Attending to the divisional spherical of the 2019 NFL playoffs means a workforce has made extra good selections than dangerous. However for every of the remaining eight groups nonetheless alive for this weekend’s video games, there’s one change that performed a a lot greater function of their success than some other.
We requested our NFL Nation reporters to establish probably the most influential change their workforce made that helped them get inside two wins of Tremendous Bowl LIV in Miami, the way it performed out and what it means going into their matchup this weekend.
Four:35 p.m. ET, Saturday, NBC
Nick Bosa’s 60 total pressures have been second most within the league this season as a rookie. Picture by Ezra Shaw/Getty Photos
Offseason precedence: Supercharge their move rush, significantly on the sting. Whereas inside rushers DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead had established themselves, the Niners did not have an out of doors rusher with double-digit sacks since Aldon Smith in 2013. Coach Kyle Shanahan and basic supervisor John Lynch made it clear that the Niners wanted “closers” on protection, the kinds of pass-rushers able to turning a few of their 11 one-possession losses in 2017 and 2018 into victories.
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The way it performed out: The 49ers put their cash and draft capital the place their mouth was, buying and selling a 2020 second-round decide for edge rusher Dee Ford and giving him an $85.5 million contract and utilizing the No. 2 total decide within the NFL draft on defensive finish Nick Bosa. It did not take lengthy for the Niners to be rewarded for these strikes. With Ford, Bosa, Buckner and Armstead main the cost, the Niners’ defensive position energized the whole workforce, resulting in a 9-Zero begin and rating among the many prime groups within the league in sacks and stress. It must be famous that accidents to Ford, Ronald Blair III and D.J. Jones have taken a critical toll on their depth and manufacturing within the season’s second half.
What it means vs. Vikings: Cell quarterbacks reminiscent of Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray have proved troublesome for the Niners’ bolstered move rush, however the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins does not boast that very same athleticism, speeding for 63 yards on 31 makes an attempt this season. The well-rested Niners, who hope to have Ford again from quad and hamstring accidents, ought to have an opportunity to stress Cousins for many of the recreation. Which suggests the true key will likely be how their entrance holds up in opposition to Minnesota’s Dalvin Prepare dinner-centric run recreation, a gaggle that completed sixth within the league in speeding yards in the course of the common season. — Nick Wagoner
An improved offensive line and efficient run recreation has helped Kirk Cousins thrive in his second season in Minnesota. Ben Ludeman/USA TODAY Sports activities
Offseason precedence: Rebuild the offense round Kirk Cousins. The Vikings sought to inject extra steadiness into their scheme to take stress off the quarterback, so that they employed Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor and tasked offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski with operating the Tremendous Bowl-winning coach’s offense. However constructing round Cousins did not imply he’d be the point of interest. Minnesota deliberate to run its offense via operating again Prepare dinner, which might then permit them to successfully make the most of star extensive receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr.
The way it performed out: After a tough begin, the offense lastly acquired it collectively in Week 5 and hasn’t seemed again since. The Vikings found they have been at their greatest as a run-first workforce (second-highest designed run proportion, behind the Ravens) predicated off a zone blocking scheme, which in flip opened up play-action for Cousins. He had an NFL-best 13 passing touchdowns off play-action and averaged 9.6 yards per try. By the top of the common season, the Vikings have been in a position to boast a Three,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher (Prepare dinner) and 1,000-yard receiver (Diggs).
What it means vs. 49ers: Maybe no coach is aware of Cousins’ strengths and weaknesses higher than 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who was his offensive coordinator with the Redskins. That ought to play to the 49ers’ benefit in constructing a recreation plan to assault Cousins, however San Francisco additionally has to account for Prepare dinner breaking off massive features to the surface on runs or a display screen (Minnesota was No. 1 in producing yards off operating again screens). The Vikings are wholesome, and accounting for everybody proves troublesome, even for a protection nearly as good as San Francisco’s. — Courtney Cronin
6:40 p.m. ET, Sunday, Fox
The Matt LaFleur period has gotten off to a profitable begin with the Packers profitable the NFC North and securing the No. 2 seed within the NFC. Richard Rodriguez/Getty Photos
Offseason precedence: Get Matt LaFleur’s program established. For nearly 13 years, there was one voice — Mike McCarthy’s — on the entrance of the room and in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ headset because the playcaller. It was crucial that LaFleur meshed with Rodgers from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but when he was going to get the workforce to purchase into his program, the locker room needed to know that Rodgers purchased in first.
The way it performed out: Neither the offense nor Rodgers was a lot completely different than final yr, however the buy-in was. And it led to a profitable tradition from the beginning. LaFleur was employed seemingly for his offensive prowess, however his means to guide a room and rally a gaggle of gamers was underrated. After all, he had assist from a playmaking protection that, particularly early within the season, made up for the gradual begin by the offense. GM Brian Gutekunst deserves loads of credit score for that by including Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith in free company.
