NFL Conference Championship 2014: Previewing Weekend's Biggest X-Factors
The NFL divisional round was a bit of a snoozefest compared to Wild Card Weekend, but there were still plenty of playoff heroes.
OK, so that was a terrible reference. Probably should have gone with an X-Factor mutant one.
The big names had help, like Ahmad Brooks for the 49ers and LeGarrette Blount for the Patriots. Who will be the difference-makers in this weekend's battle royales?
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos
Memories of Denver's last game against New England are forgettable for Broncos fans. You read that right.
Quarterback Peyton Manning and that defense had staked the Broncos to a 24-point lead at halftime. It wasn't enough, as quarterback Tom Brady led a furious second-half comeback to steal the victory.
It wasn't enough for the Patriots to secure home-field advantage, though. They will be traveling to Denver this time around, something that could be the difference in another hard-fought battle.
One other difference-maker for the Broncos could be tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the first clash of the titans due to a concussion. Jacob Tamme did the heavy lifting at the position, even scoring the touchdown that put Denver up 24-0.
Thomas was a big factor in Denver's win last week, securing a crucial 3rd-and-long pass that extended the game-killing drive in the fourth quarter. He also had a fumble and a bad drop, thus his game was a microcosm of why he will be an X-factor this weekend.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
I want to put Percy Harvin on one of these lists, but the dynamic receiver is snakebitten. It's like he spent his offseason learning how to juggle mirrors while running under ladders on a black cat farm.
Receiver Golden Tate is his No. 1 option, but Doug Baldwin might hold the key to Seattle's passing success. With everything else the 49ers will be worrying about on that Seattle offense, all Baldwin has to do is slip through the cracks a few times to make a game-changing play.
Baldwin had just one catch against the 49ers in their first matchup in Seattle this season, but it went for 51 yards. It's that kind of play that could make the difference in a tight, low-scoring game.
Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Receiver Danny Amendola had just three catches for 17 yards his last time out against the Broncos. He might not have been a big contributor to that huge come-from-behind victory, but he figures to play a bigger role this time around.
For starters, tight end Rob Gronkowski isn't around like he was the last time thanks to a season-ending knee injury. Then there is the devastating knee injury Broncos cornerback Chris Harris suffered against the Chargers, after which San Diego receiver Keenan Allen carved up that Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer and that Denver secondary.
That was one injury the Broncos could not afford on the defensive side of the ball, signaling Amendola and Julian Edelman could see a ton of targets. Amendola isn't taking the Denver defense or crowd lightly, though, according to WEEI's Mike Petraglia:
"You know, Champ has been in the league for a very long time, playing at a very high level, Quentin Jammer too, so we have a task on our hands and we'll definitely be preparing well for them this week," Amendola said.
As for the 74,000 screaming fans at Mile High that will be cheering for the Broncos, Amendola said he’s ready to embrace that challenge.
"I've played there a couple of times," Amendola said. "It's a great stadium to play in and it will be a live atmosphere and it will be fun."
The Patriots will probably try to run the ball, as they have done with good results for much of the season. But a shootout with the record-breaking Broncos offense could break out, and Amendola will be called upon to produce.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers
They say you can't run the ball against the Seahawks in Seattle. If any man is up to the challenge, though, it's San Francisco running back Frank Gore.
Of course, Gore hasn't had much recent success in that venture. He has totaled 44 yards rushing in his past two trips to Seattle, including a 16-yard performance in San Francisco's humiliating loss earlier this season.
If the 49ers are going to move the ball, they're going to need to gain some traction on the ground. Perhaps Gore can borrow inspiration from New Orleans' Khiry Robinson, who was actually able to do some damage on the ground just last week.
Mike James' success (28 carries, 158 yards) in Week 9 opened up the passing game for rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who nearly stole a most-improbable victory for the winless Buccaneers at the time in Seattle. Robinson did his part to keep the Saints in the game last week, even if they couldn't finish drives.
