NFL Wild-Card Weekend: Scouting the Patriots’ Potential Divisional-Round Opponents

This wild-card weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves battling for a Week 5 rematch with New England. Two other teams, however, are in contention to do the same. (USA Today Sports Images)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

Head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will be playing a Cover-3 defense this wild-card weekend, as potential divisional-round opponents in the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals fight to advance.

All three sit at 11-5. All three have their respective strengths. And while no team in the AFC is without weakness, all three carry the traits to exploit New England’s. The Patriots will be a favorite in all three of the games – feel free to find a place to bet at – as the Patriots are 7/2 to win the AFC. The Broncos are the favorite at 5/7.

There are few certainties in the wide-open AFC playoff picture; Kansas City and Indianapolis will play on Saturday, and Cincinnati and the San Diego Chargers will play on Sunday.

All the Patriots can do is prepare to host the highest remaining seed on Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m.

Preparation is the lone independent variable in the playoff equation. However, much of it can be lost in the dependent variable, as studying for three teams is costly when time is of the essence – something Belichick alluded to during his Dec. 30 conference call.

“We’ll just have to try to figure out how to make the best of our opportunity with that time. I think it starts with just the Patriots,” Belichick said.

Regardless of how the Patriots address the rest of this week and the next, the reality is one of three teams will be in Foxborough, Mass., next Saturday.

With that inevitability drawing closer, here is a film look at Colts, Chiefs and Bengals, and how each squad’s proficiency could challenge New England.

Indianapolis Colts – The Andrew Luck-T.Y. Hilton Connection

The last time the two old rivals met was Nov. 18, 2012, when New England defeated Indianapolis handedly, 59-24.

But this year, there is no future-Hall of Fame possession receiver in Reggie Wayne, nor is there a big-bodied enforcer at tight end in Dwayne Allen. This year, much like last, there is no explosive running game, with the exception of the efficient but unspectacular Donald Brown. And this year, also a parallel to last, the Colts’ interior offensive line has leaked, ranking in the bottom third of the league in both run and pass blocking.

Yet while the AFC South winners may be lacking in offensive firepower – not to mentions much of a defensive supporting cast outside of outside linebacker Robert Mathis’ 19.5 sacks – it would be an oversight to count out the transcendent ability of quarterback Andrew Luck.

He’s found a favorite in 1,000-yard slot receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Some connections between Luck and the 5’9”, 178-pound field-stretcher are quick and concise. Others are long faders to sideline. But the threat of the home run is unrelenting. It is something New England will have to account for.

Now the Patriots’ secondary has been notably adept in defending the deep ball this season, as Doug Kyed of thoroughly articulated. With that said, open-field tackling and awareness have been critical cogs in containing the Luck-Hilton combo. After all, much of their success has been rooted in turning short, underneath plays into long ones.

One misstep by a linebacker or one outside-hip technique by a nickelback can be the difference. And that was on display against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17.

On a 3rd-and-4 with 13:14 to go in the third quarter, Indianapolis utilized “11” personnel with tight end Coby Fleener running a five-yard comeback in the left flat, and running back Trent Richardson protecting and releasing next to Luck in shotgun.

Griff Whalen – the lone receiver out left – was set to for a stutter-go pattern. Darrius Heyward-Bey – manning the right sideline – was set to run a post route. And lastly, Hilton – in the slot – was gearing up for a drag across the middle.

Jacksonville responded with a 4-2 nickel, using press-bail coverage on the three wideouts, and sending rookie safety Jonathan Cyprien down into the box to guard Fleener.

In turn, it was a single-high Cover-1 look, which placed trust in the coverage ability of linebacker Paul Posluszny to zone the hashes next to spying linebacker J.T. Thomas.

As the Luck handled the snap, he saw the discrepancy unfold. The outskirts were covered and fellow Jaguars rookie safety Josh Evans was on an island deep. He knew the crossing pattern would have space if time allowed for it.

Hilton knew it, too. Posluszny had drifted with the quarterback’s eyes. And conversely, Will Blackmon’s open stance freed his man.

