NFL wild-card playoff game plans: Keys to win, matchups to know for all 12 teams

The 2020 NFL wild-card games kick off this weekend with six interesting games, which include Tom Brady and Drew Brees trying to make another postseason run and a rematch between Baltimore and Tennessee, which was a divisional-round stunner a year ago.

How can all 12 teams playing this weekend pick up wins? Let's take a closer look at every matchup and pick out game-plan keys -- one on offense, one on defense -- that can create edges and a path to the divisional round for each team in action.

We'll go in order of the games this weekend, starting with the early Saturday kickoff between the Colts and Bills:

Jump to a matchup:

(5) Baltimore Ravens vs. (4) Tennessee Titans

Info: 1:05 p.m. ET, Sunday, Jan. 10, ESPN/ABC
Line: BAL -3.5; O/U 54.5
FPI's prediction: BAL by 4

How the Ravens can beat the Titans

1. Control the front with counter run schemes

In Weeks 13 through 17, the Ravens put up 267.4 rushing yards per game. And when you watch the tape, they have become a much more gap-heavy run team, using the counter schemes -- with misdirection -- to gain numbers to the play side. That allows quarterback Lamar Jackson to get loose on designed carries off guard-and-tackle-pull schemes, and it opens up running lanes for both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Dobbins brings some serious juice to this team in a matchup against a Tennessee defense that allowed 132.4 rushing yards per game, which ranked 23rd in the league. The Ravens have the NFL's best running game right now, which then feeds into the play-action throws for Jackson on deep overs and seams.

2. Take away Ryan Tannehill's primary reads on play-action

We know that Derrick Henry is going to get his touches Sunday. But if a team wants to beat Tennessee, it has to take away the explosive-play ability of the play-action passing game with Tannehill. This season, he threw for 1,561 yards on play-action, third most in the league. Watch out for outside zone looks with wide receiver A.J. Brown running the in-breakers. This is where the Ravens need to get defenders into the throwing lanes, taking away that primary read for Tannehill. Whether we are looking at a pressure stunt or the second-level linebackers identifying play-action to recover off their read steps, they can't give Tannehill open windows to Brown -- who has the physical traits and catch-and-run ability to create explosive plays.

How the Titans can beat the Ravens

1. Mix in gap runs that get Henry on the edge

Henry is going to get 20-plus carries, on outside zones and zone leads out of 12 and 21 personnel. But I would like to see the Titans use more gap runs to test the edges of the Ravens' front. Make them fit gaps on toss and force cornerback Marcus Peters to tackle one-on-one versus Henry in space. And against Henry, defensive players have to tackle for four quarters. It's old-school, but that's the drill against this Tennessee team and Henry, who can wear down any defense. The gap schemes could lead to more explosive plays for Henry.

2. Tackle and get Jackson into third-down passing situations

Like the Tennessee offense, Baltimore's passing game is not independent of its run game. The Ravens are tied together through play-action and scheme. But to get to third-down passing situations, the Titans have to play with second-level discipline at the linebacker position versus the counter runs and fill the alleys with their safeties. Think gap control here with edge defenders cleaning up in space. And no different from any level of the game, the Titans have to tackle. Win the one-on-ones at the point of attack to get the Ravens into third-down, dropback situations where Tennessee can bring some simulated pressures and use late movement in the secondary.

(7) Chicago Bears vs. (2) New Orleans Saints

Info: 4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday, Jan. 10, CBS
Line: NO -10; O/U 47
FPI's prediction: NO by 11

How the Bears can beat the Saints

1. Scheme up play-action shots for Mitchell Trubisky

The Bears have transitioned to a more run-heavy offensive approach with David Montgomery, which allows Chicago to mirror together the run and pass game. And that sets up Trubisky on play-action throws off boot. The Bears need to generate explosive plays to win this game, however. That means more six- and seven-man protection schemes with play-action to counter the Saints' split-safety coverages. That allows coach Matt Nagy to script a clean pocket throw for Trubisky, with Allen Robinson and the other wideouts on two-man concepts that create both open coverage voids and chunk gains.

2. Make plays on the ball in the secondary

Back in the Week 8 head-to-head matchup with the Saints, the Bears' defense was heavy on man coverage and Cover 3. It played single-high schemes against a New Orleans team that was without its top receivers in Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. I would expect defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to flip the script this week, playing more split-safety Quarters, which puts Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson in a position to drive on the intermediate throws by Drew Brees. Even with scheme adjustments that could force Brees to make more throws into contested windows, however, Jackson and Gipson have to finish on the ball. Brees wants to throw in-breakers and seams. And Chicago needs to turn the ball over on defense to win this game.

