The regular season is officially behind us, and the sprint for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta has begun. Four Wild Card weekend matchups await, beginning late Saturday afternoon with the Texans meeting the Colts for the third time this season. As kickoff looms, let’s dive into each game, picking out one matchup that will impact which teams advance to the Divisional Round.
Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans, Saturday, 4:35 p.m Eastern Time
Key Matchup: Third Downs on both sides of the ball
The road team won each of the first two games that these teams played this season, making the third matchup in Houston even more interesting. The big matchup to watch here for is on third down on both sides of the ball. The Colts offense was one of the best in the league on third down, ranking fourth in third-down success rate this year at 43.8%, meaning they successfully gain the yardage they need on third down that percentage of the time. The Texans defense, on the other hand, ranked 24th in the league in success rate (same thing except they allow opponents to successfully gain the yardage needed), making it potentially difficult for them to get Indianapolis off the field.
The Texans weren’t much better on the offensive side of the ball, ranking 19th in the league in success rate on third downs at 36.7%. There’s an opportunity for them to be better in this game, as the Colts defense ranked below the Texans in third-down success rate, allowing opponents to convert 40% of the time. Whichever team is able to win on third downs will have a large say in this game.
Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Eastern Time
Key Matchup: Seahawks big-play offense vs. Cowboys big-play prevention on defense
This matchup is strength vs. strength. The Seahawks were one of the most explosive teams in the league this year, with Russell Wilson using receivers David Moore (17.1 yards per catch) and Tyler Lockett (16.9 yards per catch) with massive success. The Seattle offense overall picked things up in the second half, averaging nearly eight more points per game (31.3 vs. 23.5) in the final eight games of the year. Running back Chris Carson’s success and the improvement along the offensive line has allowed Wilson more time than ever to extend plays and find chunk yardage down the field.
However, they face a Cowboys defense that was one of the best at forcing opponents to methodically work down the field in order to score this year. Dallas’ defense ranked ninth in DVOA, and fifth in rushing DVOA, which makes for a difficult day for the Seahawks running game. The passing defense was a little more susceptible (16th DVOA), but they ranked eighth in the league in SB Nation’s marginal explosiveness metric against the pass.
As we said, this is a battle of strength on strength. The Seahawks create big plays better than every team in the league in the passing game (first in passing marginal explosiveness) while Dallas prevents those plays with the best of the league. Who wins this battle on Saturday night will certainly help determine who moves on to the divisional round.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Eastern Time (CBS)
Key Matchup: Chargers Run Defense vs. Lamar Jackson, Gus Edwards, and company
The first time these two teams met this season, the Chargers had no answers for stopping the Ravens running game, as Baltimore ripped off 159 yards on 35 carries (4.5 YPC) while winning the time of possession battle (31:25-28:35). The Ravens also benefited from a pair of defensive touchdowns. While Baltimore’s defense is good, they can’t count on getting defensive scores, as those tend to be more random over the course of a season.
That is why the running game will be important both ways. Lamar Jackson, despite being 6-1 as a starter, hasn’t truly found his rhythm yet as a passer. The Ravens know that, and they have played to his strengths in the running game and with play-action off of the run. In the seven games that Jackson has handled the starting QB duties, Baltimore has averaged over 229 yards per game on the ground and under 200 yards passing.
The Chargers run defense was top 10 in the league by DVOA this year (-12%), but they ranked 18th in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage). In this game, L.A. will need to get either stuffs, or allow fewer yards on first and second down against the run, as the Ravens have been fairly run-heavy on those downs this season (461 rush attempts to 403 pass attempts). If the Chargers can get the Ravens into third-and-eight or longer, that plays to Los Angeles’s strength, as the Chargers were one of the league’s best teams on blitz downs this season.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Chicago Bears, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. Eastern Time
Key Matchup: Eagles Offensive Line vs. Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd
The Eagles run to the playoffs may once again seem like the magic of Nick Foles, but there is a big underlying factor in their three straight wins to end the year. Philadelphia dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in the last three weeks. That’s going to be much more difficult this week, particularly against a Bears defense that ranked top of the league in most categories this season.
The Eagles offensive line, like most of the team, has been struggling with injuries, but center Jason Kelce practiced fully on Thursday while Jason Peters and guard Isaac Seumalo were at least limited participants. So, it seems the line will be as healthy as is possible this time of year, which is good news considering what Chicago presents. The trio of Hicks, Mack and Floyd have delivered a combined 24 sacks, 31 tackles for loss and 45 QB hits this season.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles gets the ball out of his hands quickly (top 5 each last three weeks in Time to Throw), which is an effective way to deal with a pass rush, but the Bears secondary has blanketed receivers all season. On top of that, Chicago’s defense was second in the league in rush defense by DVOA, making it hard to get anything down on the ground either. The Eagles faced the league’s top rushing defense by that metric in the Texans in Week 16, and they gained just 57 yards. It took a superhuman effort from Foles through the air (471 yards 4 TDs) to win.
In order for Philly to win, the offensive line will have to have its best game of the season. If they don’t, the Bears defense could eat Foles and company alive.