Hilton used that knowledge to shield and eclipse Posluszny, expanding the depth of his route inside the seams.

The two Jaguars in the vicinity collided as the Florida International product did so. And Luck pulled the trigger, throwing his target into unoccupied real estate.

Hilton snared the ball in stride and was off to the races, acquiring 41 yards – 34 coming after the reception.

The Colts offense may be missing key pieces, but it does have two young pieces that are growing together. And if New England winds up playing Indianapolis, they may opt to go single-high and cover the Fleener on third down or in short-yardage situations.

If that’s the case, though, they must be prepared for Luck and Hilton to attack the conceded ground.

This exchange would not only heighten the responsibilities of nickelback Kyle Arrington; it would make the coverage awareness of linebackers Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins all the more vital.

Kansas City Chiefs – The Jamaal Charles Elusion

Nov. 21, 2011 was the last time New England played Kansas City. It was a Monday night game that saw the Chiefs lose in a rout, 34-3, with then-backup quarterback Tyler Palko under center.

This year’s Chiefs are different.

With Andy Reid as head coach, not to mention a stockpiled defense reinforced by the likes of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, linebackers Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, cornerbacks Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers, and first-class safety Eric Berry – the Chiefs are a force to be reckoned with.

Yet ultimately, it may not be Reid nor the 19 points allowed per game that theoretically pose the toughest test for New England.

It could be 1,980-yard all-purpose halfback Jamaal Charles.

Only 5’11” and 199 pounds, Charles plays larger than his frame. And he’s been in MVP consideration for a reason; his elusiveness, acceleration through cuts and multifaceted impact has carried the Kansas City offense and served as a catalyst for the defense.

Now if the Patriots were to cross paths with the Chiefs, New England’s offensive rhythm would figure to be disrupted. But Charles, along with the dependable run blocks ahead of him, would figure to be a game-decider opposite the Patriots’ 30th-ranked rush defense and inconsistent screen coverage.

In Week 16 versus the Colts, Charles was a bright spot in a losing effort for Kansas City. He totaled 106 yards on 13 carries, along with 38 yards on five receptions. And all it took was one play, Kansas City’s only touchdown of the game, to demonstrate his value.

With 11:14 left in the opening quarter, the Chiefs offense implemented “21” personnel from I-formation. In-line tight end Anthony Fasano prepped to block the back side, fullback Anthony Sherman set to track inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman at the second level, and Charles waited power run.

If the Colts over-pursued, a cutback behind the fan blocks of right guard Jon Asamoah and No. 1 overall right tackle Eric Fisher would be in the cards.

Indianapolis countered with the 3-4 two-gapping the trenches, all while cornerback Vontae Davis encroached the tight end and safety LaRon Landry played single-high.

As quarterback Alex Smith took the snap and turned to Charles, Sherman zeroed in on the inside linebacker. To his left, center Rodney Hudson and left guard Jeff Allen doubled nose tackle Aubrayo Frankin. And to his right, Asamoah and Fisher widened the run lane.

The assignments made it easy for Charles to find the exposed A-gap, plant and go.

Charles crossed the line of scrimmage and headed for the second level, where Landry and slot defensive back Antoine Bethea crunched.

Landry dove low for Charles, but came up empty as the rusher bounced outward towards Bethea. But Bethea was unable to make the play, as the downfield block of wideout Dwayne Bowe restricted him.

Charles arced behind Bowe, redirecting past receiver Donnie Avery and former Patriot corner Darius Butler.

And like that, he was gone. The execution at the point of attack and the assistance from the route-runners downfield alleviate Charles to make the moves he’s capable of making.

If the Patriots do happen to meet with Kansas City, New England would have to respect Charles as both a pass-catcher in the flat and as a rusher in the box. Do you play contain? Do you use a linebacker spy? Do you drop a safety? Do you stick with the base defense?

There are many ways to go about defending Jamaal Charles. There aren’t many ways to go about stopping him.