What it means vs. the Seahawks: Rodgers stated final week that although they enter the playoffs on a five-game profitable streak, “nobody right here goes to say we’re on a tear since you guys like telling us how we’re simply form of a mean workforce that is aware of find out how to win.” He is proper, however figuring out find out how to win is likely to be extra vital. This workforce has almost perfected the artwork of profitable ugly, and that is likely to be all that issues. — Rob Demovsky
Acquired in a commerce with the Texans earlier than the season, Jadeveon Clowney was fifth in ESPN’s Move Rush Win Fee. Tony Avelar/AP
Offseason precedence: Lengthen Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and pending UFA Frank Clark. It was bold given how all three have been going to command top-of-the-market contracts, and it acquired more durable as soon as DeMarcus Lawrence acquired a $105 million extension with $65 million assured. Wilson and Wagner — who every acquired extensions — had a yr remaining on their offers, and the Seahawks might have saved Clark for 2019 by way of the franchise tag, however they as an alternative acquired what they might for him figuring it might be too powerful to re-sign him this offseason. They have been going to wish so as to add to their pass-rush even when Clark remained within the fold. Buying and selling him to Kansas Metropolis made that their new precedence.
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The way it performed out: The Seahawks used the first-round decide they acquired for Clark on L.J. Collier, who has made zero affect. They signed Ezekiel Ansah to a one-year deal in Could and have not gotten a lot from him both. So think about what their pass-rush would appear like had GM John Schneider not pulled off a grasp stroke by buying Jadeveon Clowney from the Texans. He gave up Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin plus a third-round decide. Houston defrayed nearly half of the cash owed to Clowney by giving him a $7 million signing bonus, leaving Seattle with simply his $eight million base wage. Clowney has made a a lot higher affect than his sack complete (three within the common season and one other within the wild-card spherical) would counsel. He was fifth in ESPN’s Move Rush Win Fee, scored a pair of defensive touchdowns and turned in probably the most dominant efficiency by a Seahawks D-lineman below Carroll in Seattle’s Week 10 win over the 49ers.
What it means vs. Packers: The early phrase from Carroll is that Clowney made it out of the Eagles recreation wholesome sufficient to play on Sunday. He is been coping with a core-muscle damage since Week 10 that price him two video games and will require offseason surgical procedure. Even along with his damage, Clowney has been the Seahawks’ handiest pass-rusher and represents that group’s greatest hope for getting after Rodgers.– Brady Henderson
eight:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, CBS
Lamar Jackson threw an NFL-best 36 landing passes this season. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports activities
Offseason precedence: Develop Lamar Jackson into an NFL passer. It seems like ages in the past that anybody doubted Jackson, probably the most electrical playmaker within the recreation. However, in his rookie season, Jackson ran the ball (147 carries) about as a lot as he threw it (170 move makes an attempt). Critics identified how his passes fluttered and the way he threw sidearm or off his again foot. In seven begins after taking on for the injured Joe Flacco, Jackson completed 30th in completion price (58%) and 31st in off-target proportion (23%). His arm was Baltimore’s greatest query mark.
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The way it performed out: Jackson confirmed why nobody ought to underestimate his work ethic. In the course of the offseason, together with exercises on his personal, Jackson made the most important strides along with his mechanics. As a rookie, his stance acquired very slender and he was up on his toes. Now, he performs with a wider base. Halfway via coaching camp, the coaches noticed Jackson’s accuracy and decision-making beginning to click on. He has since exploded right into a celebrity, main the 14-2 Ravens to one of the best report within the NFL and turning into the front-runner for the league’s Most Useful Participant award.
What it means vs. Titans: Tennessee has to respect Jackson’s arm in addition to his legs. Jackson led the NFL with 36 landing passes and recorded eight video games with three or extra landing throws, probably the most by a participant earlier than his 23rd birthday in NFL historical past. He joined Ben Roethlisberger as the one gamers in league historical past to provide a number of video games in a season with an ideal 158.Three passer score. This might be an issue for the Titans, who have been considered one of eight groups within the common season to permit greater than Four,000 yards passing and 25 landing passes. — Jamison Hensley
The Titans have received eight of their previous 11 video games since Ryan Tannehill took over because the starter for Marcus Mariota. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports activities
Offseason precedence: Coming into the 2019 season, the Titans wanted to get a real, ultimate analysis on Marcus Mariota earlier than deciding whether or not it was time to maneuver on from him. There have been varied causes for the inconsistencies the Titans have skilled with Mariota below heart. The potential that Mariota confirmed in glimpses throughout his time in Tennessee gave the Titans sufficient trigger to select up his fifth-year possibility and take one ultimate have a look at him.
