Top eight matchups for NFL Wild Card weekend

The playoffs are here. Four big games to decide who continues their quest for the Lombardi Trophy. How will the battle of backups play out in the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders AFC Wild Card game? Can the New York Giants continue to dominate on defense? This time against an elite-level Green Bay Packers passing attack.

These are the two biggest questions we see heading into Wild Card weekend. Though, there’s a lot more matchups we can focus on as the playoffs start.

How will Richard Sherman perform against his former teammate in the Seattle Seahawks’ matchup with the Detroit Lions? Can the Miami Dolphins’ defense slow down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynamic passing attack?

These are among the top-eight matchups for the first weekend of playoff football. Get excited. It’s for real. Have fun. And enjoy the drama. We’re here to help you preview all of this and more below.

1. Golden Tate vs Richard Sherman

Former teammates going at it with an opportunity to advance to the divisional playoffs. Two highly-passionate players who have in the past considered themselves friends. This promises to be an absolute blast when the Detroit Lions travel to CenturyLink to take on the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night.

After struggling to do anything of substance over the first month-plus of the season, Tate has picked it up big time for the Lions.

In fact, Tate boasts a tremendous 71 percent catch rate during that 11-game span. Needless to say, he reconnected with Matthew Stafford a great deal as the regular season drew on. It won’t necessarily be easy for Tate to continue this performance against Sherman.

Not known for tailing the opposition’s No. 1 receiver, Sherman has taken on that role a bit more recently with Earl Thomas sidelined to injury. And he’s excelled big time in doing so. In fact, the future Hall of Famer has actually lined up in the slot on occasion since Thomas went down to injury.

All said, Sherman has allowed a sub 50 percent catch rate and a 62.2 quarterback rating when targeted on the season. Should he shut down Tate, it might force Matthew Stafford into making the same mistakes that defined his career up until this year’s tremendous performance. That could go a long way in Seattle defending its homefield and advancing past Wild Card weekend.

2. Aaron Rodgers vs New York Giants defense

A lot of the focus heading into what promises to be a great playoff matchup between these two teams will surround Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. For good measure, as the two are key components in the success their respect teams have seen.

Though, unlike Rodgers and the Packers, Manning is not the primary reason New York surprised the masses by winning nine of its final 11 games. Instead, it’s been all about a previously downtrodden defense stepping up big time and dominating opponents throughout the second half of the regular season.

After finishing the 2015 campaign dead last in total defense and 30th in points allowed, the Giants improved to 10th and second respectively this past regular season. Primarily due to the play of Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins in the secondary, the Giants’ defense has stepped it up even more recently. Over the course of the team’s final four games, its defense allowed an average of 11.7 points while forcing nine turnovers.

In what has to be considered an elite versus elite matchup, the Giants are now forced to go up against a quarterback that’s playing at the highest level of anyone we’ve seen at this position in the modern history of the game.

Rodgers finished the regular season with 4,428 passing yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns. He also completed nearly 66 percent of his passes while throwing just seven interceptions. In fact, Rodgers has tallied 15 touchdowns and zero picks during Green Bay’s current six-game winning streak.

3. Lamar Miller vs Raiders run defense

After missing the final two games of the regular season, Miller will be back in action against the Oakland Raiders in the wild card round. That’s absolutely huge news for a Houston Texans team that’s now going to have to rely on the previously benched Brock Osweiler to start with Tom Savage out due to a concussion. Simply put, the Texans need Miller to dominate on the ground in order to come away with a win.

For his part, Miller has been good this season. He put up his second 1,000-yard rushing season in the past three years and averaged a solid four yards per rush. Though, none of what Miller did on the field in his first year with Houston was sexy. He hit the 100-yard plateau just three times in 14 games and failed to cross the 70-yard threshold six times. In order for Houston to do anything of substance on offense, Miller has to be consistently good on Saturday.

The positive news for Houston here is that Oakland yielded the 10th-most rushing yards in the NFL during the regular season. It also gave up 4.5 yards per rush and 18 scores on the ground.

Should Miller take advantage of this, it will enable a turnover-prone Osweiler to manage the game. After all, expecting him to do much of anything without a solid rushing attack is foolhardy.

4. Antonio Brown vs Byron Maxwell

The Miami Dolphins’ defense played extremely well for the majority of the regular season. However, its pass defense struggled at great lengths as the regular year drew to a conclusion.

Tyrod Taylor and Tom Brady combined to throw for 605 yards with six touchdowns and an absurd 123.9 quarterback rating in the final two games. This came on the heels of Miami yielding just 24 touchdowns compared to 16 picks in its first 14 games.

Interestingly enough, and pretty much to the chagrin of Philadelphia Eagles fans, Byron Maxwell is one of the major reasons why Miami’s pass defense surprised this season. He injured his ankle in the Bills game back in Week 16 and missed the team’s season finale against New England. There’s obviously a correlation here.

