By Nick Shook
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Playoff time is a wonderful time, even if you’re the team that snuck in by the skin of its teeth and the tripping up of a few contenders. You’re in — it doesn’t matter how you got there.
For the purpose of this space, though, it does matter, because we’re going to examine which teams have the best (or worst) chances based on their offensive line play. For the wild-card round of play, we have evenly matched games, and also ones that beg the question: Can this team’s line do a good enough job to give it a real shot at winning?
They say anything can happen on any given Sunday, but we’re playing games on Saturday, too. Let’s find some clarity, starting with the guys who don’t offer much room for daylight to shine through a doorframe.
Can Carolina find its running game again?
It’s no secret that Carolina lives and dies by its running game — just take a look at Week 17.
Without Jonathan Stewart, the Panthersposted their fourth-lowest rushing total of the season, which came in a game that offered Carolina a chance at the division crown and a home playoff game. Instead, the Panthers‘ offense struggled to get off the ground against a desperate Atlanta Falcons team that held Carolina under 250 total yards of offense.
It all comes back around to the ground game with the Panthers. In games in which Carolina failed to break 100 yards rushing, the Panthers went 2-2, while winning nine of their 12 other contests. Quarterback Cam Newton leads the team in rushing with 754 yards and six scores, but that partially comes as a result of defenses respecting the Panthers‘ traditional runners in Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey.
When armed with both backs, the onus rests on the shoulders of Carolina’s offensive line, which has helped pave the way for the league’s fourth-best rushing offense, even if it is non-traditional. Against the league’s average rushing defense (literally: New Orleans is 16th in the league against the run), the Panthers will have a decent matchup. They averaged 122 rushing yards per game against the Saintsduring the regular season.
Tackle Matt Kalil will be returning from an illness, but should be ready to go come Sunday. Guard Trai Turner‘s (concussion) status is also vitally important to Carolina’s success. If the Panthers establish the ground game early, it will take some pressure off Cam Newton and off the line tasked with protecting him against the league’s T-7th-best pass-rushing defense, which recorded 42 sacks during the regular season. For the last time, it starts with the ground game.
Do Bills stand a chance against Sacksonville without LeSean McCoy?
This one isn’t a given. McCoy (ankle) is questionable for Sunday, but didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday before working as a limited participant on Friday. Behind McCoy, the depth chart is thin, thanks to the offseason departure of Mike Gillislee, with bowling ball Mike Tolbert serving as the next-best option. That doesn’t inspire much confidence in Buffalo’s rushing attack against a defense that is downright suffocating.
The Jaguars didn’t earn the Sacksonville nickname by chance. Jacksonville is first in the league against the pass, second in sacks (56) and second in total defense. Where the weakness lies is against the run: Jacksonville ranks 21st, allowing 116.2 yards per game on the ground. But without McCoy (or with a less-than-100-percent McCoy), does Buffalo pack much of a punch? The answer is simply no.
So it shifts back to the pass, where the Bills have struggled mightily to protect Tyrod Taylor. Statistically, the Bills are tied for 24th in the league in sacks surrendered (47) and 19th in quarterback hits allowed (90). With a hobbled or missing McCoy, there’s no reason for Jacksonville’s relentless pass rush to not pin its ears back and go after Taylor. When considering this information, this one could get ugly — but we’ve seen crazier things happen in the past. Buffalo is definitely facing an uphill climb in a few feet of snow in this one, but luckily for Western New Yorkers, they’re used to adverse conditions.
Derrick Henry takes the lead role for Tennessee
The Titans have been one of the more frustrating contending teams to watch in 2017, but here they are in the playoffs, pitted against Kansas City in a very winnable game.
For the longest time, Mike Mularkey refused to give his better running back the majority of the Titans‘ carries. Despite a half-yard better average per carry, Henry continued to wait behind DeMarco Murray, who struggled to a 3.7-yard average before exiting with an ugly knee injury near the end of the season. Behind an offensive line that has the potential but has needed the right combination to succeed, it’s now time for Henry to take the reins and refuse to give them back.
Against a Chiefs rushing defense that ranks in the bottom-third of the league (118.1 yards per game allowed), this sets up as the perfect stage for Henry to introduce himself to the rest of the NFL.
Henry’s bruising running style and surprising big-play potential makes this the game for him (hey look, Kay Adams agrees) to tote the rock 25-30 times per game, ground the Chiefs to a pulp and play keep-away from Alex Smith and Kansas City’s offense. Last week wasn’t a good indicator for him against Jacksonville’s middle-of-the-road rush defense, a game in which he hit a season-high in carries (28) for just 51 yards, but against Kansas City, I expect better things.
This also opens up the possibilities for Marcus Mariota to find his better version of himself (it’s been lost at times this season) and do enough to help Tennessee escape with a close win. I can’t believe I’m typing this, considering I never believed in Tennessee to finish off the season with a win and playoff berth, but it’s hard to argue with the factors here. One thing is for certain: It’s boom or bust for the Titans. If Henry doesn’t get going, it could be a long day at Arrowhead Stadium.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.