The way it performed out: Titans GM Jon Robinson signed free-agent offensive lineman Rodger Saffold and receiver Adam Humphries along with choosing receiver A.J. Brown with the 51st decide within the draft. Their objective was to strengthen the safety and add weapons for Mariota. Tight ends coach Arthur Smith was promoted to offensive coordinator to offer continuity for Mariota, one thing that he did not have up to now. For insurance coverage, Robinson additionally acquired quarterback Ryan Tannehill by way of a commerce with the Dolphins and one way or the other acquired them to pay $5 million of the $7 million in restructured cash for his or her former starter. The Titans benched Mariota for Tannehill in Week 7 and the offense thrived. Over the ultimate 10 video games, Tannehill threw 22 touchdowns to 5 interceptions, his 65.2 Whole QBR was sixth greatest within the NFL and the Titans went 7-Three.
What it means vs. Ravens: The Titans are a way more environment friendly offense with Tannehill below heart. They’ve improved drastically in areas reminiscent of purple zone scoring proportion and third-down conversion price. Tennessee’s offense ascended to 3rd within the NFL in factors and yards per recreation. Pairing a balanced offense with the already established protection makes the Titans a tricky out for the Ravens. Their model of bodily soccer is right for touring to a tricky street atmosphere like Baltimore. — Turron Davenport
Three:05 p.m. ET, Sunday, CBS
The Chiefs protection, led by Steve Spagnuolo (right here with Chris Jones), has solely gotten higher because the season has gone on. David Eulitt/Getty Photos
Offseason precedence: Enhance a protection that in 2018 allowed 421 factors, or 26.Three per recreation, which was ninth worst within the NFL. The Chiefs misplaced one recreation final season whereas scoring 51 factors and one other whereas scoring 40. In addition they misplaced the AFC Championship Recreation after they could not stop the Patriots from getting a landing on both of their final two possessions, the final one coming in additional time.
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The way it performed out: The Chiefs revamped as a lot of their protection as was fairly potential. They introduced in a brand new defensive teaching workers led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, put in a brand new Four-Three base system and introduced in a number of gamers who would have vital roles. The duo of security Tyrann Mathieu and finish Frank Clark alone got here at a value of $146 million in mixed wage. After a gradual begin, the Chiefs got here round defensively. They completed the season permitting 308 factors, or 19.Three per recreation, seventh-best within the league. However over the past six video games the Chiefs allowed a mean of lower than 12 factors, greatest within the NFL over that span.
What it means vs. Texans: It did not matter a lot in Week 6 when the groups met at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs allowed the Texans 472 yards and had problem getting quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense off the sector. The Texans had 83 performs and managed the ball for nearly 40 minutes. The Chiefs had bother with Watson’s mobility and did not register a sack regardless of his 42 move makes an attempt. However the Chiefs are a distinct workforce now. They performed that day with out considered one of their key defenders in sort out Chris Jones plus linebacker Anthony Hitchens. They’ve additionally added a doubtlessly vital piece in pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. So it might be a shock if the Texans managed the sport the best way they did final time. — Adam Teicher
Carlos Hyde rushed for a career-best 1,070 yards this season with the Texans. Julio Aguilar/Getty Photos
Offseason precedence: After beginning operating again Lamar Miller tore his ACL within the Texans’ third preseason recreation, Houston wanted assist on the place and rapidly. Sure, the Texans traded for Duke Johnson from the Browns earlier in August, however coach Invoice O’Brien didn’t intend for him to be Houston’s lead again. The Texans wanted to exchange Miller’s manufacturing so they might use Johnson as meant.
The way it performed out: The Texans made 4 trades on cut-down day. Buying left sort out Laremy Tunsil and extensive receiver Kenny Stills from the Dolphins and sending pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks have been the splashier offers, however including Carlos Hyde that day from Kansas Metropolis could have been probably the most impactful transfer. Hyde, who was on a one-year contract, had one of the best season of his six-year profession, speeding for 1,070 yards and 6 touchdowns on 245 carries within the common season. This was the primary time in his profession that he posted a 1,000-yard season, and Houston completed the season ranked ninth within the NFL in speeding, averaging 125.6 yards per recreation.
What it means vs. Chiefs: Earlier than the Texans performed Kansas Metropolis in Week 6, Hyde stated he had a chip on his shoulder as a result of he was with the Chiefs in the course of the offseason earlier than they despatched him to Houston. In that recreation, Hyde had his first 100-yard speeding recreation of the season. Whereas Watson vs. Patrick Mahomes is the marquee matchup on this recreation, whether or not the Texans and Hyde can discover constant success on the bottom will likely be key to a Houston victory, as effectively. — Sarah Barshop