Blanket Coverage: Examining exploitable weaknesses for every NFL playoff team

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Hot Take Smart Take: Are the Patriots a Super Bowl lock?
1:32 | NFL
Hot Take Smart Take: Are the Patriots a Super Bowl lock?
Thursday January 5th, 2017

We’ll get to the coaching/front office carousel in a bit, but the postseason is here and that takes precedence over who’s going to take over franchises that are mostly a mess (save for Denver).

Every team, even the great ones (hello 2007 Patriots) have a weakness that can and usually is exposed in the postseason. Here’s a look at the Achilles heel for each playoff team, and which team in their path is best equipped to exploit it.

AFC

1. New England Patriots

Biggest weakness: With home-field advantage, it’s going to take a nearly perfect game from the opposition to beat the Patriots; New England makes big plays and doesn’t give them up, doesn’t turn the ball over and pounces when the other team to messes up. It’s hard to argue with Bill Belichick’s time-tested method.

It will take a team that is capable of making big plays and limiting them defensively to test the Patriots, and a mobile/accurate quarterback is a big bonus. If Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia feel that a QB can make plays with his feet, they’ll pull back on the pass rush and that will give the passer time to find targets. Patriots had the most trouble with mobile quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaeperick, before getting right against a slew of pocket quarterbacks to finish the season.

On top of that, New England is having an incredible amount of fumble luck this season—the team has lost only nine of their 27 fumbles, the fewest of any team in the NFL (but the Steelers, Seahawks and Dolphins are living dangerously as well).

Team that can best exploit it: Dallas Cowboys. The only team better than the Patriots in “big-play differential” at sportingcharts.com was the Cowboys, thanks to their explosive running game, but the pass defense was surprisingly stingy (tied for seventh with 26, 25-plus passes allowed, one better than New England). The Chiefs would also foot this bill except they’re surprisingly low on big-play differential (24th) because Alex Smith doesn’t make enough long passes through the air, and the defense surrenders too many on the ground.

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2. Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest weakness: Andy Reid’s game management and Alex Smith’s reluctance to throw the ball into tight windows down the field will come up, but the Chiefs’ biggest issue is third downs, on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Kansas City is tied for 18th, converting 38% of conversions and were 30th on third and more than six yards (21.2%), and defensively, the Chiefs ranked 27th on third down (43.2%). So the Kansas City offense has a hard time staying on the field, and that leads to a tired defense that can’t get off the field as well. It would help if the Chiefs could improve against the run—the team ranks 32nd in the league allowing 51.5% of opponents rushers to gain four or more yards per attempt.

Team that can best exploit it: Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh wasn’t great at getting off the field on third downs either (ranked 23rd at 41.1%) so that will help the Chiefs stay on the field more. But when you combine the Steelers’ third-down offense (12th at 41.1%) with Le’Veon Bell and the potent rushing attack (tied for ninth in rushes of at least 10 yards, sixth with 45.7% of rushes gaining four-plus yards) and you may have the perfect tsunami coming into Arrowhead in the divisional round.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest weakness: This was a bit of a surprise, and perhaps it has something to do with Landry Jones starting two games, but Steelers quarterbacks were second-worst in the league with a 69.4 passer rating against the blitz (64 of 118 for 865 yards, two TDs, four INTs). The average for playoff teams was 96.8. Only the Rams (no surprise) were worse, and the Texans, Bears, Jets, 49ers and Panthers were ahead of the Steelers in this category. Not great company.

Team that can best exploit it: Miami Dolphins. Out of playoff teams, only the Steelers (172) blitzed more times than the Dolphins (168). The problem is the Dolphins aren’t very good at blitzing (100.4). The only playoff team worse is the Lions (114.4). But if the Dolphins can fluster Ben Roethlisberger a bit, and get RB Jay Ajayi going (204 yards last time they played and Steelers are 1–3 when allowing a 100-yard rusher), an upset isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

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4. Houston Texans

Biggest weakness: If a team can stop the Houston rushing attack featuring Lamar Miller, the entire offense turns into a weakness. Secondly, if you make hay on first down against a stingy Texans defense, they’re susceptible on third-and-medium, where they ranked 30th at 52.7% (playoff average is 45.7%) on plays between four and six yards.

Team that can best exploit it: New England Patriots. FootballOutsiders.com ranked the Patriots as the fourth-most efficient run defense overall, and New England is fifth in the league at third-and-medium conversions (53.3%). No wonder New England beat Houston 27–0 with a third-string QB earlier this season.

