Exploiting the Matchups: Wild-Card Round

Exploiting the Matchups: Wild-Card Round

This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.

With the regular season finished, we'll ditch our familiar start/sit format, instead taking a game-by-game approach to identify mismatches. Theoretically, we should see closer matchups now that we're dealing with only playoff teams, but each squad still has its relative strengths and weaknesses. There's also the added challenge of COVID-19, which could have a major impact on the Bears-Saints and Browns-Steelers games.

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills — Saturday, 1:05 ET

Betting Odds: Bills -6.5, O/U 51

IND injuries: CB Rock Ya-Sin (concussion), S Khari Willis (concussion)

BUF injuries: WR Cole Beasley (ankle)


Injury Breakdown

Willis and Ya-Sin both missed Week 17. The former returned to practice Tuesday as a full participant, while the latter remained absent. Ya-Sin has been Indy's No. 3 corner for most of the season, yet he's taken more than 90 percent of his snaps on the perimeter, as starter Kenny Moore typically mans the slot in nickel and dime packages.

Enter Beasley, who led the NFL with 948 yards from the slot, accounting for 89 percent of his routes and 92 percent of his targets. If not for a Week 17 absence, he might've become the first player with 1,000 slot yards since Doug Baldwin in 2015 (per PFF).

With Beasley out last week, Isaiah McKenzie led the team in routes (38) and slot routes (25), playing 91 percent of snaps in both the first and second halves. Gabriel Davis played just 26 percent of snaps before halftime, as the Bills mostly used McKenzie alongside Stefon Diggs and John Brown

Davis got more work than McKenzie throughout December, but that was when the Buffalo offense was missing a perimeter receiver (Brown) rather than its slot guy (Beasley). In other words, we could see Diggs/Brown/McKenzie again if Beasley misses another game.

The Bills move Diggs all over the formation, while the Colts typically play sides with their cornerbacks. That means Diggs should get plenty of shots at Ya-Sin or backup TJ Carrie, in addition to the tougher matchups against Moore and Xavier Rhodes.


Mismatch #1: Bills pass offense > Colts pass defense

The Colts took care of business against bad teams after the Week 1 debacle in Jacksonville, but their defense has been vulnerable to quality offenses with veteran QBs, including four straight games allowing 300-plus passing yards Weeks 13-16. While they finished the year tied for fifth with 25 takeaways, the Colts ultimately slipped to 11th in points allowed (22.6 per game), 18th in opponent NY/A (6.4) and 20th in passing yards allowed (3,866).

Going by regular-season standards, this would be a moderately difficult matchup for Josh Allen. But if we're talking playoffs, which we are, it's not a bad draw at all. Plus, the Colts remained solid against the run even after their pass defense showed some cracks, so we should see the usual Allen-centric gameplan from Bills OC Brian Daboll. This isn't a matchup where Daboll is likely to get cute and run more of the offense through Devin Singletary or Zack Moss.


Mismatch #2: Colts offensive line > Bills defensive line

The Bills played good defense after a Week 10 bye, allowing just 18.3 points per game over the final six weeks of the season. Part of that was legitimate improvement, but it also helped to have Allen putting up so many points that opponents often were forced to abandon the run.

Buffalo finished the season 17th in run-defense DVOA (-8.2%), 24th in opponent YPC (4.6) and 18th in fantasy points allowed to running backs (21.3), with defensive tackles Ed Oliver, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillip and Jordan Zimmer all landing outside the Top 50 of PFF's grading for interior linemen.

Indianapolis, meanwhile, ranks third in PFF's team run-blocking grades, with an excellent December from Jonathan Taylor boosting the team to 11th in rushing yards (124.8 per game) and tied for fifth in rushing TDs (20). Taylor played 82 percent of snaps — including most of the third-down work — Week 17 against Jacksonville, so he'll still get touches even if the Colts fall behind Saturday afternoon. 

This line mismatch should also benefit Philip Rivers, theoretically, but he'll be more directly impacted by the strength of Buffalo's defense — a secondary led by CB Tre'Davious White and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Despite some early struggles, Buffalo finished 16th in fantasy points allowed to QBs and fifth in points allowed to wide receivers.

The Bills were 25th against tight ends, but that was largely due to volume (league-high 136 targets) rather than efficiency (7.3 YPT, 17th). On paper, Buffalo's secondary has the advantage over Indy's mediocre wideout group and three-man TE committee, so Rivers could have a tough time even if he's well-protected in the pocket.


Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks — Saturday, 4:40 ET

Betting Odds: Seahawks -3.5, O/U 42.5

LAR injuries: QB Jared Goff (thumb), LT Andrew Whitworth (knee)

SEA injuries: S Jamal Adams (hand/shoulder), DT Jarran Reed (oblique).


Injury Breakdown

You could argue that Goff and Whitworth are the two most important players in the Rams offense, though Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp presumably would disagree. Whitworth is expected to return from IR for Saturday's game, while Goff is up in the air and thus becomes the biggest story of the weekend.

Seattle's injuries may be less interesting from a fantasy standpoint, but Adams and Reed are crucial players, ranking first and second on the team in both sacks and QB hits. They were injured during the Week 17 win over San Francisco, so a Saturday playoff game leaves just five days for rest and rehab.


Mismatch #1: Seahawks LBs > Rams RBs

The Rams had a strong rushing attack for most of the season, including 106 yards and three TDs on the ground in a 23-16 win over the Seahawks in Week 10. The version we'll see Saturday appears considerably less impressive, with Darrell Henderson (ankle) on injured reserve and Cam Akers battling through a high-ankle sprain. The rookie returned for Week 17 after missing just one game, eeking out 34 rushing yards on 21 carries in the 18-7 win over Arizona. 

The Rams will have a banged-up Akers and/or Mediocre Malcolm Brown taking carries this weekend, facing a Seattle defense ranked fifth in both rushing yards allowed (95.6 ypg) and opponent YPC (3.9). Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright finished Top 8 in PFF's linebacker grades, combing for 224 tackles, 18 pass defenses and five sacks.

This can also be a mismatch in the passing game, as Seattle should be happy to force Goff/Wolford into check-downs, trusting that Wagner and Wright can take care of Brown/Akers in the open field. Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators usually love those matchups with a running back one-on-one against a linebacker, but in this case it should favor the defensive side.


Mismatch #2: Rams HC Sean McVay > Seahawks HC Pete Carroll

Carroll catches more flak than he deserves — at least on the internet — because he struggles with things that are easy to criticize (e.g. fourth-down decisions) but seems to be good in areas which are harder to quantify (e.g. team chemistry). Overall, he's still a pretty good coach; he just isn't on McVay's level as a tactician. While the talent gap at QB remains the biggest difference between these NFC West rivals, McVay does a lot to narrow that divide.

Would it be enough to pull out a road win over Russell Wilson and Co. with John Wolford playing quarterback and Joe Noteboom at light tackle? Probably not. But their excellent coaching could be the difference in the game if the Rams suddenly have both Goff and Whitworth back in the lineup.


Buccaneers at Football Team — Saturday, 8:15 ET

Betting Odds: Bucs - 8.0, O/U 45.0

TB injuries: WR Mike Evans (knee), CB Carlton Davis (knee)

WAS injuries: QB Alex Smith (calf)


Injury Breakdown

Smith returned for Week 17, "leading" Washington to a 20-14 victory with some help from Doug Pederson. The veteran QB didn't really look healthy, and his pair of interceptions kept Philadelphia in the game. Anyway, Smith figures to play this week, but coach Ron Rivera did mention the possibility of giving Taylor Heinicke some snaps. Washington also has Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin playing through injuries, so the offense just isn't in great shape overall.

On the other side of the game, Evans is on a short week after hyperextending his knee Week 17, while the Bucs' top cover man (Davis) hasn't played since Week 15. That pair of injuries could narrow the talent gap between these two teams, but Tampa would still have the advantage even without Evans and Davis, if only because Tom Brady is so much better than Smith/Heinicke.


Mismatch #1: WR Chris Godwin > CB Jimmy Moreland

Moreland did solid work in the slot this year, bouncing back strong after he looked the part of a rookie seventh-round pick in 2019. It now appears Washington found a Round 7 steal, but that doesn't mean he'll be able to handle Godwin, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound veteran who caught 42 of 49 slot targets for 522 yards (10.7 YPT) and four TDs this season, per PFF.

Generously listed at 5-11, 182 pounds, Moreland is better equipped to deal with the Cole Beasleys and Randall Cobbs of the world. The lack of size hasn't gone unnoticed, with Moreland missing 17.6 percent of tackle attempts as a rookie and 15.4 percent in his sophomore season.


