The Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts didn’t clinch playoff spots until Week 17.
Now they are each one win away from reaching their respective conference championship games.
The Eagles and Colts did their part in helping wild-card weekend live up to its name, eliminating a pair of No. 3 seeds in the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans.
While Indianapolis won convincingly versus Houston, Philadelphia needed a missed 43-yard field goal from Cody Parkey that was tipped at the line, hit both the upright and the crossbar and then bounced outward in order to hang on for the 16-15 win over Chicago.
In the end, three of the four games came down to the final minutes, with the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers both surviving late scares.
So what can we expect heading in to the divisional round?
Let’s look at four key matchups that could factor heavily in to this week’s outcomes.
Andrew Luck versus the Chiefs’ secondary
It’s no secret that Patrick Mahomes led the league with 50 touchdown passes in an MVP-worthy campaign.
Do you know who was second on that list?
Luck threw a career-high 39 touchdown passes this season – more than Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and Tom Brady.
He also completed a career-high 67.3 per cent of his attempts while throwing for 4,593 yards.
Luck is the obvious favourite to earn Comeback Player of the Year honours after missing all of last season.
It’s one thing to come back and play at a high level. It’s another thing entirely to put up better numbers than he ever did before.
The Colts upgraded the positions around Luck over the previous two off-seasons to make sure he was in position to succeed when he returned. They also hit a home run with the hiring of head coach Frank Reich, who was coming off a Super Bowl run as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.
All of those changes have helped Luck thrive this season, including a revamped offensive line that has conceded pressures on only 22 per cent of Luck’s drop backs this season including playoffs, which is the fourth-best rate in the NFL.
There has been plenty of talk about whether or not an Indianapolis defence that has ranked among the best in the NFL since Week 7 can slow down Mahomes.
Maybe there should be a lot more conversations about whether or not the Chiefs defence can slow down Luck and the surging Colts.
Ezekiel Elliott versus the Rams’ front seven
Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 5.3 yards per carry while running for 137 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 24-22 win over the Seahawks.
He also had four catches for 32 yards.
In order to have any chance against the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas is going to need a big game from Elliott.
The Rams defence ranked 23rd in the NFL with an average of 122.3 rushing yards allowed per game this season. According to Football Outsiders, they ranked 28th in DVOA against the run.
If the Cowboys are going to reach the NFC Championship game, it will likely have to be on the shoulders of their Pro Bowl running back.
Patriots’ running backs versus Chargers’ hybrid defence
The Chargers defence made a statement in the first three quarters of their 23-17 win over Baltimore.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s hybrid nickel/dime defence absolutely shut down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack.
By substituting defensive backs in for middle linebackers, Bradley took away the middle of the field and dared Jackson to run against them or try to throw outside the hash marks.
While Tom Brady doesn’t have Jackson’s mobility, he is an experienced, accurate quarterback that thrives when he gets in to rhythm throwing short to intermediate passing routes.
It will be very interesting to see how Brady and the Patriots attack the Chargers defence.
There is a good chance their success will depend largely on the play of running backs Sony Michel and James White.
Look for New England to rotate between different looks in order to try to catch the defence off guard.
The Patriots will use extra linemen and bunch formations when Michel runs the football in between the tackles, then try to spread out the Chargers with White as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the rest of the coaching staff are excellent at game planning to attack the perceived weaknesses of specific opponents.
It will be very interesting to see how they attack the Chargers on Sunday.
Drew Brees versus the Eagles’ secondary
Nick Foles and the Eagles have won four straight playoff games, including a Super Bowl, dating back to last season.
Still, it seems like a stretch to think Foles and company can go in to New Orleans and win a playoff game against a rested No. 1 seed this weekend.
While Foles will face another tough test versus a motivated Saints defence, the most intriguing matchup will be on the other side of the football with Drew Brees taking on the Philadelphia defence.
When these teams met on Nov. 18, Brees completed 73.3 per cent of his pass attempts for 363 yards and four touchdowns and no picks.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brees went 9-of-12 for 121 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles when throwing into tight windows, which are defined as windows where the receiver has created one or fewer yards of separation against their defender.
That 75 per cent completion rate is the highest single-game rate on tight-window throws by any quarterback with at least 10 attempts over the last two seasons.
Can Brees do it again versus Philadelphia this Sunday?
If he does, New Orleans could be headed back to the NFC Championship game for the first time since they won it all back in 2009.