5. Oakland Raiders

Biggest weakness: With Derek Carr’s injury, a season’s worth of offensive stats go out the window, so we’ll stick with the defensive side of the ball, which has been the weak spot for Oakland all season. The Raiders give up a lot of big plays—the most passes of 20-plus yards (61), the second-most yards on first down (6.21) and a league-worst 6.08 yards per play overall.

Team that can best exploit it: Houston Texans. Without Carr around to make for the defense, this could be just the matchup the Texans’ lackluster offense needs to look respectable since they are tied for 12th with 49 rushes for 10-or-more yards. It would really help if the Texans were better through the air, so if this doesn’t work out, the Patriots (tied for secnd in the league with 42 pass plays of at least 25 yards) are waiting in the next round.

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6. Miami Dolphins

Biggest weakness: The Dolphins need to keep the game close so they can run the ball and not put a lot of pressure on their quarterback to make plays. The best way to attack Miami’s defense is on the ground, which ranks 30th in the league in rushing yards per game (140.4) and percentage of rushes of four-plus yards (49.1).

Team that can best exploit it: Pittsburgh Steelers. RB Le’Veon Bell averages 4.9 yards per rush and 105.7 yards per game, so he’ll be ready, willing and able to run through the Dolphins.

NFC

1. Dallas Cowboys

Biggest weakness: It’s no secret at all. In the Cowboys’ two losses (the regular season finale doesn’t count), they averaged 104.5 rushing yards. In their 13 victories, the Cowboys averaged 162.9. Stop Ezekiel Elliott, and you stop the Cowboys.

Team that can best exploit it: New York Giants. Duh, considering the Giants swept the season series from the Cowboys. Giants are third in FO’s rush defense efficiency ratings, but Seahawks (second) and Patriots (fourth) also have the right stuff in the playoff field.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Biggest weakness: The Falcons’ offense is just a juggernaut that really has no weakness, but it lives off big plays (first with 250 over 10 yards) in the run and pass game so limiting those would be a good start. Atlanta’s big weakness is on defense, where it’s terrible on third downs (26th) and preventing touchdowns in the red zone (opponents score TDs 72.7% of the time). It’s also not good against the run (29th in FO’s rush efficiency ratings and 31st allowing four-plus rushing yards on first down).

Team that can best exploit it: Dallas Cowboys. Not only do the Cowboys have the league’s second most-efficient rushing attack, but they’re third in red zone TD% (66.7), and they’re among the best at preventing big plays. Dallas is the team the Falcons do not want to see in an NFC Championship Game.

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3. Seattle Seahawks

Biggest weakness: As FootballOutsider.com’s Aaron Schatz explained, Seattle’s pass defense ranked fifth before losing All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas to injury. Since his exit, the Seahawks have ranked 30th out of 32 teams.

Team that can best exploit it: Atlanta Falcons. There is no better pass offense in the game, and even though the Falcons’ defense is terrible, they would likely win a shootout in the Georgia Dome, assuming Matt Ryan doesn’t start throwing late-game interceptions again.

4. Green Bay Packers

Biggest weakness: While the Packers are decent against the run (14th by FootballOutsiders.com), they can be pushed around by big and physical offensive lines, and that keeps Aaron Rodgers off the field.

Team that can best exploit it: Dallas Cowboys. Even without WR Dez Bryant and CB Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys went into Lambeau Field in Week 6 and did whatever they wanted (191 rushing yards, 117.4 passer rating for Dak Prescott), limited Rodgers’ big-play ability (fifth-lowest passer rating of the season) and left with a 30–16 victory.

5. New York Giants

Biggest weakness: As long as team limits Odell Beckham Jr.’s big plays, the Giants are not a good offense (22nd overall by FO, 26th rushing). But to beat the Giants, a team is going to have to find a way to break through against their excellent defense (second overall by FO, fourth vs. pass, third vs. rush). They’re also the best in the red zone, and No. 3 on third downs. If there’s a weakness, it’s on third and short (less than four) and medium (4–6) yards, where the Giants rank 17th and 26th, respectively. And the Giants give up some big plays (tied for 19th).

Team that can best exploit it: Green Bay Packers. It’s going to be a little iffy because the Packers can allow big plays through the air, but they’re great offensively on third downs overall (second, 46.7%), and third and short (ninth) and medium (third). The Packers have the antidote to the Giants’ defense.

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6. Detroit Lions

Biggest weakness: Lions were the worst defense in the league on a play-to-play basis according to FooballOutsiders.com’s efficiency ratings.

Team that can best exploit it: Seattle Seahawks. If Matthew Stafford hadn’t suffered his finger injury, the Lions might have had a decent chance in this game give Seattle’s struggles against the pass since Earl Thomas was lost for the season. But the Lions have the type of defense that can make Seattle’s pedestrian offense look good, and that spells trouble.

