NFL Playoffs

NFL Playoffs 2014: Biggest X-Factors Entering Divisional Round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 04:  Running back Donald Brown #31 of the Indianapolis Colts carries the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during a Wild Card Playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 4, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Tyler BrookeSenior Analyst IIJanuary 6, 2014

With Wild Card Weekend officially over, the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is getting ready to begin and there are a few players that will be key to their respective teams pulling out big wins.

The playoffs have already gotten off to a terrific start. The Indianapolis Colts came back from down 28 points to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, making the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history. In the other games, the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers came away with game-winning field goals while the San Diego Chargers pulled off another upset win, taking down the Cincinnati Bengals.

With the divisional round getting ready to start up, let's take a look at some of the most important X-factors for the upcoming games.

 

Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts

In a season when the Colts had Trent Richardson, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield, Donald Brown simply refused to go away quietly. Now, he's become the starting running back for the Colts and a major reason for their recent success.

Brown was a catalyst for the Colts' epic comeback on Saturday, coming up with two touchdowns in the third quarter to make it a game once again. He may have had a fumble at the goal line, but Andrew Luck was able to save him and find the end zone.  

Brown finished with 102 total yards and two scores in the game.

It was a terrific year overall for Brown. He only ran the ball 102 times in the regular season, but finished with 537 rushing yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Brown also added another 214 yards and two scores through the air.

He may not be the most talked-about player on the Colts, but with opposing defenses planning on stopping Luck, Brown will need to continue to make plays on the ground to help get the offense going.

 

Donte Whitner, S, San Francisco 49ers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 13:  Donte Whitner #31 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after he stopped Andre Ellington #38 of the Arizona Cardinals short of a first down at Candlestick Park on October 13, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by E
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One of the more balanced teams in football, the 49ers pride themselves on having a top-five defense, as they gave up just 316.9 yards and 17.0 points per game during the regular season. While the front seven gets most of the attention, Donte Whitner has been a valuable piece of that equation.

While he's had to deal with penalties for unsafe hits, Whitner has still been a solid starting safetyeven in pass coverage.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only 52.1 percent of passes thrown near him were caught, while opposing quarterbacks posted just a 66.8 passer rating thanks to two interceptions and six passes defended.

The more important aspect of Whitner's game will be in the run gameat least for this week. The Carolina Panthers averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game during the season thanks to players like DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton, so the 49ers will have to prepare for plenty of run plays.

With 73 combined tackles and two forced fumbles this year, Whitner will likely be asked to make plays in the run game once again. He played well in San Francisco's previous meeting against the Panthers and the 49ers are hoping that he can do so once again.

 

Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks

He was only able to play in one game in the regular season, but Percy Harvin could be the key to a Super Bowl run for the Seattle Seahawks.

In his one game back this season, Harvin had one catch for 17 yards, but his hip injury limited him once again, keeping him from seeing the field for the rest of the season.  

The good news, however, is that Harvin is finally back at practice. According to the NFL: Around the LeagueRussell Wilson believes that the speedy receiver will be good to go against the Saints.

In just nine games in 2012, Harvin was able to grab 62 receptions for 677 yards and three touchdowns, adding a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. In his career, he's had 3,319 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns along with five scores on kickoff returns.

If he's able to play, Harvin will be able to open up the field for the Seahawks. He's a serious vertical threat that could help open up the field for the rest of the offense, including the ground game with Marshawn Lynch.  

It's still unclear how effective he will be, but if he can get on the field for at least 20 snaps per game, he'll make a big difference for Seattle.

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