Will the Vikings’ revamped O-line hold off the 49ers’ vaunted rush? How will the Titans’ run defense stack up against the Ravens’ electric running game? Yardbarker’s Sam Robinson examines key matchups in those games and in the Texans-Chiefs and Seahawks-Packers playoff clashes.
NFL playoff schedule
49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas sacks Rams QB Jared Goff — one of 48 San Francisco sacks during the regular season, fifth most in the league.
: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
No. 6 Minnesota (11-6) at No. 1 San Francisco (13-3), Sat., 4:35 ET (NBC)
Most intriguing matchup: QB Kirk Cousins, the Vikings’ $28 million-a-year investment, has played well behind this season’s retooled offensive line, which features new starters in first-round center Garrett Bradbury and free-agent guard Josh Kline. The Vikings allowed just 28 sacks (fifth best) and rate seventh in Football Outsiders’ top run-blocking metric (adjusted line yards). Armed with five first-round defensive linemen, the 49ers boast the league’s deepest defensive line. The 49ers had 48 sacks (fifth most). In the Vikings’ 26-20 wild-card win in OT in New Orleans, Cousins’ winning touchdown lob to tight end Kyle Rudolph was his first against pressure in 99 attempts, per ESPN Stats & Info. Will the immobile passer hold up against San Francisco’s Nick Bosa-DeForest Buckner-Arik Armstead troika of top-notch linemen?
QB intelligence report: Familiarity will be the primary theme for these teams. Had the 49ers not traded a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, they planned to pursue former Kyle Shanahan pupil Kirk Cousins in his March 2018 free-agency sweepstakes. Shanahan’s past with Cousins as Redskins offensive coordinator creates an easily imaginable alternate reality featuring Cousins in San Francisco. Despite Minnesota and San Francisco having not played since Week 1 of 2018 -– a 24-16 Vikings win -– Shanahan will feed defensive coordinator Robert Saleh critical Cousins intel. Garoppolo and Cousins ended the regular season separated by 0.3 points in QBR, with the 49ers’ starter ranking 12th and the Vikings’ 13th.
In a zone: Fans of zone blocking will be thrilled, as the divisional-round weekend’s first game will flood viewers with linemen moving in unison. Shanahan was a ball boy during part of his father Mike’s tenure as Broncos head coach, a stay that featured the elder Shanahan and then-Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak commit fully to Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme. Kyle Shanahan was Kubiak’s OC with the Texans in 2008-09 and uses a version of the Kubiak and Mike Shanahan offense. So do the Vikings, who hired Kubiak as an assistant head coach/zone-blocking czar in the offseason. The 49ers and Vikings possess the second- and sixth-ranked rushing attacks, so prepare for a stretch-play bonanza.
From left: Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (Ravens) and Ryan Tannehill (Titans)
USA TODAY Sports: Philip G. Pavely | Christopher Hanewinckel
No. 6 Tennessee (10-7) at No. 1 Baltimore (14-2), Sat., 8:15 ET (CBS)
Most intriguing matchup: In Tennessee’s 20-13 wild-card win at New England, its run defense came through in the franchise’s biggest win in 17 years. The Titans’ Rashaan Evans-led goal-line stand swung the game. While the Ravens must contend with a well-staffed conventional rushing attack (albeit one with the NFL’s most nightmarish tackling assignment in Derrick Henry), the Titans must stop the cutting-edge, Lamar Jackson-led Ravens ground force that set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards. The Titans rank 10th in run-defense DVOA but allowed a combined 323 rushing yards to the top two DVOA ground attacks they faced –- the Colts’ and Panthers’. Their 100-plus-tackle linebackers (Evans and Jayon Brown) will need to deliver monster efforts to contain the Ravens’ multifaceted ground machine.
QB intelligence report: MVP-to-be Lamar Jackson produced an astounding season, shattering the quarterback rushing record (1,206 yards) and throwing for 36 touchdowns. He enters this game trailing unlikely success story Ryan Tannehill, his Saturday foe, in yards per attempt (9.6 to 7.8) and air yards per completion (7.5 to 6.5). Tannehill’s yards-per-attempt figure tied for eighth all time. Despite this, the Titans trade acquisition’s 70.3 completion percentage led Jackson by over four percentage points. However, with the Ravens ranking fourth in pass-defense DVOA, compared to the Titans’ 21st-place standing, Tannehill will have less margin for error than his electric counterpart. Tennessee’s quarterback averaged 4.8 yards per throw against the Patriots’ No. 1-ranked DVOA pass defense.
Throwbacks: It is difficult to overstate how much these teams have veered against modern NFL tendencies. The Ravens and Titans combined for 5,519 rushing yards this season. That is the most of any playoff matchup since the 16-game schedule was introduced in 1978. The league has only seen one playoff encounter match teams combining for even 5,000 ground yards since 1989 -– the 2012 Seahawks-Redskins wild-card game. While this is due largely to Baltimore’s record-setting rushing attack, Tennessee’s No. 3-ranked ground game makes this meeting an all-time outlier in this unprecedented passing era.
