In this postseason edition of Garden State Gridiron, we will be previewing each game on the playoff slate leading toward the Super Bowl. Below you will find a breakdown of the key matchups in each game of Wild Card Weekend.
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
Saturday – January 9, 2021 – 1:05 PM ET
Opening Spread: Indianapolis (+6.5) at Buffalo
Key Matchup: Colts’ Rushing Attack vs Bills’ Rushing Defense
The Colts’ rushing attack has been one of the most dangerous in the NFL over the last four weeks of the regular season. As a team, they’ve averaged 185 rushing yards per game at over 6 yards per carry, over half of a yard greater than the season average of the league-leading Baltimore Ravens. Rookie star Jonathan Taylor and dynamic dual-threat Nyheim Hines lead the backfield and are entering playoffs with a ton of momentum and an opportunity to shine on a national stage.
Contrast to the Colts’ rushing attack, the Bill’s rushing defense has been far from a league leader this season. They have struggled to contain running backs all year. Ranking 26th in the league at 4.62 yards allowed per rush, ranking between Arzona and Jacksonville, for perspective. The Bills’ defense also ranks 28th in the league in the red zone and the Colts running backs will have opportunities to score on Saturday.
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
Saturday – January 9, 2021 – 4:40 PM ET
Opening Spread: Los Angeles (+3.5) at Seattle
Key Matchup: Jared Goff vs his thumb
The largest piece of uncertainty heading into this game is the health of Rams’ starting quarterback Jared Goff, who is recovering from surgery on his right thumb. The procedure took place on Monday of last week and Goff has been practicing in a limited capacity leading up to this weekend’s matchup with the Seahawks.
While Goff has underperformed this year, posting a mere 20-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a healthy Jared Goff is still a significantly better option than his backup, John Wolford. Goff’s postseason experience cannot be undervalued. Playoff games have a different atmosphere and if the Rams fall behind Seattle’s explosive offense, they may need to lead on the arm of their quarterback to keep them in the game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team
Saturday – January 9, 2021 – 8:15PM ET
Opening Spread: Tampa Bay (-8.5) at Washington
Key Matchup: Tom Brady vs Washington pass rush
Tom Brady is having a fantastic season in his 21st year in the NFL. He topped 40 touchdowns for just the second time in his career and is also second in the league in pass yards per game. These strong passing performances have resulted in 11 wins and an offense that ranks third in the league in scoring at 30.8 points per game. Brady is motivated and has an opportunity to lead his team to the first home Super Bowl in NFL history.
Brady, who historically has struggled under pressure, will face a major challenge from the Washington defense. They are allowing the 4th-fewest points per game, the 2nd-lowest goal-to-go success rate, the 4th-highest sack rate, the 5th-highest interception rate, and the 2nd-fewest yards allowed per game. Rookie sensation Chase Young has been terrorizing left tackles this season as the latest addition to a line that sports four 1st round draft picks.
Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans
Sunday – January 10, 2021 – 1:05 PM ET
Opening Spread: Baltimore (-3.5) at Tennessee
Key Matchup: Derrick Henry vs Everyone
Derrick Henry had one of the most dominant rushing seasons in NFL history. He became just the eighth player to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, and the second in Tennessee Titans history. Henry broke 200 rushing yards in three games this season and two of those instances came in the final four weeks of the season.
The Ravens defense ranks near the middle of the pack in most statistical categories but have consistently performed in the most crucial situations. Baltimore is allowing the second-fewest 3rd-down conversions at just 34.03%. Their success or failure on 3rd-and-short against Derrick Henry could determine the outcome of this game.
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints
Sunday – January 10, 2021 – 4:40 PM ET
Opening Spread: Chicago (+8.5) at New Orleans
Key Matchup: Saints Red Zone Offense vs Bears Red Zone Defense
The New Orleans Saints boast one of the most dynamic and creative offenses in the league. Between Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Jared Cook, and Taysom Hill, under the leadership and experience of Drew Brees, the Saints have been extremely successful this season when the field shortens. That talent partnered with the ingenuity of Sean Payton rank fifth in the league in red zone success and third in goal-to-go situations at 72% and 86.5% respectively.
Chicago’s defensive front will need to wreak havoc on the Saints’ offense in order to stop them in the red zone. Akeim Hicks, Kalil Mack, and Bilal Nichols lead this group with 47 combine quarterback hits and 17.5 combined sacks. This group will need to get to Drew Brees in critical situations for Chicago to keep this one close.
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday – January 10, 2021 – 8:15 PM ET
Opening Spread: Cleveland (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
Key Matchup: Pittsburgh Offense vs Themselves
The Pittsburgh Steelers started the season on a dominant run. They were the last remaining undefeated team before falling to the Washington Football Team in their 12th game of the year, and the wheels have fallen off from there. Pittsburgh’s defense carried the team prior to injuries suffered by T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, and Joe Haden, which have caused the team to lead more on production from the offense, which has failed to deliver.
Ben Roethlisberger has been inconsistent while battling a knee injury. Diontae Johnson has dropped 9% of his passes this year and caused two interceptions. The Steelers rushing attack ranks last in the league in yards per attempt. If the Steelers fall behind early, it’ll be a challenge for them to mount a comeback unless they can harness another stand-out game from Chase Claypool, who leads all rookie wide receivers with 11 total touchdowns on the season.