How the Saints can beat the Bears

1. Create passing-game matchups with Alvin Kamara

Assuming Kamara is cleared to play Sunday, the Bears will have to limit the Saints' split-flow zone schemes, which create natural daylight or cutback lanes. New Orleans needs to look for Kamara as a passing-game option when he is flexed from the formation in empty sets. This is where coach Sean Payton can find matchups for Kamara versus man coverage and Quarters. Clear out the boundary and create that space for Kamara to run the choice/option route on a high-percentage throw for Brees. In the Week 8 game at Soldier Field, Kamara caught nine passes for 96 yards. That's how the Saints can create chunk plays.

2. Make Trubisky throw into contested windows vs. Cover 2-man coverage

The Saints will play Quarters and single-high man coverage, and we know defensive coordinator Dennis Allen can bring pressure. But I love their Cover 2-man schemes, which pair an ultra-aggressive secondary with a defensive front that can get home to the quarterback. This season, the Saints have played Cover 2-man on a league-leading 27.8% of coverage snaps. That allows them to scheme stunts on the defensive line, while playing a trail technique in the secondary with two safeties lurking over the top or cutting intermediate routes. And with that, they can restrict the windows for Trubisky. Make him throw into those windows with the safeties in a position to drive top-down on the ball. Look for tips and overthrows there from a quarterback who has limitations in the pocket.

(6) Cleveland Browns vs. (3) Pittsburgh Steelers

Info: 8:15 p.m. ET, Sunday, Jan. 10, NBC
Line: PIT -6; O/U 47.5
FPI's prediction: PIT by 6

How the Browns can beat the Steelers

1. Stay on script with a new playcaller

With coach Kevin Stefanski out due to COVID-19 protocols, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call plays against one of the NFL's best defenses. Yes, the Browns will most likely script their first 15 plays, but they need to stay true to the identity of what they want to do. That means two- and three-tight end sets, gap and zone runs with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, plus the defined throws for Baker Mayfield off play-action. I want to see how Van Pelt calls this game once we get into the second quarter and beyond. Can he stay with the game plan or do we see Mayfield throwing with more volume as a dropback passer, especially if the Browns fall behind by a score or two?

2. Play zone coverage against the Steelers' passing game

I don't love the matchups here for the Browns' secondary versus Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and James Washington. And Pittsburgh will use the quick-game concepts to scheme up man coverage. That allows Ben Roethlisberger to get the ball out on catch-and-run opportunities. Because of that, I would play more Quarters and Cover 6 if I ran the Browns' defense. Get to depth at the second level and drive on the shallows, crossers, slants and smokes against a Steelers pass offense that needs to use more tendency-breaking routes in the tree.

How the Steelers can beat the Browns

1. Scheme throws for Roethlisberger vs. split-safety coverage

We know the Steelers will throw quick passes and mirrored concepts on Sunday night. And if Roethlisberger does get man coverage looks, he will throw the one-on-one verticals outside. However, with the anticipation that we do see more split-safety zone from Cleveland, I believe Pittsburgh will have opportunities to target the top of the secondary with concepts that create voids for Roethlisberger to attack. It's no different than the second half of the Week 16 game versus the Colts' split-safety shells: The Steelers can scheme up the coverage to create Hi-Lo stretch options and deep middle-of-the-field throws.

2. Win early-down situations on defense

Set an edge in the run game and limit the early-down play-action throws from Mayfield. If you are the Steelers, a team that held the NFL's highest blitz rate in 2020 at 40.5%, getting Mayfield into third-down passing situations has to be a top goal. That's when the Steelers will bring slot pressure, use late movement and disguise in the secondary, and then put their secondary in a position to steal a throw. But, to do that, their defense has to win on the edge versus zone run schemes and close the deep windows that Mayfield wants to target on play-action throws from 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), 12 (1 RB, 2 TE) and 13 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) personnel groupings.

