Transcendent Players Make All the Difference When Playoff Races Heat Up

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 14, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are transcendent players.

Call them "elite" or "X-factors" if transcendent sounds a little over-the-top; the exact vocabulary does not matter. The point is that Brown and Bell are more than mere All-Pros. They consistently do things even other top receivers and running backs cannot do, things opponents must tie their game plans into pretzels to stop.

Take last Sunday night, when the two led the Steelers to a win over Baltimore. Many Ravens played their best games of the year, but in the fourth quarter, it was Bell stutter-stepping his way through their defense for touchdowns while Brown torched their cornerbacks for over-the-shoulder bombs that decided both the game and the AFC North. The Ravens have lots of very good players but no transcendent ones. So their best wasn't quite good enough, even against a sloppy opponent.

The Patriots have two transcendent players: Tom Brady (the most transcendent-est of them all) and Rob Gronkowski (who probably says things like "transcendent-est"). But they were one short on Monday night because of Gronk's suspension, which gave the Dolphins a fighting chance, and for once, Miami took it in an upset win.

Still, even as Brady played his worst game since the Broncos defense knocked him around in the 2015 AFC Championship Game and the Dolphins played to their potential for the first time since Don Shula retired, it felt like Brady would find a way to win if the game were five minutes longer. That's what transcendent players dothey overcome their own team's mistakes and their opponent's best efforts by performing feats reserved only for the better-than-the-best.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Judging teams solely on their marquee talent is common (and effective) in the NBA. But football is more about schemes and teamwork. And unlike basketball players, transcendent football players rarely face off head-to-head on the field, give or take Deion Sanders covering Jerry Rice.

But transcendent players matter more than ever in the playoff race. Many of the NFL's best are injured, with more getting hurt every week, making the few that remain in the playoff chase the league's most precious commodities.

And while a well-coached team of solid players can climb into the playoffs by beating up on all the Browns and Jets strewn in their path, reaching the Super Bowl usually means winning a game or two when the scheme breaks down or the guy with the hot hand gets cold. That's when having that Brown-Bell-Brady-Gronk, that different kind of difference-maker, provides a much-needed margin for error. Take a look at this season's likely playoff teams through that prism, and it becomes easier to discern who may be playing late into February and who might not.

The Packers just got their transcendent player back in Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles just lost Carson Wentz, who spent this season transcending. Suddenly the NFC race appears to be upside down. The Eagles only need to beat a Giants team whose players literally check their smartphones during games to clinch a first-round bye, yet they suddenly look vulnerable. Rodgers needs to sweep three other playoff teams and get help to reach the playoffs, yet everyone is buckling up.

The NFC championship, after all, has a history of coming down to one or two X-factor players going HAM when it matters.

The Seahawks have consisted of a handful of transcendent players and virtually nothing else for years, which is why their games usually look like two drunk people playing NFL Blitz. Even with Richard Sherman injured, Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas give them ways to win that other teams cannot match: routine 80-yard sandlot plays, last-second strips that turn touchdowns into touchbacks.

Wilson and Thomas force opponents to throw their game plans out the window each week. The Rams (Seattle's opponent on Sunday, vying to secure the division and the playoffs) win because of airtight game plans. Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley are arguably on the threshold of transcendence, but we've seen what happens to them when held back by bad coaching.

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

The Rams may have the best top-to-bottom depth chart and staff in the NFL, but they need perfection to win against an opponent that thrives amid chaos. That is why the Seahawks are 2.5-point favorites this weekend, according to OddsShark.

Cam Newton is another transcendent talent in the middle of the Wild Card chase. For all of his inconsistency, Newton reaffirmed last week against the Vikings what he is capable of late in the season. The Vikings plotted and schemed to place their consortium of hustle guys in position to mount a comeback, but Newton just galloped for 62 yards in the fourth quarter. Make a few mistakes against Newton and you lose, unless you have an X-factor to match him, someone like Rodgers, who faces the Panthers on Sunday.

The Vikings are led by high-effort players delivering peak seasons—the opposite of transcendent players. That makes them fun to root for but a long shot to run the playoff gauntlet. The Saints have Drew Breeswho used up much of his magic just keeping the team competitive for the past four seasonsand X-factor trainee Alvin Kamara, whose Thursday night concussion felled them against the Falcons (who possess elite talent Julio Jones but don't use him properly).

Finally, the Cowboys got their transcendent player back at full strength two weeks ago, making them almost as dangerous as the Packers in the NFC's rearview mirror. 

No, you didn't miss some Ezekiel Elliott appellate court something-or-another. Tyron Smith is more important to the Cowboys than Elliott. The Cowboys were outscored 93-22 in the three games Smith was out or playing at less than 100 percent on a short week. They have outscored opponents 68-24 since their left tackle returned to form, and suddenly Dak Prescott is a good quarterback again and the Alfred Morris-Rod Smith platoon looks solid.

Elliott's in the X-factor conversation, of course, and he returns next week for a Seahawks-Eagles home stretch. Again: buckle up.

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

There's not nearly as much drama in the AFC, where this level of excellence is mostly clustered around the traditional powerhouses.

The Jaguars don't really have that transcendent player, though Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and others have linked up to form a Transcendence Voltron a few times this season. They are basically the Rams, Vikings or Eagles of the AFC, a conference that has never been kind to upstarts.

Joey Bosa can lay claim to transcendence. So can Tyreek Hill. If either had the support they needed to challenge the top contenders, the Chargers and Chiefs would not be playing head-to-head on Saturday night to seize control of a bad division.

The Raiders looked like they had X-factors last season but got a dose of reality this year. Amari Cooper's lost season is a fine illustration of the difference between a very good player and an unstoppable force like Antonio Brown.

The Titans may be keeping a transcendent player (Derrick Henry) on the bench. That's Jeff Fisher-level malpractice, and it would have knocked them out of the playoffs a month ago if not for an FCS-caliber late-season schedule.

Transcendent talent alone does not guarantee a playoff berth, no matter how often the Seahawks do it. The Texans have Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins (who would be Brown if he didn't have to leap or dive for every catch), started the season with J.J. Watt and enjoyed a month with transcendence fast-tracker Deshaun Watson, yet they won't crack .500 this year. Bill O'Brien will blame the front office.

Should some Vikings-Rams-Jaguars team without an off-the-chart talent win the Super Bowl this year, history will retcon them into possessing some larger-than-life player. (You can hear the NFL Films narrator now: Aaron Donald/Jalen Ramsey/Adam Thielen would not be denied on that February evening in Minneapolis). Conversely, a Super Bowl run was what made the young Tom Brady into Tom Brady.

To achieve transcendence, a player must transcend something. That often means beating the absolute best with sheer brilliance when it matters most of all. During the stretch run, the smart money is on those who have done it before. Others may join their ranks. But many very good players and teams are only in the playoff picture at this point so they can bear witness.

        

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier

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