Miami needs the former free-agent bust to return healthy and perform at a high level against Brown if it is going to beat the hard-charging Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card round this weekend.

We’re not sitting here saying Maxwell needs to hold Brown without a catch. Instead, he must make sure that the Steelers’ top receiver doesn’t go off. Anything less than 100 receiving yards here would be win for the Dolphins.

5. Odell Beckham Jr. vs Damarious Randall

With Sam Shields placed on injured reserve following Week 1, the Green Bay Packers have struggled to find the right mix of corners to offset that big loss. Randall was slated to go up against Beckham Jr. back in October, but missed that game with a groin injury.

Despite this, the likes of Quinten Rollins, LaDarius Gunter and Micah Hyde played pretty well in holding OBJ to five catches for 56 yards on 12 targets.

With Randall himself continuing to struggle and providing way too much cushion to receivers at the line, one has to wonder if the Packers will decide that mix works better covering OBJ than the former first-round pick. Though, to expect a less-talented group of players to cointain the Giants’ top receiver for a second consecutive game seems a bit absurd.

This is the tricky situation Dom Capers’ defense finds itself in. It really is a no-win proposition.

The positive news here for a Packers pass defense that finished the regular season ranked 31st in the NFL is that OBJ himself has been too inconsistent. He tallied just four 100-yard performances during the regular season, compiling 43 percent of his receiving yards in those four games. In his other 12 outings, the dynamic young receiver averaged just 64.5 receiving yards per game.

As we mentioned above, New York’s defense has picked it up big time this season. But the team can’t realistically expect this unit to hold back Aaron Rodgers on a consistent basis come this weekend. That’s where the Eli Manning and OBJ connection comes into play. They need to be on top of their game in order for the Giants to go into Lambeau and come out with a win.

6. Taylor Decker vs Cliff Avril

One of the reasons that Matthew Stafford has played so well this season is due to the performance of his offensive line in pass protection. Starting with rookie left tackle Taylor Decker and moving over to the right side with Riley Reiff, this unit has performed at an exceptional level.

All said, Stafford was sacked 37 times, fewer than the amount he’s gone down in each of the past two seasons. That’s a credit to Decker’s performance as his blindside protector during the first-round pick’s rookie season.

While Reiff will surely have his hands full with Michael Bennett on the other side, Detroit needs Decker to step up and contain Avril. That’s magnified by the fact that Detroit will likely be forced to throw double teams to Reiff’s side of the field.

For his part, Avril continues to be among the most-consistent 4-3 defensive ends in the game. He recorded a career high 11.5 sacks during the regular season and ranked among the top-five players at his position in quarterback pressures. Should he have an impact here, it will force Stafford into a mistake or two in what promises to be a close game.

7. Chris Clark vs Khalil Mack

In order for Brock Osweiler to do anything of substance, he can’t be forced with seeing Mack in his face throughout the game. Unfortunately for the Texans, Jack Del Rio’s squad has consistently put the Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the right positions to succeed.

Tasked with dropping back into coverage too often earlier in the season, Mack has simply been asked to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback more recently. This led to the third-year player putting up 10 sacks in his final 11 games.

The good news here for Houston is that Mack heads into the playoffs having failed to record a single sack in his final three regular season outings. The bad news? Clark has been manhandled multiple times by more athletic EDGE rushers this season.

Joey Bosa as an example.

Von Miller, too.

Mack compares favorably to those two dynamic pass rushers in that he has a tremendous first step off the line and can beat tackles out on the edge. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Osweiler will need protection upfront if he wants to avoid the turnover proneness that found him benched in the first place.

Also important to note here. Oakland can’t expect to drive the distance of the field on a consistent basis with Connor Cook getting his first NFL start. If the Texans fail to give the rookie a short field on multiple occasions, there’s no reason to believe they can’t come away with a win here.

8. Marcus Gilbert vs Cam Wake

If the Dolphins plan on containing Ben Roethlisberger after struggling against the pass to end the regular season, they’ll need their pass rush to come through big time here.

Even at 34 years old, Wake did that big time during the regular season, recording 11.5 sacks and ranking among the league leaders in quarterback pressures. In fact, Wake recorded over a quarter of Miami’s pedestrian 33 sacks on the season. If he’s held in check, the Dolphins’ pass defense will be in trouble.

Surprisingly, this really isn’t a good matchup for the Dolphins. Despite being one of the least-mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, Big Ben was sacked just 17 times during the regular season. His absurdly low 3.2 percent sack rate was second-best among full-time starters.

Gilbert surely played a role in that, as he acted the part of one of the best starting right tackles in the NFL this season. If Gilbert is able to keep that up, Big Ben will dice the Dolphins up through the air, likely leading to a Steelers blowout win.