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#pounditThursday, August 5, 2021

10 keys to watch for NFL Wild Card weekend

Cam Newton

As NFL Wild Card weekend looms, eight teams will begin what they hope is their journey to the Super Bowl. There’s an interesting mix of usual suspects and new characters entering this year’s playoffs, from the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons to a Buffalo Bills team that will be playing their first playoff game in 18 years.

What should you be watching for in these four games? Here’s a look at some important factors that could determine who moves on and who goes home.

1. Andy Reid’s postseason game management

Andy Reid’s clock management is the stuff of legend. Two years ago, many argued it was a factor as the Chiefs were eliminated from the playoffs by the New England Patriots. Clock management has long been a criticism of Reid. He’ll lead his team up against the Tennessee Titans in the wild card game, and all eyes will be on Reid. He has something of a reputation as a good coach who is simply unable to win the big one, with questionable tactical and management decisions magnified during the playoffs. If Reid is at all a factor in this one and the Chiefs don’t win, those criticisms will get very, very loud.

2. Could Mike Mularkey be coaching for his job?

Reports had indicated that the Tennessee Titans head coach needed a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17, or he might be facing a firing. That could still be true despite the fact that the Titans scraped past the Jags to reach the playoffs. There has been criticism of the offense, particularly the slow development of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mularkey may need his team to put in a big performance at Kansas City if he wants to be back next season, even though he got them into the playoffs.

3. Will the Rams have any home field advantage?

On paper, the Rams have pretty much every advantage over the Atlanta Falcons. Their high-powered offense is led by Jared Goff and Todd Gurley. Their defense, coached by Wade Phillips, is playing excellently. They’ve been viewed as a Super Bowl contender for quite some time.

There is one thing, however, that may play to the Falcons’ advantage — they’ve been handed the easiest road game of the weekend. While their issues haven’t been as severe as they have been for the Chargers, the Rams have had a rough time cultivating a home field advantage in their new city. The weather will be nice, and Atlanta will be as comfortable as any team theoretically could be in a road game in the playoffs. That may help them even the playing field despite their disadvantages.

4. Will Atlanta’s playoff experience help them at all?

By and large, the Rams are a very young team — they have a rookie head coach who’s only turning 32 this month, after all, and their quarterback is a second-year pro. The Falcons are more battle-hardened. They came painfully close to winning the Super Bowl a year ago, Matt Ryan is an experienced veteran, and pretty much everyone on the team knows how it feels to win — and lose — in the playoffs. If the Rams get off to a slow start, will they be rattled? It’s hard to say, but it’s understandable to state that they may not take it as well as the Falcons would.

5. Marcell Dareus’ year comes full circle

When the Buffalo Bills traded Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars in October, neither party probably expected to encounter the other again this season. Here we are in the wild card round, and Dareus’ Jaguars are hosting the Bills in the playoffs. An expensive off-field headache in Buffalo, he hasn’t been a huge contributor in Jacksonville, collecting 19 tackles and one sack in nine games. He may well be motivated to do well in this one, though, given the history he has with the team he’ll be facing.

6. LeSean McCoy’s health

The man they call Shady would have had a hard enough time facing a loaded Jaguars defense even if fully healthy, but an ankle injury he sustained in the season finale is going to have the Bills very worried. Reports indicate he will be a game-time decision for this one, and if he doesn’t play, the Bills will only be bigger underdogs. It’s a pity the Bills will be hampered by such a big injury in their first playoff game in almost two decades. The reality is a hard game got even more difficult.

7. Buffalo’s turnover-happy defense must keep it up

The matchup between Buffalo’s offense and Jacksonville’s defense firmly favors the Jaguars, so the Bills are going to have to work really hard to find ways to win this clash. One good way they can do that? Making the field as short as possible. Buffalo had a plus-nine turnover differential during the regular season and picked off opponents 18 times. That may be their best shot to win this. Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles can be turnover-prone, and the Bills will be looking to force some mistakes that they can use to shorten the field and make life easier on Tyrod Taylor and company. That’s probably their best chance of winning.

8. Carolina’s run defense has a point to prove

In their two divisional matchups in 2017, the Panthers never came particularly close to beating New Orleans. The Saints won by three touchdowns in Charlotte, and the 31-21 win in New Orleans actually flattered Carolina, who scored a late touchdown to make it look closer than it was. A big part of that was the usually sturdy Carolina run defense not having much success against New Orleans. The Saints averaged 5.5 yards per rush in the first game and 5.3 in the second, allowing them to move the ball surprisingly easily against a strong Panther front four. That can’t happen again; Carolina needs a strong defensive performance here to avoid a third loss in one year.

9. Cam Newton needs to rediscover his MVP form

Newton has been wildly inconsistent all season long for Carolina. There have been weeks in which he’s looked like the elite quarterback that was drafted first overall and won the 2015 NFL MVP award, and there have been weeks where he’s looked like he doesn’t belong on the field. He was brutal in the division decider against Atlanta, and he wasn’t particularly sharp in either game against the Saints. The quarterback has to take good care of the ball, make good decisions, and be more accurate in this one. New Orleans’ defense has capitalized on his mistakes, and they’ll do it again if he makes them.

10. The Saints may boast the weekend’s best home field advantage

The last time the New Orleans Saints lost a home playoff game at the Super Bowl was January 3, 1993. They are 5-0 since then. Sure, it’s not a huge sample size, but it’s also no secret that the Saints’ home stadium is one of the loudest and most raucous in the NFL, and is widely regarded as offering one of the strongest home field advantages in the entire league. It has been six years since the Superdome hosted a Saints playoff game, so the crowd should be extremely up for it. Maybe it will help the Panthers that they have to play there every year anyway, but there’s only so much one can do to adequately prepare for such an environment. That marks another factor working in New Orleans’ favor.

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