Unsung heroes make all the difference in the postseason. Players like Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III are going to get their attention, but it is the less-heralded difference-makers who will carry a team to victory.
The Wild Card Round is often when you see those X-factors come out in full force, because there is often more variety in terms of team quality and game tempo than you will find later on in the postseason.
In anticipation of this weekend's four Wild Card Games, here are the X-factors who will play a key role in the outcome.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
Cincinnati wide receiver Brandon Tate
Other than A.J. Green, Tate is the best downfield weapon the Bengals have to throw to. He had just 13 catches during the regular season for 211 yards and one touchdown. It is not a huge sample size, but it is enough to draw some conclusions.
Tate's average of 16.2 yards per reception was easily the best on the team. He had his best game since Week 2 last week against the Ravens, catching three passes for 53 yards, including a 44-yard reception.
The Texans are a wounded animal right now, especially in the secondary. They have allowed nine touchdown passes in the last four weeks. Even more alarming is the fact they don't have an interception during that stretch.
Since the Texans know they have to line up and stop Green, there are going to be opportunities for other receivers to make a play. Tate can line up in the slot and find the seam in that secondary for a big play that opens this game up.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Green Bay linebacker Brad Jones
Green Bay's defensive turnaround this season has gone largely unnoticed because the offense is so good, but the Packers are better equipped to win a Super Bowl now than they were when they won 15 games last year because of their defensive improvement.
Jones is one of many linebackers the Packers shuffle into the mix. He has been one of the most invaluable players on the defense, recording 77 combined tackles, four passes defended, four tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble.
Everyone on the Packers linebacker crew is going to be eyeing Adrian Peterson, obviously. Jones wasn't around much in the team's Week 17 loss at Minnesota, but prior to that, he had 37 tackles and one sack in a four-game span.
Playing in front of a raucous hometown crowd, expect Jones to be the spy that keeps Peterson and the Vikings offense in check.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
Running back Bernard Pierce
The greatest weapon the Ravens have to use in this matchup is their running game. Ray Rice is one of the best all-around running backs in the league.
The Colts have a small defensive line that can be picked apart, which is evident by the 352 rushing yards they gave up to Kansas City two weeks ago. They also finished 29th in the league in run defense, with more than 137 yards allowed per game.
However, one weapon the Ravens have been incorporating into the game plan a lot lately is Bernard Pierce. He has run for 212 yards in the last two weeks. His performance, combined with the greatness of Rice, should give the Ravens all the motivation they need to run the ball down the Colts' throats.
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins
Washington wide receiver Aldrick Robinson
Like the aforementioned Brandon Tate, Robinson's sample size of production isn't huge. But what he lacks in overall numbers, he makes up for in upside.
Robinson caught only 11 passes this season, but he averaged 21.5 yards per catch and had three touchdowns. His three touchdown catches were tied for third on the team.
Seattle's defense is vicious. It's fast, physical and the secondary is ruthless. The Redskins need to find openings down the field however they can. One way to do that is by using the play-action pass, which they do so well, and getting defensive backs to commit to stopping the run.
That will open things up for players like Robinson to do what he does best: run down the field and make big plays.
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