense (141.4). That means a lot of pressure falls on linebackers Vince Williams and T.J. Watt, both of whom primarily line up on that side of Pittsburgh’s defense.
Steelers WR Martavis Bryant: Even though the Jaguars forced Ben Roethlisberger into five interceptions in Week 5, Pittsburgh’s 301 passing yards were the most Jacksonville allowed all season long. Bryant struggled to find a consistent rhythm this season, but given his size (6-4, 211 pounds) and speed – and the attention likely paid to other Steelers receivers – he could be one of Pittsburgh’s best options for gaining yardage in big chunks.
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots
Titans FS Kevin Byard: The first-team all pro tied for the league lead in interceptions (eight). And while generating more takeaways would undoubtedly help Tennessee, his real value could be in helping to contain Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is New England’s primary red zone weapon and its most dangerous target.
Patriots DE Trey Flowers: Only six squads posted more sacks in the regular season than the Patriots did (42). Flowers, who led the team with 6 1/2 sacks, could be tasked not only with pressuring Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota behind the line of scrimmage, but also helping to contain him within the pocket.
Staying turnover-free: Continuing a pattern played out all season, the Titans were careless with the ball in the wild-card round (two giveaways and none forced), yet they still managed to erase an 18-point deficit to beat the Chiefs. The Titans, however, got lucky that Kansas City didn’t score any points off of the mistakes. Against Tom Brady and the Pats, they might not be as fortunate.
No distractions: ESPN published a story last Friday detailing dysfunction and tension among Brady, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. The Patriots, however, have an extensive history of downplaying off-the-field drama and eliminating the effect of any potential distractions. With questions about the future of the franchise swirling, it’s time to utilize that laser focus.
PHOTOS: Best of NFL wild-card games
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