Unlike what was seemingly a watered-down slate of Wild Card action last week, the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs brings a ton of terrific individual matchups.
From Julio Jones and Richard Sherman squaring off in the NFC to Antonio Brown and Marcus Peters going up against one another in the AFC, the wide receiver-cornerback dynamic will be fun to watch this week.
Though, there’s also some tremendous trench matchups set to take place here. Can Marcus Cannon protect Tom Brady from the physical assault Jadeveon Clowney will be looking to bring to the table? How will the Green Bay Packers handle all-everything Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott?
These are among the top-eight matchups for the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
1. Julio Jones vs Richard Sherman
This is how champions are made. Go up against the best to be the best. Beat the best to hoist that Lombardi. No shortcuts. No hoping your opponent is not at 100 percent. Instead, take your game to the next level against the best competition the football world has to offer.
We saw this with Deshaun Watson and Clemson in the CFP National title, and hopefully we will see this moving forward in the NFL Playoffs.
It could very well start Saturday afternoon when the Seattle Seahawks head to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in a game that will dictate one of two teams set to meet in the NFC Championship game.
By now it’s well known that Richard Sherman likes to take away the right side of the field. It’s an area that he’s dominated over the course of his career. In fact, Sherman yielded a sub 40 quarterback rating when targeted from his natural right corner position. However, he’s not going to be able to simply sit there and take away Mohamed Sanu in hopes that DeShawn Shead somehow contains Julio Jones. That’s not how it works at this point in the playoffs.
Instead, Sherman will have to be taken out of his comfort zone in order for the Seahawks to go into Atlanta and win. This means shadowing Jones whenever possible.
That leads us to the top individual matchup for the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. Can Sherman completely shut down Jones? If so, how will that impact the performance of MVP candidate Matt Ryan under center?
Ryan still put up 32 touchdowns and six interceptions when he didn’t target Jones during the regular season. In fact, Atlanta’s top two running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, combined for 85 receptions and an absurd 81 percent catch rate.
Though, that’s much better of an alternative for Seattle’s swarming defense than allowing Ryan to go over the top with Shead covering Jones, especially with Earl Thomas injured and unable to help over the top.
That’s where picking your poison comes into play. Hope that Sherman is able to contain Jones. If so, rely on Bobby Wagner and Co. to do a darn good job against Atlanta’s running backs in the passing game. Should this happen, the Seahawks will be in a good position to come out of Atlanta with an upset win.
2. Antonio Brown vs Marcus Peters
By now it’s known that the Kansas City Chiefs have relied on Peters to shadow the opposition’s No. 1 receiver on a consistent basis throughout his two-year career. While it has led to Peters giving up some big plays here and there, he’s held up extremely well more often than not.
In two career game against Peters, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has caught 10-of-13 targets for 188 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Ben Roethlisberger boasts a 157.9 rating when going after Peters in those two games.
This may seem like a major mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor. That’s until we realize just how dominant Brown has been going up against lesser corners recently. Just look at his domination against the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round. Brown’s two first quarter touchdowns pretty much put that game to rest early (watch here).
Despite Big Ben’s success targeting Brown against Peters, the All Pro receiver is averaging less than 100 yards against his fellow Pro Bowler. If the Chiefs can keep that average come this weekend, they will stand a good chance of holding court at home. Add in one of Peters’ patented interceptions, and that would be magnified even further.
On the other hand, Brown’s game-breaking ability coupled with Peters’ struggles when it comes to giving up the big play could set into motion a repeat of what we saw last week against Miami. This is what makes the Brown-Peters dynamic so fun to watch.
3. Marcus Cannon vs Jadeveon Clowney
Finally living up to his billing as a No. 1 pick, Clowney is in absolute domination mode right now. It comes with the Texans needing it following the season-ending injury to J.J. Watt. And it comes with the team’s offense in constant flux due to pedestrian quarterback play.
Clowney’s ability to dominate will never be more important than this upcoming weekend against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Not only does he need to find himself constantly in Brady’s face, he must make a game-changing play or two.
