The parity that dominated the NFL during the regular season also figures to manifest itself in the playoffs as the Wild Card Round features four highly competitive matchups. Each and every game could truly go either way, so it's quite likely that some under-the-radar players will step up and make some game-deciding plays.
All eight teams competing in the Wild Card Round have star players that need to play well in order for their respective teams to win, however, that alone won't be enough. Unexpected players always seem to step up and make their presence felt come playoff time, and it will be interesting to see who does so this weekend.
Here are three major X-factors that will make a huge impact on the Wild Card Round with their performances.
Justin Houston (KC)
It's easy to forget that the Kansas City Chiefs started off 9-0 in the wake of their late-season struggles, but they were once considered the top team in the league by some. Perhaps the biggest reason for that was the ferocious play of their defense.
Kansas City couldn't get to the quarterback with any type of consistency as the season came to a close, which was a far cry from what it did in the first half. There was one key component missing down the stretch, and that was outside linebacker Justin Houston.
Although Houston missed the Chiefs' final five games, he still had an impressive 11 sacks. He and Tamba Hali formed arguably the most dangerous pass-rushing duo in the NFL, so it's only natural that KC experienced a drop-off with Houston on the shelf.
The Chiefs have just 10 sacks since Houston dislocated his elbow, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, but help is on the way with Houston probable to play against the Indianapolis Colts, according to SportsCenter.
THIS JUST IN: Chiefs OLB Justin Houston is probable for Saturday's game vs Colts. Houston had 11 sacks on year despite missing last 5 weeks.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 3, 2014
The Chiefs were walloped by the Colts at home in Week 16, and things won't get much easier against Indy on the road. The absence of Houston in that game gave Colts quarterback Andrew Luck all time in the world, though, so it wasn't a proper representation of the game that will take place in the Wild Card Round.
Kansas City needs to disrupt the rhythm of opposing quarterbacks in order to have success, and Houston will contribute in that regard in a significant way.
Andrew Hawkins (CIN)
With a top-notch defense and an offense that features weapons such as A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, it's pretty easy to fly under the radar as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The team is stacked on both sides of the ball, and it is a definite sleeper candidate to challenge the Denver Broncos for the AFC's Super Bowl berth. An underrated part of the entire equation for Cincinnati is wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Hawkins was one of quarterback Andy Dalton's favorite targets last season. The diminutive slot receiver caught 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns, but because of the Bengals' depth in terms of pass catchers, his absence this season wasn't talked about much.
Hawkins didn't suit up until Week 9 against the Miami Dolphins because of an ankle injury. Although Hawkins' usage in the offense has been somewhat inconsistent since his return, Ross Jones of FOXSports.com believes he will play a significant role moving forward.
Andrew Hawkins, the X-factor for the Bengals. He's doing it on special teams and offense right now. Love his burst.— Ross Jones (@RossJonesFOX) December 29, 2013
Hawkins enjoyed his best game of the season in Week 17 with three receptions for 74 yards, which suggests that he is fully healthy and ready to take on more responsibilities within the offense.
Also, Hawkins made some nice plays against the San Diego Chargers earlier in the season with 65 receiving yards, so he knows how to make plays against them. The Bolts have so many guys to account for that Hawkins could very well enjoy a breakout game for the Bengals.
Mark Ingram (NO)
Most would probably agree that third-year New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram is a bust to this point in his career, but there is still time for the 24-year-old bruiser to turn things around.
Injuries and inconsistent usage have plagued Ingram as much as or even more than poor play, so some things have been out of his control. That figures to change when the Saints face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round, though, as starter Pierre Thomas is officially out, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com.
Which X-factor will have best Wild Card Round performance?
With Thomas out of action, the Saints will need someone else to carry the load. Darren Sproles is an option, but he is more of a pass catcher, and he won't grind out tough yardage between the tackles.
That happens to be Ingram's specialty, though. Ingram began to run well down the stretch this season, and he even grinded out 83 yards against the stout Carolina Panthers defense in Week 16. Per Triplett, Ingram is excited about the opportunity to prove himself in the playoffs.
That would be awesome, to play the best game of my career—the best game of my life—in that first playoff game. And hopefully just continue to get better. So I'm excited about it and looking forward to it.
It isn't outside the realm of possibility that Ingram will have a monster game in Philly. He has all the physical tools in the world, and he did have a 145-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the campaign.
The Saints are definitely a pass-first team, but they can be a top Super Bowl contender if Ingram is able to get the running game going as well.
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