NFL Playoffs 2014: X-Factors in Each Wild Card Matchup

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NFL Playoffs 2014: X-Factors in Each Wild Card Matchup
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
New Orleans needs Pierre Thomas to run effectively.

NFL Wild Card Weekend won't just come down to the stars; postseason games also hinge on the performances of some less-prominent players.

In the consummate team sport, everyone must be at their best to win in the playoffs. It doesn't always matter which is the better team in this win-or-go-home portion of the season. Exploiting the right matchup or peaking at the right time could be enough to advance toward the Super Bowl.

The squads playing in the opening round have the toughest tasks ahead; they have to win four straight to lift the Lombardi Trophy, and the last teams into the postseason may have to do it all on the road.

In order to do so, these teams will have to be opportunistic and lucky as well as good.

 

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts: T.Y. Hilton

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In order for the Indianapolis Colts to succeed, they're going to have to pass against the Kansas City Chiefs, lest Indy pin its playoff hopes on Donald Brown's legs.

Unfortunately, the Colts won't have Reggie Wayne, who went down with a torn ACL in Week 7. Without its No. 1 receiving option and that veteran presence on the outside, the team is at the mercy of an erratic corps of wideouts.

Look at how heavily Indy's fate this season rests on the performance of T.Y. Hilton:

REC YDS AVG TD
In Wins 57 741 13.0 5
In Losses 25 342 13.7 0

ESPN.com

Obviously the counting stats were going to be lower in the losses simply by virtue of the Colts going 11-5. That surely incorporates some sample size issues into this examination, but it is significant to note that while Hilton has actually seen a very slight uptick in yards per catch in defeat, he has not found the end zone at all.

Standing just 5'9", Hilton is not your ideal red-zone weapon, but Luck and Indy are better when Hilton is stretching the defense deep and capitalizing with big plays. If he can threaten KC deep and possibly score, he'll make things easier for the rest of the Colts offense.

 

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: Pierre Thomas

Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Let's start with another set of splits, this time highlighting Drew Brees' struggles on the road.

CMP% YPA TD INT RAT
Home 73.6 9.12 27 3 126.3
Road 64.0 6.86 12 9 84.8

NFL.com

While the New Orleans Saints do have to travel in the postseason, they fortunately face a Philadelphia Eagles team that ranked dead last in passing yards allowed this season. Even so, the Saints will have to balance their deep attack with some ground game in order to stay consistent.

Mark Ingram leads New Orleans with 4.9 yards per carry, but the offense is at its most versatile when Pierre Thomas can pick up healthy gains running the ball. Thomas actually finished the season with 77 receptions, six more than fellow playmaker Darren Sproles; Ingram has never been much of a receiver and caught just seven passes.

If Thomas can move the chains, New Orleans can move that much faster offensively because it won't have to substitute running backs situationally. That will put even more pressure on Philly's already overextended defense and make Brees' life easier.

 

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: Adam Jones

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As Philip Rivers rebounded after a disappointing 2012 season, Keenan Allen made an unlikely push for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He finished the season with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, emerging as the San Diego Chargers' clear-cut top receiver.

Allen will be the guy the Cincinnati Bengals have to contain to beat San Diego's high-powered offense, a task which falls to Adam Jones.

Leon Hall is Cincy's go-to corner, but he was lost for the season after hurting his Achilles. That left Jones and Terence Newman, who then sprained his MCL and missed the final three games of the regular season.

Newman's timetable puts him on track to return against San Diego, but Jones will still match up with Allen. Considering he held Antonio Brown to just 66 yards on five catches (albeit one for a touchdown) in his first week without either corner, Pacman is up for the job.

Though Allen has four inches on Jones, the corner has no qualms about playing against a bigger receiver. How he fares will determine San Diego's chances of pulling off the upset.

 

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers: James Starks

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If the Green Bay Packers want to run at all against the staunch San Francisco 49ers, they better not rely on their first-year bell cow.

Eddie Lacy led all rookies and all Packers with 1,178 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, but he didn't do so by ripping off big gains. He's a prototypical between-the-tackles runner, averaging 4.1 yards on his 284 carries, only three of which he took for more than 20 yards.

Running Lacy into the line will allow the Niners linebackers to play downhill, which will result in more tackles for loss and more difficult passing situations. Green Bay needs a runner who can hit the second and third levels in order to be productive.

On 195 fewer carries, James Starks had twice as many 20-yard runs as Lacy did, racking up 493 yards on 5.5 yards per rush. He doesn't have game-breaking speed or agility, but he has enough to make some guys miss; better yet, he has the smarts to take what the blocking scheme allows and what the defense gives him.

SF won't give much, but that's why it's so imperative that the Packers can hit the holes that are available.  If Starks can make the Niners respect the run, Aaron Rodgers will have a much better time operating through the air.

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