One single mismatch on an NFL field has the ability to make or break an entire game.
For example, when the Atlanta Falcons played the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, the young (and injury-depleted) Panthers secondary had no one who could slow down Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
The Panthers had a stout run defense and faced little trouble stopping backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and their offense moved the ball up and down the field all game, but they had no answer for Jones, who caught 12 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown.
That turned out to be the difference in a big Falcons win, marking a changing of the guard in the NFC South this season.
Let's take a look at the four divisional-round matchups and focus on one mismatch that will decide each game.
AFC Divisional Round Analysis
No. 4 Houston Texans at No. 1 New England Patriots: Saturday, January 14 at 8:15 p.m. (CBS)
The Texans passing attack is going to have a heck of a time trying to get anything going Saturday. Here are some stats that prove why:
1. Per Pro Football Focus, the Patriots have two of the top 25 cornerbacks in football this season: Malcolm Butler (fourth overall, 90.8 grade) and Logan Ryan (25th overall, 81.9 grade).
2. They'll get to face Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who ranked 34th out of 36 quarterbacks with a 41.7 grade.
3. The Patriots have proven they can slow down the Texans' No. 1 weapon, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, multiple times. Per Evan Silva of Rotoworld:
Per Odds Shark, the Texans are 15-point underdogs in a game with a 44.5-point over/under, giving them an implied total of just 14.75 points (or around two touchdowns).
Given the serious mismatch on paper, two touchdowns might be the Texans' ceiling in this game.
No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs: Sunday, January 15 at 1:05 p.m. (NBC)
Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had this to say about the Steelers' special teams unit after Pittsburgh's 30-12 win over Miami on Sunday:
The Dolphins defense was atrocious and their offense wasn’t much better, but the absolute worst unit to take the field was the Steelers special teams. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone because it’s been awful all year long.
The Steelers’ dynamic playmakers on offense and defense so far have been able to overcome the ineptitude of the special teams and the resulting bad field position. But next week they will the Kansas City Chiefs, who are very good on special teams and feature one of the best kick returners in the NFL, rookie Tyreek Hill. That alone makes the game scary for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has allowed 24.7 yards per kickoff return this season, which ranks third-worst in the NFL. They are also tied for seventh-worst with 9.6 yards allowed per punt return.
That's not a good sign against Tyreek Hill, who has three return touchdowns for the Chiefs this season.
The Steelers are in a catch-22. Kick to Hill, and you risk a game-breaking touchdown. Avoid Hill at all costs, perhaps by kicking short on kickoffs or punting out of bounds, and you're giving up yards every time.
That mismatch may be too much for the Steelers to overcome.
NFC Divisional Round Analysis
No. 3 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Atlanta Falcons: Saturday, January 14 at 4:35 p.m. (Fox)
The Seahawks offense had little trouble moving the ball in a 26-6 win over Detroit on Saturday, but fans could not help but notice one problem: The Lions defensive line harassed quarterback Russell Wilson all game, sacking him three times.
Seattle is going to have much more trouble game-planning a way to stop Falcons edge rusher Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks (15.5) and forced fumbles (six) this season.
The big problem: Seattle might have the worst offensive line in football. In fact, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus gave them that designation in an article on Wednesday. From Monson:
Nobody has invested less in their offensive line than the Seattle Seahawks, and it showed in their performance over the 2016 season, with the unit being directly responsible for some of the team’s losses. ... The success Seattle has experienced this season is entirely in spite of its offensive line, and requires QB Russell Wilson and the running backs to play stellar football to continue to overcome the unit’s deficiencies.
The Seahawks' saving grace is that they have a mobile quarterback who can avoid many pass rushes, but how long can Wilson keep that going? The guess here is that the house of cards collapses in Atlanta.
No. 4 Green Bay Packers at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys: Sunday, January 15 at 4:40 p.m. (Fox)
Running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line is a mismatch for nearly every team in the league, let alone the Packers.
Zeke rushed for 157 yards against the Pack at Lambeau Field in a 30-16 win in October. What's to stop Zeke from doing something similar on his home turf?
A successful run offense could be Dallas' best defense against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who can't do much if he's off the field.
The Cowboys had the second longest time-of-possession mark in the league (31:28), per Football Outsiders, so if they can keep that trend up through a strong run game, they'll beat the Pack and host the conference title.