NFL Playoffs: What to Expect in the AFC Wildcard

The postseason of the 2019 NFL season is here. The playoff teams are set, and the matchups are finalised. What should we expect from each playoff game in the AFC Wildcard round?

New England Patriots vs. Tennessee Titans

Stumbling into the playoffs are the AFC East champions, the New England Patriots. Despite securing the division with a Week 16 win over the Buffalo Bills, they are one of the worst teams since Week 9, going 4-4. Unable to beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, they fell to the #3 seed. Instead of a bye, they now have the Tennessee Titans. The Titans won 5 of their final 8 games to take the #6 seed.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Tennessee have been one of the better Offenses down the stretch. Running Back Derrick Henry became the league’s rushing leader with his 211 yards in Week 17, and Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has played confidently and creatively since becoming the starter. With rookie Wide Receiver AJ Brown making plays each week too, the Titans have a powerhouse Offense. Yet their Defence has been milquetoast, especially struggling to slow down passing attacks. The run Defence has also not been overly stout, but has done enough.

On the other hand, the Patriots are the inverse of Tennessee. They have one of the league’s better Defences, even if it hasn’t been as effective in the second half of the season. They have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game, and have the second best passing Defence in the league. But their Offense is average, with just over 350 yards per game. Unable to rely on either the pass or run, they’ve had to get creative to move the ball.

The Gameplan

The Patriots have won every game where they have kept their opponent to less than 20 points. They will be using their strong secondary to restrict the Titans, mostly playing man coverage to target Henry and the run game. The Patriots have good tacklers and quick Linebackers, which should allow them to slow down Henry. Yet, he has been breaking tackles with ease lately, and if the Titans’ reinvigorated Offense can find the end zone, they should be scoring 20+ points. There is little doubt Tennessee will want to run the ball, and using Tannehill and Brown as other ball carriers might become a bigger facet of the run game.

Tennessee, however, will need to be ready for anything on Defence. Trying to limit WR Julian Edelman as a passing option is one way to frustrate QB Tom Brady. But with enough alternatives in WRs Jacobi Meyers, Mohamed Sanu, Philip Dorsett and N’Keal Harry, the Titans can’t show their hand and leave anyone clearly open or in a favourable coverage matchup. Tennessee will need to not only play a hybrid man-zone coverage, but also track the RBs as receivers. The Titans may struggle to defend well without more versatile players, but breaking up the passing attack is the best way.

With the Titans run-heavy attack, and their weakness to passing, this game looks fairly even. Tennessee will need to get points on the board when they can, and controlling the clock will be their friend. Not only that, but limiting the Patriots’ RBs to less than 3 yards a carry will put more pressure on New England’s passing game. New England have more playoff experience, and the better Defence, but unless their Offense can improve now, they may not keep up on the scoreboard.

Houston Texans vs. Buffalo Bills

The Houston Texans locked in their playoff spot with a Week 15 win against the Titans. With no chance at the 3rd seed by the time their Week 17 game kicked off, the Texans rested several starters in preparation for the playoffs. The Bills took a similar approach, as they were guaranteed the #5 seed already, with no chance at winning their division after a Week 16 loss to the Patriots. Both teams enter the Wildcard round refreshed and theoretically healthier than Week 17.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Buffalo Bills have the league’s third best Defence in terms of yards allowed and second in points allowed. Yet this is mostly due to their pass rush and secondary, with a vulnerability to the run. The Offense has improved throughout the season, finding an identity with QB Josh Allen as a deep passer and occasional runner. Able to lean on RBs Devin Singletary (including as a receiver) and Frank Gore, the Bills have mostly moved the ball enough to win games, or at least stay in them.

Likewise, the Texans have a similar mindset on Offense. Their RBs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson are reliable and work as receivers, while the passing game takes a lot of deep shots to WR Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins. Yet, the Texans have been able to pile up points at times, unlike the Bills. But Houston’s Defence has been sub-par, finishing 19th in points per game and 28th in yards. They’ve had good weeks at defending both the run and the pass, but rarely both, and not consistently.

The Gameplan

With Defensive End JJ Watt likely returning to the Texans’ Defence for the playoffs, they’ll like their chances to pressure Allen, and disrupt the passing game. They’ll need to spy Allen from time to time, as he was the QB with the 3rd most rushing yards this season. But by directing their efforts to the passing game, and then targeting the run game, the Texans should prevent the Bills from putting up too many points. They can afford a few deep passes, if it means the Bills aren’t having much success elsewhere on Offense.

Similarly, the Bills also need to contain Deshaun Watson, the 4th-best rushing QB in 2019. While their secondary can perhaps defend the deep pass better than Houston, the real test will be shutting down Hopkins. Watson’s favourite target had 105 receptions and 1165 yards, and will be working underneath routes, sideline throws and contested catches all game. The Bills likely double up on him, but this could leave them vulnerable elsewhere. Buffalo’s run Defence could also be exploited if there are only 7 players in the box. They’ll need to decide whether to target Hopkins or remove the run game, but probably can’t do both effectively.

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