Cincinnati Bengals – The Invasive Front

It was a rain-soaked afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium the last time Cincinnati dueled New England. The Patriots offense went 1-for-12 on third down. Tom Brady’s touchdown streak came to an end. And the Bengals handed the road team their first loss of the season, 13-6.

If Cincinnati defeats San Diego this weekend, there will be a Week 5 rematch between the two sides.

Guided by the highs and lows of quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals offense remains deep at wide receiver, assembling A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and inside man Andrew Hawkins. The group remains effective at tight end, carrying first-rounder Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham. And the group also remains dynamic at running back, unleashing dynamic rookie Giovani Bernard and once-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

But if there was one aspect of Cincinnati that could be a definitive thorn in New England’s side, it would be the defensive front. The 4-3 unit has forged a top-three defense, even without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the thick of it.

Brandon Thompson has emerged as a run defender next to veteran defensive tackle Domata Peko. Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and the unheralded Wallace Gilberry have amassed 18.5 sacks off the edge. Behind them, the combination of James Harrison, Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey has created miscues from linebacker territory.

Those ingredients bit the Patriots last time around. Brady was sacked four times, hit twice and hurried eight times – per Pro Football Focus – on his way to a 47 percent passing game. The Patriots were also held to 82 yards rushing.

If nothing else, the Bengals are rapid. With 1:07 left to go before halftime in the squad’s Week 17 contest with the Baltimore Ravens, that speed and aggressiveness was illustrated.

The Ravens called upon “11” with tight end Dennis Pitta split off the right to run a five-yard out, and tailback Ray Rice abutting QB Joe Flacco in shotgun to run a hitch.

Out left, recievers Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown leaned in for 15- and 10-yard posts. And far right, Jacoby Jones leaned in to run a streak deep.

After sugaring the A-gaps with linebackers for two snaps, the Bengals aligned in a slightly more modest 4-2 nickel package. The cornerbacks played off-man, deep safety George Iloka played essentially prevent, and intermediate safety Reggie Nelson played Pitta’s route to the flat.

At linebacker, Burfict and Rey bubbled the foreground to disconcert any short cross. On the line, Dunlap and Johnson got in three-point stances to rush the C-gaps. The 6’8” Estonian rookie Margus Hunt spelled in at the three-technique to engage and stunt the far B-gap, while Gilberry spelled in to knife the A-gap.

It was a speed rush without a true defensive tackle.

It was a mismatch as soon as Flacco harnessed the snap.

The coverage retreated as the signal caller diagnosed his reads. The line did not allot him much time to do so. Dunlap’s rush from left end spread the B-gap next to right tackle Michael Oher. Gilberry’s inside heat distracted Marshal Yanda from his initial positioning. Hunt’s engagement and subsequent rip move on left guard A.Q. Shipley sparked a sprint to the opening.

Concurrently, over at right end, Johnson’s awareness and instincts kicked in as he saw Eugene Monroe’s hands rise and hips bend.

Johnson swooped underneath Monroe’s outstretched arms and angled to Flacco’s blindside. Hunter veered around the occupied hands of Yanda.

The two burst the pocket and sandwiched Flacco for the sack.

It took three seconds.

New England will have a week.

Whether it is Indianapolis’ short-tempered passing game, Kansas City’s multilayered running back or Cincinnati’s front attack, each scenario comes with considerable risk.

The Patriots will have to plan accordingly.

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3 Responses to “NFL Wild-Card Weekend: Scouting the Patriots’ Potential Divisional-Round Opponents”

  1. Russell Easterbrooks says:

    Watched some interesting College Bowl games! WR Sam Watkins maybe be the BEST play maker in this years draft. I think he goes in the top 4 picks.

  2. J H TARBORO says:

    No matter who we play next week, we have to stay fundamentally sound and not be one dimensional on offense and have a conquers mentality on defense, get healthy and get ready! If you look back over a span of 1yr. at what has happened with this team, all i can say is the story in the end might be a great one!
    Good luck Patriots! I feel like this season with this team might be one the NFL’s greatest stories.

  3. acm says:

    Happy New Year to everyone who keeps this site running and all posters, as well.

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