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing NFL storylines this week:

Go crazy, folks

Harbaugh puts himself on the firing line in 2017: Ravens’ John Harbaugh is a good coach, but he continues to put himself into a bind with his decisions at offensive coordinator. Harbaugh’s decision to retain Marty Mornhinweg this week was a big shock because the Baltimore offense was bland and uninspired since he took over for the fired Marc Trestman. Harbaugh better make a great hire at QB coach (and given Harbaugh’s track record, that coach could be OC at some point next year) that can coach Joe Flacco hard and bring creativity to the passing offense. If the Ravens don’t improve next year and return to the playoffs, Harbaugh may be out of a job. And it will be because of his decisions on the offensive side of the ball.

Bills are a mess, Part Infinity: After one of the most bizarre post-season press conferences in NFL history conducted by GM Doug Whaley, the MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas revealed the true story of Rex Ryan’s firing. Basically, Ryan told Tyrod Taylor he’d be his QB as long as Ryan was the coach. When owner Terry Pegula informed Ryan that Taylor needed to be sat in the season finale (and that the team was going in a different direction), Ryan told Pegula he should just fire him now. So Pegula did. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that personnel issues were at the root of the Bills’ problems, and Ryan was a victim.

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Slow your roll

Ryan may be the MVP, but he shouldn’t be a slam dunk: Yes, Matt Ryan has phenomenal stats and the Falcons had a great season, but it amazes me that people have amnesia when it comes to Ryan’s season. In case you forgot, Ryan threw late-game interceptions in three of the team’s five losses (against Seattle, San Diego and Philadelphia) and threw a pick-six and a pick-two (that lost the game) in a one-point loss to the Chiefs. Sorry, but if I had a vote, Ryan wouldn’t get it.

Leave the Giants players alone: It wasn’t a great look for some of the Giants to be partying in Miami the week of a playoff game, but players are entitled to do what they want. If it wasn’t for social media, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Can only imagine what Joe Namath used to do on his off days in New York...

10 thoughts on wild-card weekend

1. The first job for the Texans coaching staff this week is to figure out a plan to keep Raiders OLB Khalil Mack from completely wrecking the game. RT Chris Clark can’t ever be left alone with Mack or else the Texans risk losing this game. Look for Mack to be double teamed on every snap and for the Texans to run at Mack with Clark and a tight end (C.J. Fiedorowicz?).

2. Piggybacking from above, it will be interesting to see how much the Texans keep Fiedorowicz in to block because the Raiders had a lot of trouble covering him in the regular-season matchup.

3. Similarly, Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney has had a great year and his matchup with Raiders RT Menelik Watson (Austin Howard has been benched but he had a great game vs. Texans in Mexico) should allow Clowney to make a huge statement in the postseason. He and Whitney Mercilus are the best edge rusher in the playoffs.

4. The only way the Seahawks lose to the Lions is if DE Ziggy Ansah goes off against LT George Fant. Expect Seattle to give Fant a lot of help.

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5. Seahawks-Lions is the type of game in which someone on the Seattle defense will tee up Lions TE Eric Ebron over the middle to set the tone early. Since his finger injury, Matthew Stafford has been throwing some hospital balls.

6. The great interior matchup of the weekend is Miami DT Ndamukong Suh vs. Steelers RG David DeCastro. Both are edgy and play past the whistle. Wouldn’t be a surprise to see DeCastro to get under Suh’s skin and cause a personal foul at some point.

7. With injuries ravaging their linebackers and safeties, the Dolphins are by far the worst unit at those positions in the playoffs. If the Steelers don’t score 30 points in this game, something is wrong.

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8. Giants rookie RB Paul Perkins has been coming on of late (22 for 102 vs. Washington), and he may be the key to a New York victory at Lambeau. If he can be effective, that will force the Packers to drop a safety into the box and open up space for the Giants’ receivers.

9. Expect the Packers to target Giants RT Marshall Newhouse, a former Green Bay bust who will likely start for injured Bobby Hart. With Newhouse on one side, and the undisciplined Ereck Flowers at LT, the Packers’ edge rushers should dominate, especially if the Perkins can’t run the ball.

10. It will be a spectacular matchup between the Packers’ receivers and the Giants’ cornerbacks. It should be Jordy Nelson vs. Janoris Jenkins, Randall Cobb vs. Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and Davante Adams vs. Eli Apple. They’re all basically draws, but look for Aaron Rodgers to target Adams against the rookie Apple.

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