Mismatch #2: Buccaneers pass rush > QB Alex Smith

Among 35 qualified quarterbacks, Smith ranks 33rd in passer rating under pressure, completing 32 of 69 throws (46.4 percent) for 293 yards, two TDs and four INTs, per PFF. He's also been bad against blitzes — yes, there is some overlap — completing 28 of 54 passes (51.9 percent) for 410 yards, four TDs and four INTs. Even if we ignore the statistics, his lack of mobility was obvious in the Week 17 win over Philadelphia.

All of this would be problematic in any matchup, and it's even more of an issue against a Bucs defense that ranks Top 5 in blitz rate (39.0%), pressure rate (26.7%) and sacks (48). The Washington offensive line has also played well this year, but there's only so much the blockers can do when the team has a banged-up Smith throwing passes to the likes of Cam Sims, J.D. McKissic and Logan Thomas against an aggressive, talented defense.


Ravens at Titans — Sunday, 1:05 ET

Betting Odds: Ravens - 3.5, O/U 54.5

BAL injuries: WR Willie Snead (ankle), CB Marlon Humphrey (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (ribs); OLB Yannick Ngakoue (thigh)

TEN injuries: LG Rodger Saffold (ankle)


Injury Breakdown

Humphrey, Smith and Ngakoue seem to be on track to play, while Snead appears truly questionable after spraining his ankle Week 16 and sitting out Week 17. Baltimore used a rotation behind Marquise Brown at wide receiver last week, with Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and Dez Bryant each playing 30-50 percent of snaps.

For the Titans, Saffold and RT Dennis Kelly (knee) were the only two players absent from practice due to injuries at the beginning of the week. That's been the norm for Kelly of late, but in Saffold's case it's a new issue. While their O-line remains a strength, the Titans did lose RT Jack Conklin to the Browns in free agency and LT Taylor Lewan to an ACL tear mid-season, so it isn't quite the same dominant unit we saw last January.


Mismatch #1: Ravens offense > Titans defense

The Titans have the worst defense of any playoff team, finishing 24th in points allowed (27.4), 28th in yards (398.3) and 29th in DVOA. If there's one saving grace, it's that they mostly struggled to defend the pass, which is less of an issue against Baltimore's run-heavy offense.

Granted, Tennessee ranked 16th in DVOA against the run and opponent YPC (4.5), while the Baltimore offense was third in rushing DVOA and first in YPC (5.5). So it's still a clear advantage for Baltimore on paper, albeit with the knowledge that the Titans were able to slow them down in the past two matchups between these born-again rivals.

The Titans defense has looked really bad since that last win over the Ravens, allowing 25 or more points in five of six games to close out the season. Tennessee finished 31st in fantasy points allowed to WRs, 28th against QBs, 26th against RBs and 20th against TEs. Only Cincinnati and Jacksonville managed fewer sacks than Tennessee's 21.


Mismatch #2: Derrick Henry > Ravens tackling

The Ravens played good defense this season, including against the run, but they did have the second-most missed tackles (135), with rookie linebacker Patrick Queen's 21 tying Vikings CB Jeff Gladney (also a rookie) for a league high. Meanwhile, Henry paced the NFL with 34 broken tackles on run plays, finishing Top 5 in the stat for a third straight year (no surprise there).

It was poor tackling that ultimately did the Ravens in when these two teams played in Week 11. A.J. Brown overpowered four defenders for a go-ahead touchdown on a 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, and Henry then scored a walk-off TD from 29 yards out in overtime. The Baltimore defense is one of the few units in the league that won't have a significant talent disadvantage against the Tennessee offense, but the Ravens are just as helpless as any other team if/when Henry gets to the second level. 


Chicago Bears at Saints — Sunday, 4:40 ET

Betting Odds: Saints -10.0, O/U 47.0

CHI injuries: WR Darnell Mooney (ankle), ILB Roquan Smith (elbow), CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder), CB Buster Skrine (concussion)

NO injuries: RB Alvin Kamara (COVID-19), WR Michael Thomas (ankle), RG Nick Easton (concussion)


Injury Breakdown

Thomas is expected to return from IR, while the Bears have three key defensive players that appear uncertain for Sundays's game. Johnson and Skrine both missed the final three games of the regular season, and Smith hurt his elbow during the Week 17 loss.

