It takes an entire roster to win games in the NFL, but there always seems to be one player who plays a bigger role than others in key clashes. These are not necessarily stars, although they will be extremely important in the Wild Card Round.
Fans should expect plenty of close scores in the first four playoff games. According to Vegas Insider, three of the battles have a spread of less than a field goal. The other matchup—San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals—will be more unpredictable thanks to a high probability of rain, according to Wunderground.com.
As a result, each game will come down to a few plays and the performance of some key players. These X-factors will go a long way in deciding the outcome in each contest.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts: OLB Justin Houston
The Chiefs have struggled mightily down the stretch with five losses in their last seven games. The defense that did not allow a 20-point game during the 9-0 start has now given up at least that much in six of seven games.
Fortunately, the unit is expecting to get a boost from linebacker Justin Houston, who will return to action against the Colts, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Wesseling also points out how important Houston is to the pass rush:
Justin Houston averaged 1.4 sacks per game through Week 7. Entire #Chiefs D is averaging 1.3 sacks per game since.— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 3, 2014
The linebacker was paired with Tamba Hali to be the dominant tandem in the NFL early in the year, but that has not been the case in recent weeks. As a result, the entire defense fell apart.
If Houston can come back to full strength, however, he has the ability to really have a large effect on the game. His effort can slow down Andrew Luck offensively and give the Chiefs a legitimate chance to win this game on the road.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: ILB Mychal Kendricks
Mychal Kendricks was simply excellent against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17. He not only led the team with 12 tackles, but he also added an interception and a forced fumble to help the Eagles win the NFC East.
However, his task gets much harder against the New Orleans Saints as he will likely be asked to cover All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. Considering there will be a difference of seven inches when the two line up, Kendricks could have his hands full.
Still, the second-year player has received a lot of praise from around the league. Most recently, Saints quarterback Drew Brees discussed the linebacker's ability, via Tim McManus of PhillyMag.com:
I think he is a heck of a football player. He’s good in every aspect of the game: in the run game, in the pass game, as a coverage linebacker, as a pass-rusher. He’s just a great football player. He is extremely instinctive and has a nose for the football. You would just sit back and say, "Man, this guy is all over the place. He’s a great football player."
Kendricks will need to be all over the place in order to contain Graham and the rest of the New Orleans offense. Otherwise, it could end up being a long day in Philadelphia.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: RB Giovani Bernard
Although BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the Bengals starting running back and leading rusher this season, Giovani Bernard is the one that the Chargers should fear.
The rookie has a unique ability to come up with a big play from anywhere on the field. Elliot Harrison of NFL.com put it another way:
If Gio Bernard was any more explosive he'd be Alec Baldwin's temper. And mine with iPhone autocorrect.— Elliot Harrison (@Harrison_NFL) December 29, 2013
Bernard is great both as a runner and receiver, ranking second on the team behind A.J. Green with 1,209 yards from scrimmage. He has a lot of ability with the ball in his hands and he can take over a game if the Chargers are not careful.
Still, he has been limited as a runner in the past three games with only 75 rushing yards on 39 carries. If San Diego can find a way to bottle him up, it will have a good chance of keeping the Bengals offense in check.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers: QB Colin Kaepernick
Obviously, a quarterback is rarely considered an "X-factor" due to the fact that he usually has a major role throughout the game. However, Colin Kaepernick is a different story as the 49ers pass the ball the fewest in the NFL.
The third-year quarterback has been a bit inconsistent this year, although his play will not necessarily make or break a game for San Francisco. Of course, a strong game gives the team a good chance of winning.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Kaepernick has had the two best games of his career against the Packers. In the playoffs a year ago, he rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns. In Week 1 of this season, he passed for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
Additionally, he is also playing better as of late since Michael Crabtree returned from an Achilles injury, according to ESPN Stats and Info:
Colin Kaepernick: 62% completion pct since Michael Crabtree's return from injury; had 57% comp pct in first 11 games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2014
If he can continue his strong play against Green Bay, even Aaron Rodgers might not be able to help the team keep up.
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