The NFL's divisional round in the 2014 playoffs features four phenomenal matchups in which either team could come away victorious, depending on the performances of a few key players.
The term "X-factor" means different things to different people. For the purposes of this column, the players highlighted are labeled X-factors because they'll determine the outcome of the game based on whether or not they play well or get shut down.
For instance, Andy Dalton is the biggest X-factor for the Cincinnati Bengals in nearly every game they play. If he's sharp, then the Bengals usually win. However, when Dalton struggles, then it's almost a sure bet Cincinnati will lose, barring a defensive score or two by the team's defense.
With that in mind, here's a look at the four biggest X-factors in the NFL's divisional round.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Biggest X-factor: Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans
New Orleans won't win this game if it can't run the ball early and often against Seattle's vaunted defense—it won't even be close, in fact.
The last time these teams played in Week 13, the Saints only managed 44 total rushing yards, and Mark Ingram was held to 22 yards on just eight carries (2.8 yards per carry).
Without the threat of a running game, Seattle's defense keyed in on Drew Brees and the passing game, shutting it down almost completely. By the time the game was over, New Orleans had managed only 12 first downs, 188 total yards of offense and just seven points, losing 34-7.
Head coach Sean Payton seems to understand that a healthy running game is key to winning on the road this postseason. The Saints passed the ball 30 times and ran it 36 times against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Game, totaling 185 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Melvin Ingram toted the rock 18 times for 97 yards and scored the touchdown, and his physical style wore down Philadelphia's defensive front throughout the contest.
Payton was pleased with his team's effort after the game, as noted by ESPN.com's Mike Triplett:
When you look at the time of possession, third-down snaps, the rushing totals, total yardage... The running game really helped us, and in the kicking game we came up with the plays we needed. It was a great team game...
The Saints will need to replicate that winning formula once again at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, because a failure to do so will result in another embarrassing loss.
That means Ingram must have another huge game on the ground, pounding the ball between the tackles. A consistent rushing attack is the key for New Orleans to have a chance of beating the Seahawks in Seattle.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Biggest X-factor: T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis
T.Y. Hilton is undoubtedly the X-factor in this game—both for the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.
NBC Sports' Ross Tucker highlighted the biggest key for New England in this upcoming game, alluding to the fact that head coach Bill Belichick is well known for shutting down opposing teams' top weapons:
Hilton had his ups and downs throughout the season. He really struggled through a four-game stretch from Nov. 14 to Dec. 8, catching 17 passes (not bad at all), but for only 135 yards (bad) and zero scores (really bad).
However, as offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has evolved Indy's offense to facilitate the best results, given its current roster—going with more three-wide sets and an up-tempo approach—Hilton has blossomed.
|Week 15: Houston Texans||8||78||0|
|Week 16: Kansas City Chiefs||5||52||0|
|Week 17: Jacksonville Jaguars||11||155||0|
|Wild Card Round: Kansas City Chiefs||13||224||2|
If he gets loose behind New England's secondary, then you can be certain Andrew Luck will find him. And if Hilton ends up going off in this upcoming game like he has in his past two starts, then the Colts will likely upset the Patriots to advance into the AFC Championship Game.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Biggest X-factor: Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco
Many will argue that Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis should be highlighted here. They wouldn't be wrong about the immense importance of having both of them on the field is for San Francisco, since neither player was a factor in the first contest at Candlestick Park—a 10-9 win for the Panthers.
However, if the 49ers have any hope of pulling off their second straight road playoff win, then the offense must run through Frank Gore—just like it did against Green Bay at Lambeau Field in the Wild Card Round.
Gore totaled only 66 yards on the ground in that game on 20 carries (3.3 yards per carry). His longest run was 10 yards, and it came down at the goal line on his lone touchdown run. It's not like he was tearing it up out there against the Packers, but the 49ers wouldn't have won the game without his steady, churning running.
Not to mention, he was absolutely key in a couple of other instances, as pointed out by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller:
Twice in the game, he made huge blocks for Kaepernick that sprung long runs. Gore was the man picking up blitzing cornerback Jarred Bush late in the game and allowing the mobile quarterback to take off down the sideline to extend the 49ers’ final drive.
When Gore carries the ball 20 times or more this year (including playoffs), San Francisco is a guaranteed winner (7-0). When he doesn't carry the ball at least 20 times, it's a toss-up (6-4). He's the key to this game.
If Carolina can stymie him early, then offensive coordinator Greg Roman could start resorting to the passing game too quickly, which benefits the Panthers' pass-rushers (which are formidable).
If Gore can make some positive plays early, then San Francisco's offense will have a chance to make big plays in the passing game off play-action and the 49ers will win.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Biggest X-factor: Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego
As well as quarterback Philip Rivers has played this season (4,478 passing yards and 32 touchdowns), the reason San Diego has won five games in a row is that Ryan Mathews has been unstoppable on the ground.
|Week 14: New York Giants||29||103||3.6||16||1|
|Week 15: Denver Broncos||29||127||4.4||23||1|
|Week 16: Oakland Raiders||25||99||4.0||34||1|
|Week 17: Kansas City Chiefs||24||144||6.0||44||0|
|Wild Card Round: Cincinnati Bengals||13||52||4.0||8||0|
He was extremely effective against Denver in Week 15—a game in which the Chargers rushed for 177 yards as a team.
Unfortunately, an injured ankle in the Wild Card Game against Cincinnati caused him to miss most of the second half. He's optimistic about his chances of playing against the Broncos, however, as relayed by Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune: “My mindset is I'm playing."
San Diego will likely attempt to run the ball often, no matter if Mathews can play or not.
Denver's offense, led by new NFL record-holder Peyton Manning, who smashed the single-season passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) marks this past season, is as good as any NFL offense at quick-strike touchdowns.
Keeping Manning off the field as much as possible will be the top priority for head coach Mike McCoy, which means he'll feed the ball to his running backs to keep the clock moving.
While Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown have both shown an ability to make big plays in this capacity for the Chargers this season, there's no doubt Mathews is the team's top runner. If he can play for 60 minutes and make consistent positive yardage, then San Diego could well walk away from Denver with a huge upset victory.
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