Gore might be slowing down with age, but he is still a big part of the San Francisco offense. The 49ers will need more production from him if they expect to hang with Seattle, who has outscored them 71-16 in their last two trips to The Emerald City.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Defense is going to rule the day this weekend in Seattle.
The Seahawks held the 49ers to three points in their last tilt at CenturyLink Field. That defense is simply astounding with that home crowd behind it.
Cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas get a ton of well-deserved credit, but middle linebacker Bobby Wagner deserves a big share of the attribution pie.
The second-year stud is all over the field, stopping the run with force and nimbly dropping into coverage with near-equal alacrity. He has regained form after an injury knocked him out for a few games and slowed him down when he came back.
He has been great as of late, and his health is a big reason why, as Bob Condatta of The Seattle Times details:
Still, as Wagner said, "I feel 100 percent (now). I feel great. And I think it’s showing."
In fact, teammates and coaches rave about Wagner’s play the past month, which coincides with the Seahawks having become as stout against the run as at any time all season.
Wagner has 50 tackles in the past five games as the Seahawks have allowed just 76.8 rushing yards a game (compared to a season average of 101.6).
If the Seahawks are going to keep the 49ers in check again, Wagner is going to be a big factor. He totaled seven tackles, a stuff and a pass breakup in Seattle's 29-3 victory in Week 2.
Shaun Phillips, OLB, Denver Broncos
This AFC Championship Game feels like a battle of attrition, and the teams haven't even started practicing for the game yet.
Both teams have suffered massive losses, but none was bigger than Denver's pass-rushing phenom, linebacker Von Miller.
The sack artist was a big reason why the Patriots were shut out in the first half of their game against the Broncos earlier this season, scooping up a fumble and returning it for a touchdown.
Fellow linebacker Shaun Phillips was there too, but he will have to come up with a huge performance like he had last week against the Chargers.
Phillips had two sacks and was generally disruptive throughout the game. He needs to lead the charge against New England's Brady for the Broncos to have some success on that side of the ball.
Jamie Collins, OLB, New England Patriots
What's it like to have the game of your life in your first playoff game as a rookie? Ask outside linebacker Jamie Collins.
The Patriots turned up the defensive heat on the Colts last week, and Collins was a huge contributor. He snagged his first sack and interception of his pro career, showing off his fantastic athleticism as he seemed to be everywhere.
New England's defense has its work cut out this week trying to stop that record-breaking offense. Tight end Julius Thomas is going to suit up this time around, and it's a good bet Collins will be tasked with sticking with him downfield.
His teammates trust him with each passing week, as The Boston Globe's Michael Whitmer writes:
He might choose his words carefully, but his teammates have noticed someone who is getting more comfortable—and more impactful—as the games become more important.
"The bigger the game, the better big-time players play," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
Said McCourty: "He’s been getting better week by week, that’s what it’s about. Our young guys have worked their butts off all year, and all the work they’ve put in is showing up now. I’m happy for him, and I think he has a lot more big games in him. The more he’s played, he’s had more awareness and is making plays all over the field now. He’s not worrying about where to line up, he’s out there like a veteran now."
Collins could be head coach Bill Belichick's Swiss Army knife on defense, a bit of a wild card to throw Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning off his game.
Eric Reid, S, San Francisco 49ers
It was going to be tough to replace safety Dashon Goldson in San Francisco when he bolted in free agency, but rookie Eric Reid has done an admirable job.
Reid missed most of San Francisco's first meeting versus Seattle with a concussion, but he managed to snag an interception before his exit. He didn't quite have that success in their second game, though the 49ers won that one at home.
The NFC Championship Game figures to be a defensive slugfest. San Francisco has a ton of talent on that unit, especially in the front seven.
Reid is one player who can make or break the 49ers defense. He will have a massive impact if he blows coverage on a deep ball or stops Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson on a crucial third down.
The rookie is an X-factor in the truest sense.