In a previous post
, I tried to reduce the NFL playoffs to a three-part checklist and, after some basic statistical analysis, I concluded that the Broncos fit my criteria for a Super Bowl winner better than any other team. But we know football; things are going to get weird and it's probably a good idea to take a look at a few more tangible factors that could help decide this weekend's matchups as well.
Here are my Things To Watch
for Wild Card Weekend:
Weather in Philly
A main talking point this season has been home field in the NFC and the Saints home/road splits. The Saints are 3-5 on the road this season while they're unbeaten at home -- this much is known. But for a high-flying, dome team, the weather might be a bigger factor than the area code. (In fact, according to an ESPN post from 2012
, New Orleans' win differential between home and road games from 2002-2012 was second smallest in the NFL. In other words, simply playing on the road hasn't been a big factor on its own).
Over the last four seasons, New Orleans has played seven games in weather of 50 degrees or below. Not freezing, but cold compared to the temperate Superdome. They're 3-4 in those games and 2-4 if you go below 50 degrees. A few of those losses came to playoff teams (Seattle this year, Baltimore in 2010) but the others look pretty bad on paper (Jets this year; Bengals in 2010, who went 4-12).
It doesn't take a thorough examination of NFL history and the Farmers Almanac to say that weather will be a factor. If the forecast, which currently calls for 32 and clear skies, should start to resemble that Lions-Eagles snow game from a couple of weeks ago, the Saints pass-heavy attack will be in trouble.
The Slot in Green Bay
Breaking News Alert: Injuries Have Major Impact in the NFL!
The return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb for Green Bay combined with the injury to Carlos Rogers of the 49ers is my Thing to Watch
for this heavyweight matchup. San Francisco fans still remember Victor Cruz shredding the Niners defense from the slot in the 2012 playoffs and a Rodger-to-Cobb connection has that same sort of potential, if not more.
In week 17, Carlos Rogers, the 49ers primary slot corner, suffered a hamstring injury and it is unclear exactly how serious the injury is. This game, a rematch from last year's divisional round, is sure to be a great game with a whole bunch of variables, but this key matchup could play a significant role in determining which squad has the upper hand.
Ground Game in Indy
This is going to sound a lot simpler than it is. If the Colts can rush the ball 30 times, they'll win the game.
Of course, for them to run the ball 30 times, the O-line needs to play well, they have to control the ball, not fall behind, and other factors that count a lot more in grand scheme of things, but this is their measuring stick. On the year, they average 28 rushing attempts per game (23rd in the NFL) and, in their 11 wins, they average 29 carries while in their five losses, they're only running the ball 16.8 times.
Here are their rushing attempt totals from their most impressive wins: SF-40 attempts, KC-34 attempts, DEN-31, SEA-29. They've only won two games when rushing fewer than 28 times: against Oakland and Houston -- not exactly the cream of the crop.
The KC defense will be big test, especially after seeing them just a couple of weeks ago, but for Indy to win they need to use the same formula they did in their Week 16 win over the Chiefs.
Andy Dalton's Right Arm
Andy Dalton's always been a functional NFL Qb, but not too much more.
80 TDs in 48 regular season games, career passer rating of 85, and a game-winning drive sprinkled in afew times a year aren't bad. But in the playoffs, he's been dreadful. In two career playoff games, he'sthrown four picks, no TDs, and is averaging less than 200 yards. His poor play has been a big reason why he's only been in two playoff games but here's his chance to change that.
The San Diego secondary has been among the worst in the NFL this year and Cincinnati has the weapons to take advantage of their matchup advantages.
On the season, the Chargers are giving up an average of 259 yards per game through the air. During the recent four-game winning streak, however, that average has dropped to 228 compared to an average of 270 over their first 12 games. If SD's pass defense can keep up the decent level of play, they should stand a chance. If they revert and let Dalton sling it, it's going to get ugly.
Interestingly, the Chargers only allowed 190 yards (their second fewest all year) to the Bengals in week 13. The Bengals are likely to attack the Chargers secondary differently, considering it didn't go too well the first time, making this truly the key matchup to watch.