NFL Divisional Playoffs 2014: Previewing This Weekend's Biggest X-Factors
What an incredible Wild Card Weekend it was in the NFL.
Three of the four games came down to the wire, with plenty of X-factors affecting the outcomes. Guys like T.Y. Hilton and Michael Crabtree were major difference-makers in their teams' victories.
We know the big names like quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and we took a look at each team's biggest game-changing players last week. Which players—on either side of the ball—could make or break the game for each team heading into the divisional round?
Click through to find out.
Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Indianapolis Colts
We already know what quarterback Andrew Luck can do, as is the case with his current No. 1 receiver, T.Y. Hilton. That was on display last week, when the dynamic duo tore the Kansas City Chiefs defense to shreds.
Luck led a fiery comeback in Indianapolis, and receiver Da'Rick Rogers might have been the spark to start it.
The rookie had just one catch, but it was a 46-yarder that got the Colts rolling in the third quarter.
It's difficult to believe the New England Patriots will allow Hilton to roam free like the Chiefs seemingly did last week, meaning someone else will have to step up. As evidenced by his 107-yard, two-touchdown game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14, Rogers has the potential to explode in Foxborough this weekend.
Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
Outside of quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham, the New Orleans Saints offense is chock-full of players who can make a difference or disappear in any given week. Unfortunately for the Saints, nobody stepped up the last time out in Seattle.
They get another crack at the vaunted Seahawks and the 12th Man this weekend, where it could be tough sledding for the offense once more. That's why the Saints' defense is pivotal, and defensive end Cameron Jordan might be the key.
The big defensive end helped contain the second-ranked Philadelphia Eagles offense last week, racking up four total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Jordan and that defensive front will have their hands full with dynamic quarterback Russell Wilson next on the docket.
For the Saints to contain the Seahawks, Jordan will need to be a difference-maker.
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos' record-breaking offense is all about quarterback Peyton Manning and that magnificent set of receivers and tight ends. But the offense could be on a different plane thanks to once-maligned running back Knowshon Moreno.
Few expected Moreno to evolve into the consistent option he has become for the Broncos. If there is such a thing as a postseason curse for Manning, Moreno could be the man to break the hex.
Nowhere will this be more evident than in the last time Moreno faced the San Diego Chargers, a game in which he had just 19 yards on eight carries. He did have five catches for 36 yards, but the Broncos struggled to get things going offensively.
Outside a costly fumble, Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard had a field day against the Chargers last week. He caught seven passes for 73 yards and added another 45 on the ground. If Moreno has that type of day—perhaps sprinkling in a score or two for good measure—the Broncos will have notched far more than the 20 points they mustered last time out against San Diego.
Golden Tate, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks defense is the key to the team's success, but to keep up with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, the offense can't go quiet.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is all of everything on that offense, and running back Marshawn Lynch can unleash the beast any time. The defense is chock-full of big-time contributors—from cornerback Richard Sherman to safety Earl Thomas to linebacker Bobby Wagner.
So who is the X-factor on the offensive side of the ball? How about receiver Golden Tate, who has been Seattle's top receiver for two years running?
As he told Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times before the start of the season, his goal was to be the team's X-factor:
There are a lot of good players in this league, but what makes a great player? I think a great player is a complete player. He’s someone who takes care of himself on and off the field. He understands the game mentally. He runs great routes, but he also blocks just as well as a tight end. That’s how I want to evolve.
Tate is no Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green, but his performance—or lack thereof—could be vital to success this weekend for the Seahawks.
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots
Forgotten man, or sleeper cell?
Running back Stevan Ridley had a roller-coaster regular season. At times, he seemed integral to New England's success. After fumbling in three straight games, however, Ridley lost his starting gig and has seen irregular work ever since.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots must rely on their run game to have offensive success. Ridley, who scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2012, gives them the best shot to do so.
While fellow running backs Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount have made big contributions this season, Ridley is the best runner in that backfield. If he fumbles again, though, he'll be right back in Bill Belichick's doghouse.
Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers has regained his form this season, and Danny Woodhead deserves part of the credit.
The diminutive running back served as a safety valve for Rivers during his first year with the San Diego Chargers. Pro Football Focus ranked him second among all halfbacks in terms of pass-catching (subscription required), behind only Darren Sproles.
Woodhead frequently came up big in key spots for San Diego this year. He scored the team's first touchdown in the Wild Card Game against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, as the Chargers won a relative laugher.
Fellow running back Ryan Mathews—who did the heavy lifting last time out against the Denver Broncos—only had 15 touches last week before re-aggravating his injured left ankle, per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego. While Mathews plans on playing this weekend, Woodhead could see more work if his fellow backfield mate isn't 100 percent.
It also stands to reason the Broncos won't be held to 20 points a second time, meaning the Chargers will have to air it out more. For San Diego to win this weekend, Woodhead likely needs to have a huge game.
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
Where would the San Francisco 49ers be without that great defense over the years?
This was a relative down year for that unit, but it is still a strength for the 49ers. It has allowed just 16.3 points per game during the team's current seven-game winning streak.
Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman spearhead that defensive attack, but quarterback-terrorizing Aldon Smith could be the biggest difference-maker on that side of the ball.
The third-year pass-rusher had an up-and-down season, missing five games to go to rehab following an arrest for driving under the influence. He came up huge against the Green Bay Packers last week, however, recording 1.5 sacks and a ton of pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Smith and that defense will have a tall order keeping Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in check. He didn't really get a chance to make a difference in San Francisco's loss to Carolina earlier this season, playing just 12 snaps after his five-game absence.
The Panthers won't be so lucky this time around.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
Quarterback Cam Newton has been in the spotlight for the Panthers since he came into the league, but it's been the defense that has gotten Carolina to this point.
The Panthers won themselves a first-round bye on the wings of a second-ranked defense, and Greg Hardy was a big part of that unit.
The Kraken had himself a career year, logging 15 sacks and earning himself a big payday this offseason in the process. His partner in crime, Charles Johnson, did much of the damage last time the Panthers played the San Francisco 49ers.
Hardy is playing the better football in recent weeks, however, and his pass-rushing prowess will be key in stopping 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
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