We're taking a look at one critical matchup in every NFL playoff game, starting with Saturday's wild-card contests …
Cowboys offensive line vs. Seahawks' defensive line
Dallas doesn't need any reminder of the danger posed by Seattle's front four. In the Seahawks' 24-13 win over the Cowboys, the defense sacked Dak Prescott five times and only allowed third-down conversions of three of 13 attempts.
Improved protection will be a point of emphasis for the Cowboys, which ranked second-to-last in the NFL with 56 sacks allowed. Both Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark (13 sacks) and defensive tackle Jarran Reed (10 1/2) posted career highs in the stat this season, and Seattle has been able to generate pressure with its front-four alone.
But for two teams with similar offensive formulas, the game could be decided by which side is able to dictate terms with its hard-charging running game. Ezekiel Elliott, who finished as the NFL's rushing champion for the second time in three years, gashed the Seahawks for 126 yards on 16 carries in the first meeting and is coming off an extra week's rest after sitting out Week 17.
Dallas' offensive line, however, is not at 100 percent. Left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo is listed as doubtful with an ankle, while left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin were limited in practice earlier this week.
Controlling the line of scrimmage will be a focal point for Seattle, but the defense also will need a swarming presence with its second-level defenders, as Elliott led the NFL with 950 yards after contact. But the presence of K.J. Wright, who missed the first meeting, should aid in the effort.
Colts WR T.Y. Hilton vs. Texans' secondary
After posting 199 yards on nine catches in Indianapolis' 24-21 win at Houston in Week 14, Hilton said NRG Stadium was his "second home." That comment didn't irked Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who this week said the remark "was for clowns."
On Saturday, it will either be time to turn over the deed or cue the circus music.
Hilton has been playing through an ankle injury that Colts coach Frank Reich said normally would have sidelined him had the final stretch of the season not consisted of must-win games. But the four-time Pro Bowl receiver didn't look any worse for the wear, recording 47 catches for 840 yards in the final seven games.
With Indianapolis moving Hilton around, Houston could need its full arsenal of defensive backs to keep the speedy target under wraps. Joseph in particular has experience sparring with Hilton, as the two got into a scuffle last year in the regular-season finale and both were fined.
The Texans could emphasize jamming Hilton at the line, as he is still listed as questionable for the game. But help over the top will also be needed to prevent him from connecting with Andrew Luck on the kind of big plays with which he has repeatedly burned this defense.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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