- Under the spotlight: Blake Bortles and Alex Smith, Carolina’s run defense and the Bills’ run game, and an Atlanta team that may be ready to surprise
Now that the playoffs are here, we’ll give you the five top storylines to watch in the weekend’s games, all the way up to Super Bowl 52. So here goes …
5. Which verson of Blake Bortles will we get on Sunday afternoon at 1 when the Jaguars host the Bills? At the beginning of December it looked like the light was finally coming on for the third overall pick of the 2014 draft. Bortles was stellar in wins over the Colts, Seahawks and Texans. But the last two weeks, he’s regressed significantly, and how he looks in the postseason could color the Jags’ decision-making on his future.
4. Facing a flawed Tennessee defense, can Alex Smith bounce back from sideways games in the Chiefs’ last two playoff ousters? Internally the team believes he’s been steady throughout the year (though the numbers have shown some ups and downs) and that the real swing factor between good Alex and shaky Alex has been the run game. So the real key here might be Kareem Hunt.
3. Can the Panthers’ stout defense stand up to the Saints run game? Generally when that question’s been asked about Carolina’s front, the answer has been yes—it ranks third in run defense. But somehow it hasn’t applied to the Saints, who rushed for 149 yards and then 148 yards in sweeping the Panthers this season. Carolina didn’t allow anyone else more than 120 yards on the ground in a game, and held the opponent under 110 in 13 of its 16 games.
2. The Falcons enter this year’s playoffs more well-rounded than they were a year ago. A young defense has grown up, and Atlanta ranks eighth in points allowed (it was 27th last year) and ninth in yards allowed (it was 25th last year). The problem? The offense has felt the effects of losing Kyle Shanahan. This would be a good time for Matt Ryan and company to find their stride—and if they can, the Falcons become awfully dangerous.
1. How does that Bills run game look with Shady McCoy’s ankle injury complicating things? While we’ve all made a lot of noise about the quarterback situation, it’s Buffalo’s ability to take the pressure off Tyrod Taylor that’s key. The Bills are 3-1 when Shady goes for 100 on the ground, and the one loss was the Nathan Peterman debacle. So if the Bills’ run game gets going—which would also help slow the Jags’ pass-rush—then maybe Buffalo will do more than with their first playoff appearance in 18 years than most expect.
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