Wild card weekend: key matchups to watch

The NFL playoffs kick off today with the beginning of wild card weekend. With four games on the schedule, let’s check out a key matchup for each of the four weekend games.

NY Jets at Cincinnati

Today- 4:30 (EST) NBC

RB Cedric Benson vs. the New York front seven

Benson has to be a factor if the Bengals are going to move the ball and put points on the board today. Forget about Chad Ochocinco down the field against Jets’ CB Darrelle Revis—because that is a matchup that is already decided. But, in saying that, this Bengals ball club will have to run the football, set up manageable third downs and create field position through the legs of Benson. You don’t have to light up the scoreboard to beat the Jets, but you have to use the running game and field position to create scoring opportunities. Don’t be surprised to see Benson get 20-25 carries in the basic power game: the Lead Strong, the Lead Open and the Power O. But, it all comes down to Benson’s ability to run the ball with production today for Cincy if they want to knock the Jets out of the playoffs. He needs to move the chains.

Philadelphia at Dallas

Tonight- 8:00 (EST) NBC

WR DeSean Jackson vs. the Cowboys secondary

There was a lot said this week between Jackson and the Cowboys secondary after Dallas shut down the Eagles 24-0 last week to win the NFC East. But, with another week of preparation, it should be interesting to see how Andy Reid and the Eagles game plan to get Jackson loose in the secondary. We all know that the Eagles thrive on the deep ball and the big play in Reid’s offense, but to do that, McNabb has to have time in the pocket against Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys. Don’t be surprised to see the Eagles use a max protection scheme to send Jackson and Jeremy Maclin down the field in 2-man route combinations. Jackson is at his best when the Eagles use pre-snap movement to create a positive matchup to get him vertical down the field against a safety or a corner—and using motion with max protection will give McNabb time to let the explosive receiver get open. And, Philly will need some big plays tonight if they want to advance.

Baltimore at New England

Sunday- 1:00 (EST) CBS

WR Julian Edelman vs. the Baltimore sub packages

When I talk about “sub packages’ in the NFL, I am referring to what defenses do on third downs from a scheme perspective when they bring a Nickel Corner onto the field. In the past, opposing defenses would use various forms of combo coverages against WR Wes Welker inside the numbers on third downs to take away the option routes. But, with Welker out of the lineup, we get to see how Baltimore game plans for Edelman—who takes over Welker’s role. If Edelman cannot produce when the Patriots go to their three wide receiver sets, the Ravens will be able to use most—if not all—of their pressure schemes on third downs playing man coverage in the back end, along with safety Ed Reed in the middle of the field. And by doing this, Reed can lean towards Randy Moss in coverage. I have written before that the Pats can beat teams in a variety of ways with a variety of personnel, but in the playoffs they will still have to move the chains on third downs. Edelman will have to produce tomorrow for New England to move on to the next round.

Green Bay at Arizona

Sunday- 4:40 (EST) FOX

Jermichael Finley vs. the Arizona defense

Just like Todd Heap in Baltimore or Jason Witten in Dallas, the Packers have an offensive weapon in Finley that will not only cause matchup issues for the defense, but it allows Green Bay to become creative on offense in their play calling and formation alignments. Finley can align backside as the “X” receiver, which forces the Cardinals to make a decision: leave the corner on Finley—which is a disadvantage from a physical standpoint—or bring a safety down in coverage. However, by using Finley as a receiver aligned away from the formation—weak or strong—the Packers can play chess with the rest of their offense against the Arizona secondary. Align WR Greg Jennings inside as the No. 3 strong, put him in the slot, and use him in a way to create various route combinations over the middle of the field—all because Finley draws attention when he lines up as a receiver. On Sunday, keep an eye on the TE, and when you see him aligned as a receiver he is doing that for one of two reasons: to get the football or to create an opening for a Green Bay receiver.

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