X-Factors to Watch for in the 2014 NFL Wild Card Round
The tournament has been set.
In the AFC, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers advanced to the playoffs.
Joining them are the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC.
On Feb. 2, two of these teams will meet in New Jersey with the Lombardi Trophy on the line, but first they must survive the postseason.
That postseason kicks off with this week's Wild Card Round, and here's a look at the players who will go a long way toward deciding who advances.
T.Y. Hilton, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts
There isn't a harder team in the NFL to figure out than the Indianapolis Colts. Just when the Colts looked like they were done as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the team reeled off three straight impressive wins to close the year.
With that said, it isn't hard to see that the loss of wide receiver Reggie Wayne to an ACL tear has thrown a huge monkey wrench into the Colts offense.
That's largely because no one has stepped in to pick up his slack.
Many hoped second-year pro T.Y. Hilton would answer the call, especially after the youngster reeled off back-to-back 100-yard games after Wayne went down.
After that came six straight slow weeks, a streak that ended in Week 17 with 11 grabs for 155 yards.
That game may actually have been an effort to "force" the ball to Hilton. He's going to be needed this week against Kansas City.
With the Colts unable to run the ball with any real consistency this year, a playoff run is going to be keyed by the arm of Andrew Luck, and Luck in turn needs his top target on top of his game against the Chiefs' 25th-ranked pass defense.
Justin Houston, Outside Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
During a nine-game winning streak to open the season, pundits regarded the Kansas City defense alongside the best in the NFL.
Not coincidentally, outside linebacker Justin Houston had 11 sacks over that stretch.
Then Houston got hurt, the Kansas City pass rush fell apart as opponents keyed on Tamba Hali, and the Chiefs started getting carved up like all that meat we just ate for the holidays.
Houston hasn't played since Week 12, and now the Chiefs have slipped all the way to 24th in the NFL in total defense.
The hope is that the third-year pro will be ready to face the Colts and not a moment too soon.
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said the following about Houston, per Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star:
I don’t know how much it changes (what we do offensively), but certainly we know that both of those guys have 11 sacks apiece. With Tamba (Hali) on one side and Justin (Houston) on the other, it’s a great duo ... our tackles have played well, for the most part, all season so it will be a huge challenge for both of those guys to get those guys blocked.
The Chiefs were unable to generate any real pressure on Luck two weeks ago, and the result was a 23-7 Colts rout in Kansas City.
Terron Armstead, Offensive Tackle, New Orleans Saints
However, all is not well as the Saints travel to face the Philadelphia Eagles.
The left side of the Saints offensive line continues to be an issue, largely because of the struggles of youngster Terron Armstead.
With Charles Brown struggling for much of the year, the Saints turned to Armstead in the hopes he would provide a spark.
He has...to opposing defenders.
Armstead has allowed three sacks, a hit and three hurries in two games. As bad as Brown's been, Armstead may actually be worse.
If the Saints are going to get the win on the road, then Armstead is going to have to improve his play considerably. Luckily, he may have caught a break of sorts, as the Eagles are only a so-so 20th in the NFL with 37 sacks this season.
Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans, Linebackers, Philadelphia Eagles
The middle of the field is incredibly important when playing against the New Orleans Saints. Not only is tight end Jimmy Graham a huge part of the offense, but so are screens and short passes to running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
That puts a great amount of pressure on linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks when the Saints come calling on Saturday night.
Both Kendricks and Ryans have been integral parts of the Philadelphia defense. Ryans paced the team with 127 tackles in 2013, while Kendricks was an absolute beast down the stretch during Philly's run to the NFC East crown.
However, both players have had their struggles in coverage this season. In fact, among inside linebackers, only Craig Robertson of the Cleveland Browns ranked lower than Kendricks in pass coverage this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
If Sproles and Thomas are able to gain a lot of yardage after the catch, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to win the game.
Andy Dalton, Quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals
It may seem an easy out to point to a team's quarterback as an "X-factor" leading up to a playoff game, and in some regards, that's true.
However, it's also true that there is no player more pivotal where the Cincinnati Bengals' playoff hopes are concerned than quarterback Andy Dalton.
In the Bengals' 11 wins this season, Dalton has completed 64 percent of his passes, posting a passer rating of over 100 while throwing 27 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
In their five losses, the third-year pro's completion percentage drops by over five points. Dalton has thrown only six touchdown passes against nine interceptions in those games, with a passer rating of only 67.7.
Simply put, as goes Dalton, so go the Bengals. If he's on, they could easily win the Super Bowl. If he's off, the Bengals could be one-and-done for a third straight season.
The last time Dalton faced the Chargers, he was neither great nor terrible, throwing for 190 yards and a touchdown in a seven-point Week 13 win.
Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright, Cornerbacks, San Diego Chargers
On the heels of five wins in their past six games, the San Diego Chargers are in the playoffs.
However, if the Bolts are going to stick around the postseason for more than a cup of coffee, then the San Diego pass defense is going to have to get better in a hurry.
The Chargers rank 29th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing nearly 260 yards a game through the air.
San Diego's starters at cornerback, Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright, both rank outside the top 100 at their position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Chargers don't have a qualifying player on the roster inside the top 90.
That doesn't bode well heading into a matchup with A.J. Green and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Chargers didn't have much luck with Green back in Week 13. Despite Dalton throwing for less than 200 yards, Green still hauled in five catches for 83 yards and a score.
Mike Neal, Outside Linebacker, Green Bay Packers
The last time the Green Bay Packers faced the San Francisco 49ers in a playoff game, things did not go so well for the green and gold.
They did not go well because the Packers did a horrific job defending the zone read, resulting in a record-breaking day on the ground from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
With last year's goat (Erik Walden) now in Indy, it's fourth-year linebacker Mike Neal who will man the proverbial hot seat against the 49ers.
Neal's job is essentially simple: set the edge and keep Kaepernick from doing this.
That could be a tall order for the 26-year-old, who was pressed into action after Nick Perry was benched by defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Neal had six tackles last week against the Bears, but that effort came in a game where Matt Forte ran for 110 yards and scored two touchdowns.
It's going to take a better job than that for the Pack to get the win.
Frank Gore, Running Back, San Francisco 49ers
From a quick glance at their records, it would seem that the San Francisco 49ers will make short work of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
The Niners are as hot as any team in the NFL, winners of six straight. The Packers needed a last-second touchdown heave from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to make the postseason at all.
And there's the problem. That Rodgers fellow.
The Packers are not an 8-7-1 football team with Rodgers back under center. Especially at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.
It's important that the San Francisco 49ers establish early on that this is going to be their type of game, and that means getting running back Frank Gore on track.
To his credit, Gore has been as reliable as ever in his ninth NFL season, topping 1,100 rushing yards for the fourth time in five years.
However, the sledding wasn't easy in the first meeting between these teams back in Week 1. Gore scored a touchdown in a six-point win, but the 30-year-old managed only 44 yards on 21 carries.