Wild Card Weekend was one of the most entertaining weekends of football we’ve gotten in a while, especially compared to the typical opening round of the NFL playoffs. Every game was close. Two went to overtime. With those close games, there were small factors that shifted the game and played a big part in the decision. These weren’t the only deciding factors in each game, but we’ll go over one theme for each game that helped shape the outcome.
Houston Went back to basics
Going into the game, the most anticipated one-on-one matchup was DeAndre Hopkins against Tre’Davious White, pitting one of the league’s best wide receivers against one of the league’s best cornerbacks. At the start of the game, the Texans made an effort to eliminate that matchup as much as possible.
Houston lined Hopkins up in the slot often in the first half. Hopkins was no stranger to the slot during the regular season, he lined up there 37% of the time and saw 75 of his 149 targets from the slot during the regular season. Against the Bills, Hopkins was in the slot for 75% of his snaps, per Next Gen Stats, but saw just two targets with no receptions.
With the Texans lining up Hopkins in the slot and away from White so often before the snap but having no actual plan for what to do after it, the Texans found themselves in a bigger hole than intended — they had Hopkins as a non-factor and White was able to cover another Houston receiver on the outside. By attempting to get away from a potentially unfavorable matchup, the Texans created two bad matchups by their own design.
At the half, Houston trailed 13-0. When the second half started, the Texans went back to an offense that looked more like what it did during the regular season. Hopkins was out wide for 59% of his snaps and he caught six of six targets with four of those against White in coverage.
|Quarter||Plays||Team EPA||Hopkins Rec/Target||Hopkins EPA|
Hopkins didn’t change the game himself, though a 41-yard reception in the fourth quarter that helped set up the go-ahead touchdown was certainly a factor. On that play, the Texans used jet motion and play-action and caught Micah Hyde on a safety blitz, which kept Hopkins one-on-one down the sideline.
Deshaun Watson had to pull some plays out of nowhere late in the game yet the Texans still found more success in the second half without trying so hard to force something that wasn’t working (but enough about Carlos Hyde carries).
The Houston defense was also able to keep the game just close enough in the first half and not the Buffalo offense get too far ahead. There were a number of near turnovers throughout the game and the turnover luck changed in the second half when Josh Allen seemed more than willing to let the Texans back in the game. After a near-perfect first drive that looked like the Bills had all the control (but also kept the quarterback from throwing the ball) Allen finished with minus-0.10 EPA per drop back and just a 37% success rate, per nflscrapR data via the Baldwin Boxscore. With a running game that also produced negative EPA, Allen had to drop back 52 times. The Texans had a quarterback who was able to pull out just enough magic when it was needed but the Bills had one who was exposed for just a little too long.
The Patriots offense couldn’t hold up their end
There was no play-action attack more dangerous than that of the Tennessee Titans in 2019. Tennessee led the league in yards per play off play-action and, as we discussed in the preview for this game, it was one weakness of the New England Patriots defense. New England started the game unconcerned about Derrick Henry and the Titans’ running game, keeping linebackers just far enough away from the line of scrimmage that they could more easily defend against the pass and charge up for the run.
Per Next Gen Stats, Henry saw a box of 8 or more men on defense on 26.5% of his 34 carries, which was still below his regular season rate of 35.3%. But through 18 carries in the game, Herry had only seen an 8-man box or more on 11.1% of his rushing attempts. That strategy allowed the Titans to get some gains on the ground, but it also kept the Tennessee passing game in check. Ryan Tannehill struggled for much of the game and even with Henry having a successful day on the ground, the Titans were only able to put up 14 points.
It’s not even as if the Titans got a huge possession advantage with the running game; the time of possession difference was 31:09 for Tennessee and 28:51 for New England. The Patriots also had more drives, more plays, and yards per play.
Despite that, the Patriots offense couldn’t keep up with their end of the deal and convert on the end of those drives. Tom Brady struggled overall throughout the game. He went 3-of-5 for 55 yards on throws between 11 and 19 yards past the line of scrimmage but 0-for-4 on passes of 20 yards or more. Brady finished the game with minus-0.07 EPA per drop back and a QBR of 40.6.
New England’s lack of legitimate playmakers caught up with them, especially in the red zone. Midway through the second quarter, the Patriots had a 1st and goal from the 1-yard line and without big red zone weapons, like they’ve had in the past, New England went with three straight runs for gains of minus-1, 1, and minus-2 yards. The Patriots kicked a field goal, which turned a three-point lead into a six-point lead instead of a two-possession advantage. That allowed Tennessee to stick to their run-heavy plan and take the lead on the following drive.