It happened last week against the Oakland Raiders, when Clowney snuffed out a screen pass and picked off an errant Connor Cook attempt. It was a highlight-reel play, one that showed us just how much of an impact Clowney can make (more on that here).
Now set to take on a Patriots offensive line that allowed Brady to go down just 15 times in 12 starts, this is going to be Clowney’s most-difficult task of the season. With New England likely sending double teams to Nate Solder’s side in an attempt to thwart pressure from Whitney Mercilus and Brady’s blindside, Clowney will have one-on-one opportunities against Marcus Cannon. This is where Clowney must earn his stripes.
#Patriots RT Marcus Cannon hasn't allowed a sack in the 2nd half of the season, and has surrendered just nine total pressures in 7 games.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 26, 2016
That stat right there should allow Josh McDaniels and the Patriots’ offensive coaching staff the ability to leave Cannon one-on-one against Clowney. Should Cannon hold up in this role, the Patriots will win going away.
On the other hand, another game-changing play or two from the former No. 1 pick could go a long way in helping the Texans overcome one of the largest point spreads in NFL Playoff history.
4. Dak Prescott vs Aaron Rodgers
A rookie quarterback making his first NFL start against a counterpart with a Lombardi already in his trophy case. In many ways, this seems to have mismatch written all over it. Now take into account the otherworldly performance we’ve seen from Rodgers recently, and this is magnified even further.
In leading his Green Bay Packers to seven consecutive wins, Rodgers has tossed 19 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions. This has the Packers averaging 31.9 points during that span. And in reality, it’s been nothing short of spectacular to watch.
From this touchdown pass to Davante Adams to another patented Rodgers Hail Mary heave, the hall of Fame quarterback was on top of his game in Green Bay’s Wild Card win over the New York Giants last week.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Prescott enters his first playoff appearance playing absolutely nothing like a rookie. Here’s a dude that put up 29 total touchdowns compared to four interceptions during the regular season.
He completed nearly 68 percent of his passes, averaged 11.8 yards per completion and put up nearly 250 total yards per game. All this within the confines of a Cowboys offense that scored the fifth-most points in the NFL.
As we look at this specific matchup, Prescott actually seems to have the advantage here. He threw just one interception with 16 total touchdowns at home during the regular season. He’s also taking on a Packers pass defense that gave up 32 touchdowns and the second-most yards in the NFL during the regular year.
Compare that to the Packers’ 4-4 road record and there’s every reason to believe the home-standing Cowboys will come out on top Sunday. Of course, nothing can be taken for granted against a quarterback in Rodgers who might be playing his best football in what is already a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
5. Garry Gilliam vs Vic Beasley
Atlanta’s pass rush should be able to find itself in Russell Wilson’s face all day long. It’s a mismatch of epic proportions, one that Dan Quinn’s squad hopes will help ride the Falcons to the NFC Championship game.
As we saw with Ziggy Ansah absolutely dominating Seahawks left tackle George Fant Saturday night, that specific area of the field is the biggest concern for Seattle. Fant, who had never played left tackle until he joined the NFL, was simply overmatched by superior talent. This will once again force Seattle into having to throw double and triple teams to Wilson’s blindside.
At the very least, the goal here will be to keep Wilson somewhat healthy for the duration of the game. That means guards pulling over to the left side and Marcel Reece acting as an extra layer of protection.
What might seem like a solid game-plan for Seattle will end up leaving Gilliam vulnerable against a pass rusher in Vic Beasley who was among the most dominating at his position during the regular season. The second-year EDGE player recorded a league high 15.5 sacks while leading players at his position in quarterback pressures.
But more than simply pressuring Wilson, the biggest key here will be holding contain. As we’ve seen throughout his tremendous career, Seattle’s quarterback has an uncanny ability to escape pressure and make plays with his feet. That’s where Beasley’s plus-level athleticism should come into play. He can’t be baited into simply going with a wide-nine mentally and pinning his ears back. He has to think about contain. He also needs help from Atlanta’s linebackers in order to make this work.
If the Falcons are able to put consistent pressure on Wilson while making sure he doesn’t beat them with his feet, the Seahawks’ offense will be in for a long day. That’s where Beasley comes into play.