For fantasy purposes, Kamara's bid to be removed from the COVID-19 list is the biggest story. He reportedly wouldn't have been able to play in a Saturday game, but this schedule gives him a shot to return for the wild-card round if he remains asymptomatic and tests negative multiple times. 

This wild-card matchup will be especially problematic for Chicago if Kamara is able to play but Smith isn't. The Bears' other starting inside linebacker, 30-year-old Danny Trevathan, has repeatedly struggled in coverage this season, while backups Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Josh Woods have a combined total of 94 defensive snaps in the NFL.


The Mismatch: Saints Defense > QB Mitchell Trubisky

The Saints finished 2020 third in pass-defense DVOA and second in run-defense DVOA, allowing 6.7 YPA (sixth) and 3.9 YPC (fifth). After some issues early in the season, it's hard to think of a team that's played better defense the past couple months.

There's been talk of Trubisky doing better in his latest stint as the starting QB, but he won just three of six games to close out the season, and his 70.1 completion percentage wasn't backed by gaudy yardage numbers (7.1 YPA, 249.2 ypg). Even if this version of the Bears offense is a little better than what we're used to seeing, it could be overwhelmed by a top-five defense.


Browns at Steelers — Sunday, 8:15 ET

Betting Odds: Steelers -6.0, O/U 47.5

CLE injuries: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion), WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19), LG Joel Bitonio (COVID-19), CB Denzel Ward (COVID-19), S Andrew Sendejo (COVID-19), CB Kevin Johnson (COVID-19), TE Harrison Bryant (COVID-19)

PIT injuries: TE Eric Ebron (COVID-19), CB Joe Haden (COVID-19), LB Vince Williams (quad)


Injury Breakdown

The Browns have a bunch of guys on the COVID-19 list, though only Bitonio (a three-time Pro Bowler) and Hodge (a depth receiver) are definitely out this Sunday. Peoples-Jones should be the No. 3 receiver if he plays, while Marvin Hall, Ja'Marcus Bradley and Alexander Hollins will be the options if the rookie sixth-round pick is out.

TE David Njoku had season highs for snap share (79 percent) and targets (five) in Week 17 with Bryant unavailable, while Austin Hooper (82 percent snap share) also got a few more snaps than usual. It isn't clear if Bryant will make it back for the wild-card game, so Njoku could have a key role again.

The biggest issue for Cleveland is the secondary, where three of five starters missed Week 17 on the COVID-19 list. What was tolerable against Mason Rudolph could be a dealbreaker now that the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger back under center. 

With Ebron believed to be a close contact rather than someone who actually test positive, the Steelers offense should be at full strength Sunday night. Pittsburgh's defense, on the other hand, could be missing Haden and/or Williams, with the former testing positive for COVID-19 and the latter injuring his quad during the Week 17 loss to Cleveland.


Mismatch #1: Pandemic > Cleveland Browns

Watching the Steelers struggle throughout December, you never would've guessed they'd be a six-point favorite in the first round of the playoffs. That's what happens when you're hosting the Browns, who likely would be the weakest link in the AFC playoff chain even if they didn't have all the COVID issues.

Cleveland has the worst DVOA (18th) and point differential (-11) out of 14 playoff teams, behind even the 8-8 Bears and 7-9 Football Team. With a tougher schedule and a few bad bounces, this same Browns squad might've won only seven or eight games.

The version we get Sunday night will be even more vulnerable, with COVID-19 impacting not only the players but also the coaching staff and the practice schedule. Head coach Kevin Stefanski won't be allowed at Sunday's game, and he'll have to conduct business from home throughout the week.


Mismatch #2: Steelers pass rush > QB Baker Mayfield

Through three NFL seasons, Mayfield has finished 13th (2018), 21st (2019) and 28th (2020) in passer rating under pressure. It should thus come as no surprise that he's struggled against Pittsburgh, completing 57.9 percent of his passes for 6.1 YPA and 176.8 ypg in five matchups.

The Browns still struggle to throw the ball in obvious passing situations, while the Steelers' combination of pass-rush prowess and solid run defense means their opponents often land in those exact situations. Remember that Nick Chubb's 100-yard game last week was aided by the Steelers resting OLB T.J. Watt, DE Cameron Heyward and S Terrell Edmunds.


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Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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