A clear deficiency on offense also tempted Bill Belichick to become more conservative on fourth downs, hoping the defense could continue to hold the Titans. Per EdjSports, Belichick made multiple mistakes on fourth downs throughout the game. The field goal attempt after the three stuffed runs cost the Patriots 2.3% win probability. A 4th and 3 punt near midfield at the start of the fourth quarter cost 7%, and a late-game punt on a 4th and 4 cost nearly 19%.
Any conversion in one of those situations could have given the Patriots another chance at scoring in a tight game, but there was no confidence in the offense — and really no reason for there to be any — and that’s potentially how the Brady-Belichick era in New England came to an end.
The Vikings found a way to cover
There was almost no way the Minnesota Vikings were going to be able to cover the receivers for the New Orleans Saints, especially Michael Thomas. The Vikings had struggled in pass defense against wide receivers for much of the season and were down Mackenzie Alexander and Mike Hughes.
The Vikings started the game with safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo across from Thomas when he lined up in the slot. For Thomas to finish the game with just seven scoreless receptions for 70 yards should be considered a miracle given the situation. If you had heard a Thomas-Sendejo matchup was on the books for this game, you probably would have predicted a 150-plus-yard game for Thomas.
Minnesota’s secondary held up quite well overall outside Xavier Rhodes getting roasted by Deonte Harris on a 50-yard pass from Taysom Hill. The Vikings were able to take away just enough when Drew Brees didn’t have an immediate option for a quick pass. During the regular season, Brees averaged 2.57 seconds to throw, which was the second-fastest rate in the league. He matched that 2.57 time in the Wild Card game and for the most part that quick release was able to keep Vikings pass rushers away. All of Minnesota’s defensive line finished at average play fairly far away from Brees in the pocket.
But trouble came when Brees had to hold the ball. Brees was sacked three times at 3.3, 3.79, and 3.96 seconds after the snap, per Next Gen Stats. Those were plays with close coverage at the snap and a dominant move up front.
A huge sack came on a 3rd and goal from the 4-yard line in the first quarter. At the top of Brees’s drop, there was nowhere to go with the ball, Danielle Hunter and turned the corner around Ryan Ramczyk, and Everson Griffen was waiting on the other side.
Mike Zimmer and the Vikings also made some adjustments to create some pressure and more favorable matchups along the line by moving Everson Griffen inside. The different looks along the line and in coverage forced the Saints into a number of unfavorable situations. Brees was clearly uncomfortable for much of the game and nothing showed that more than his forced deep pass that was intercepted by Anthony Harris.
Brees finished the game with a disastrous minus-0.27 EPA per drop back. The defensive effort from the Vikings allowed just enough margin for error while the Minnesota offense struggled through a middle portion of the game before a huge throw from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen set up the game-winning touchdown to Kyle Rudolph in overtime.
D.K. Metcalf is bigger and faster than everyone else
The Seattle Seahawks wanted so badly to make this a typical Seattle Seahawks game. Even facing a backup quarterback in Josh McCown, Seattle couldn’t find it in themselves to put their foot on the gas pedal to blow out a clearly inferior opponent.
Seattle still messed around with 18 early down rushing attempts during the game, which averaged minus-0.41 EPA per play and an 11% success rate. When the Seahawks allowed Russell Wilson to throw the ball, especially down the field, the results were much better. A lot of that involved D.K. Metcalf.
At the start of the game, the Seahawks tried giving the Eagles some different looks with Metcalf. During the regular season, Metcalf almost exclusively lined up on the left side of the offense and ran routes with a vertical stem. But Metcalf took a number of snaps on the right side and when he did line up on the left, he ran some crossing routes to the right side of the field.
D.K. Metcalf Route Charts [Last Week vs Today]:
The @Seahawks are breaking tendencies based on Metcalf’s usage in the passing game in the first half.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 5, 2020
Metcalf finished the game with seven catches for 170 yards, good for 1.23 EPA per play. The changeup in usage helped immensely, like this 26-yard gain on a 3rd and 4 mesh concept that kept a drive alive late in the first half that eventually led to a Marshawn Lynch rushing touchdown.
Then there was the 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter, where he just ran by a much smaller Avonte Maddox straight down the field.
Seattle also countered aggression with aggression on a play with the game on the line. On a 3rd and 10 from the Seattle 11 with 1:47 left in the game, the Eagles sent a Cover 0 blitz. During the regular season, Wilson was 11-of-17 for 107 yards and seven touchdowns against a 0-blitz, per Sports Info Solutions. On this play, Wilson read the blitz and aired a deep ball to Metcalf, who again ran right past all defenders on the play for a game-clinching 36-yard reception.
Throughout the regular season, the Seahawks allowed the big and fast receiver to mostly use his strengths and beat defenders down the field. Against the Eagles, an embrace of those strengths plus some new wrinkles allowed the Seattle passing game to be the dominant unit in the matchup and sent the Seahawks to the Divisional round.