From left: Quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Deshaun Watson (Texans)
USA TODAY Sports: Denny Medley | Troy Taormina
No. 4 Houston (11-6) at No. 2 Kansas City (12-4), Sun., 3:05 ET (CBS)
Most intriguing matchup:
Deshaun Watson accounted for 322 yards passing and three touchdowns in the Texans’ Week 6 win in Kansas City, but Steve Spagnuolo’s defense (No. 6 in pass-defense DVOA) enters Round 2 in better form. Watson, though, should be in superior position than he was against the Bills in the wild-card game. Will Fuller is expected to return from his latest injury; Watson’s regular-season QBR figure was 75.2 with his deep threat and 59.8 without him, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Fuller, All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins and overqualified WR3 Kenny Stills represent the most lethal wideout trio left in the playoffs. If the Chiefs’ underappreciated Charvarius Ward-Kendall Fuller-Bashaud Breeland cornerback cadre can navigate this, it will further prove the franchise right for allocating its major investments to other defensive positions last offseason.
QB intelligence report: First-round quarterbacks from the same draft class meeting in the playoffs is not common. Until the Texans’ overtime win produced the first Deshaun Watson-Patrick Mahomes postseason matchup, the draft classes in each year since 1984 rarely saw their first-round passers meet in January or February. Only the 1999 and 2004 classes produced playoff duels, and only once apiece. Daunte Culpepper’s Vikings lost to Donovan McNabb’s Eagles in the 2004 divisional round, and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger prevailed over 2004 classmate Philip Rivers of the Chargers in the 2008 second round. Drafted two picks apart in 2017, the 24-year-old QBs of the Chiefs and Texans look like a good bet to reverse this trend.
Flashback: The only rematch in this year’s set of divisional-round games features the No. 2-seeded Chiefs as 7.5-point favorites, despite the Texans gaining 472 yards in Kansas City in their 31-24 October win. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid’s regular-season and playoff success following bye weeks surely contributed to this point spread. The 21st-year coach is 22-4 after byes; this includes a 4-1 postseason mark. Reid’s only defeat after a playoff bye came in 2016, when the Alex Smith-led Chiefs lost, 18-16, to a Steelers team that did not score a touchdown. That game pushed the Chiefs to trade up for Mahomes three months later. Reid and Mahomes are 3-0 after byes.
From left: Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks).
USA TODAY Sports: Tim Fuller | Jim Dedmon
No. 5. Seattle (12-5) at No. 2 Green Bay (13-3), Sun., 6:40 ET (FOX)
Most intriguing matchup: Packers GM Brian Gutekunst doled out the third- and fifth-largest contracts to 3-4 outside linebackers when he gave Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith –- who were 0-for-8 in combined Pro Bowls entering 2019 – $16.5 million and $13 million per year, respectively. Those 2019 deals revitalized a Packers pass rush grounded by the ill-fated Clay Matthews and Nick Perry extensions. Green Bay’s edge-rushing Smiths combined for 25.5 sacks and 60 quarterback hits this season, and they will face a reeling Seahawks tackle corps. Accomplished left tackle Duane Brown is questionable to return this season, and underwhelming ex-first-round right tackle Germain Ifedi committed his season’s 13th penalty Sunday. Ifedi now has 14 false starts over the past two seasons. The Seahawks allowed 48 regular-season sacks – ninth most in the league.
QB intelligence report:
Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson’s Pro Bowl seasons began with thin aerial arsenals. But as the Seahawks identified a likely long-term contributor this season alongside Tyler Lockett in No. 64 overall pick D.K. Metcalf, the Packers in two years went from Davante Adams-Jordy Nelson-Randall Cobb to Adams and an unreliable supporting cast. For the first time since 1977, the Packers did not produce two 500-yard receivers. Second-year undrafted free agent Allen Lazard’s 477 yards were second behind Adams’ 997. The Seahawks continue to churn out tight end help despite multiple injuries; the Packers’ $10M-per-year deal for TE Jimmy Graham, however, has generated only 447 yards receiving in 16 games. Wilson, meanwhile, connected with Metcalf seven times for 160 yards in the wild-card win Sunday against the Eagles -– the most yardage by a rookie in his postseason debut in NFL history.
Who’s hurting? This matchup will produce a noticeable availability disparity. Of the Packers’ optimal starting lineup, only one player –- guard Lane Taylor -– is in line to miss the game due to injury. (Taylor is on injured reserve.) The Seahawks, conversely, are severely shorthanded. They were without left tackle Duane Brown and left guard Mike Iupati against the Eagles. That was merely their “Out” contingent. Top two running backs (Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny), top two tight ends (Will Dissly, Ed Dickson) and starting center (Justin Britt) are on Seattle’s IR list. Outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks tore his ACL in Week 17. Short-lived No. 3 wideout Josh Gordon is again suspended; so is rotational defensive tackle Al Woods. This is a heavy checkmark in Green Bay’s favor.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.