6. Tyreek Hill vs Steelers special teams
There’s something special Hill brings to the table. He does it on a consistent basis. On offense. On special teams. Pretty much in every game. He’s the game-changing threat that the Kansas City Chiefs have been missing over the past several seasons. This added dimension makes the Chiefs potentially the biggest threat to take out New England in the AFC.
Consider this: Hill, an undrafted rookie free agent from West Alabama, scored eight total touchdowns in his final six regular season games. During that span, he put up an absurd 805 all-purpose yards. Whether it was this punt return or this rushing score, Hill’s dynamic play-making ability has him heading into the playoffs as one of the true wild cards in the NFL.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pittsburgh’s punting unit was one of the best in the NFL during the regular year. Jordan Berry pinned opposing teams inside the 20 a total of 25 times and yielded just 269 return yards in 16 games.
A lot of the focus in this game will surround Alex Smith’s ability to up his game against Ben Roethlisberger. It will also surround whether Kansas City can contain an elite Steelers offense. These are two solid things to focus on.
Though, this game could very well be decided on special teams. When Kansas City does force Pittsburgh into that rare punt, it will surely be up to Hill to make the Steelers pay. If he’s able to set Alex Smith and Co. up with good field possession, it will go a long way in helping a pedestrian offense keep pace with what Pittsburgh brings to the table on that side of the ball.
7. DeAndre Hopkins vs Malcolm Butler
It finally looks like Hopkins has found that connection with Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler. After the two struggled to do anything of substance through the first 15 games of the season, Hopkins caught seven passes for 123 yards in a Week 17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. He then followed that up by putting up five receptions for 67 yards and a score in last week’s win over the Oakland Raiders.
In order for Houston to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NFL Playoff history, this connection will have to keep clicking come Saturday night. Unfortunately for the Texans, it will not be an easy task. It never is against the Patriots. That’s only magnified in a January game set to take place at Gillette Stadium. That’s only magnified going up against one of the most underrated corners in the NFL.
— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 25, 2016
We know just how much Osweiler has struggled looking outside in his first season with the Texans. He boasts a 65.5 quarterback rating when targeting receivers. Should he be held back from attempting to push forward with an improved relationship with Hopkins due to Butler’s presence, it will hurt the Texans big time. Though, he has to be smart with distribution.
New England yielded the fifth-most receiving yards to running backs during the regular season. It also gave up a 76 percent catch rate to that position. Moreover, the Pats yielded a surprisingly high 67 percent catch rate to tight ends.
This is where the Texans have to trust Osweiler to be smart with the ball. He can’t force it in Hopkins’ direction. That would likely create a couple turnovers. But he can’t avoid his top receiver altogether. A happy medium must be found here. Unfortunately, that’s something we have not seen from Osweiler thus far this season.
8. Ezekiel Elliott vs Packers run defense
There was a time not too long ago that Green Bay’s run defense was something to be feared. Here’s a unit that yielded a grand total of 171 rushing yards in its first four games. Since then, the Packers have given up 120-plus rushing yards five times.
Interestingly enough, Green Bay’s decline against the run started against Ezekiel Elliott back in Week 5. The rookie sensation tallied 157 rushing yards in that game, just 14 less than the Packers yielded in their first four outings combined
As the Packers continue to struggle against the pass (see above), their focus on the running game has taken a hit. It all goes hand in hand. Simply put, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition for Dom Capers’ defense. Stack the box, and get beat over the top by Dak Prescott. Play the pass, and watch Elliott make minced meat of your defense.
For his part, Elliott put up 100-plus total yards in 11 of his final 13 games. The only two instances he failed to reach that plateau, the MVP candidate gained 189 total yards and four touchdowns on 32 touches in blowout wins over Cleveland and Detroit. Talk about utter domination.
As bad as Green Bay’s pass defense has been, it would be smart to hone in on the running game. That would force the Cowboys to win through the air with a rookie quarterback making his first NFL Playoff start. It’s a less-than-ideal scenario with Dak Prescott under center, but it sure beats seeing Elliott go for 200-plus yards on the ground.