(7) Indianapolis Colts vs. (2) Buffalo Bills

Info: 1:05 p.m. ET, Saturday, Jan. 9, CBS
Line: BUF -6.5; O/U 51
FPI's prediction: BUF by 6

How the Colts can beat the Bills

1. Run the ball with production out of 12 personnel with Jonathan Taylor

During Weeks 13 through 17, the rookie played his best football of the season, rushing for 651 yards at an average of 6.7 yards per carry. We saw his stellar traits, too -- running behind his pads, stacking moves together and bringing big-play juice to the Colts' run game. And behind a really solid offensive front, Taylor averaged 4.5 yards per carry before first contact during that stretch, while ripping off 10 explosive play rushes (carries of 15 or more yards).

I would get into 12 personnel on Saturday -- 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR -- against the Bills' front seven and lean on the zone run game with Taylor. Create movement off the combo blocks versus the Bills' defensive tackles and open up daylight for Taylor against a unit that allowed 119.7 rushing yards per game. Efficiency and production in the run game would open up opportunities for coach Frank Reich to scheme play-action throws for quarterback Philip Rivers against Buffalo's two-deep zone coverages.

2. Have the linebackers close the middle of the field for Josh Allen

The Colts have one of the NFL's most defined defenses; they are a zone-heavy team that leans on its Cover 2 shells. During the regular season, Indianapolis played the most Cover 2 snaps in the league -- 29.5% -- and that caters to its personnel at the linebacker position. With Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke, the Colts have two off-ball linebackers with top-end movement traits who can drop to depth, sink under the deep in-breakers and force Allen to throw the ball underneath. There is alignment, assignment and zone discipline here, paired with two highly disruptive interior defenders -- DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart -- who can muddy the pocket against Allen on dropback throws, limiting his ability to escape and make second-reaction plays.

How the Bills can beat the Colts

1. Brian Daboll must scheme up the Colts' zone coverages

The Bills' offensive coordinator is one of the NFL's best in terms of scheming up coverages. And I am betting on Daboll to roll out his zone beaters to manipulate second-level defenders, while creating both space and throwing windows for Allen. This season, Allen has completed 74% of his passes versus zone coverage, with a QBR of 84.2 on those throws, second best in the league behind Patrick Mahomes. Look for deep in-breakers, Hi-Lo reads and the play-action/RPO throws that allow him to look up Stefon Diggs on the quick glance routes. And if the Colts do jump into more man coverage, Daboll will have answers there, too, including condensed formations, crossers and overs. That's a matchup advantage for the Bills against the Colts' secondary.

2. Heat up Rivers with pressure

The Bills are a core split-safety defense, playing Cover 2 and Quarters (Cover 4) in the secondary. But don't forget about their ability to bring pressure versus Rivers. This season, they have a blitz rate of 33.2%, which ranks ninth in the NFL. That means zone pressure and simulated pressure. And I would get after Rivers in dropback passing situations. Move around linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, create confusion in the protection count and speed up the process for Rivers. With a secondary featuring top-tier corner Tre'Davious White and the best safety combo in the league in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills need to steal a throw or two from Rivers.

(6) Los Angeles Rams vs. (3) Seattle Seahawks

Info: 4:40 p.m. ET, Saturday, Jan. 9, Fox
Line: SEA -3.5; O/U 42.5
FPI's prediction: SEA by 3

How the Rams can beat the Seahawks

1. Tempo and movement passes from Sean McVay

Whether we see Jared Goff or John Wolford at quarterback on Saturday, I don't think the offensive scheme will change for the Rams against the Seattle defense. Why do they need tempo? That's a counter to the Seahawks' pressure stunts, as it forces safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Bobby Wagner to define their blitz alignments before the snap. And with the movement passes, the Rams can get the quarterback outside of the pocket to throw layered reads. In the Week 16 head-to-head matchup, Seattle played Cover 3 on 54.9% of coverage snaps. McVay needs answers here, and I like moving the pocket with Goff/Wolford throwing to flood routes that can create coverage voids.

2. Pressure on Russell Wilson ... again

In the two head-to-head matchups this season, Brandon Staley's Rams defense sacked Wilson 11 times. That's a big number. How are the Rams doing it? With five-man pressure fronts, twists/stunts and schemed one-on-one pass-rush matchups for Aaron Donald. That has allowed this L.A. defense to set a blueprint on how to keep Wilson in the pocket, containing rushers and generating interior pressure that eliminates his ability to step up. Now, combine that with a disciplined secondary -- which can play with urgency in split-safety coverages -- while "locking" Jalen Ramsey versus DK Metcalf. That's good football, and it's why the Rams have a chance to pull off the upset.

How the Seahawks can beat the Rams

1. Find more rhythm and timing in the passing game