NFL Playoffs: 15 Biggest X-Factors in the Divisional Round

Brian DiTullioSenior Writer IJanuary 10, 2011

NFL Playoffs: 15 Biggest X-Factors in the Divisional Round

0 of 15

    Elsa/Getty Images

    The NFL playoffs are going to be entering the second round this weekend with the four divisional playoff matchups.

    In the AFC, it's all about keeping things within the respective divisions with the Jets taking on the Patriots and the Steelers taking on the Ravens.

    In the NFC, it's the upstart Seahawks taking on the Chicago Bears and the Packers taking on the Falcons.

    Each game will have its own drama and storyline, and each game will have players who make the difference to determine whether or not their team advances.

    Here are 15 players who bring that "x-factor" to this weekend's games.

15. Mark Sanchez

1 of 15

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Mark Sanchez is a developing quarterback who has had some great games and some bad games this season.

    Sanchez threw for 189 yards and one pick against the Colts. Those aren't exactly numbers to inspire Jets fans going into New England this weekend. Sanchez can throw against New England, though, because in Week 2 he threw for 220 yards and three touchdowns.

    Sanchez' ability to overcome the Patriots defense and perform will be one of the big factors in the game.

14. Marshawn Lynch

2 of 15

    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Marshawn Lynch had what probably was the best run of his career last Saturday. That's really not debatable at this point.

    If Lynch can keep this level of play up two weeks in a row, especially against the Bears' second-ranked rush defense, then the re-assessment going on right now about the Seahawks will continue.

    Lynch's numbers this year weren't great and while a game like he had Saturday always seemed possible, the likelihood of it happening seemed to have diminished this year.

    Sometimes it's very fun to be proved wrong, unless you're a Saints fan. Sorry guys.

13. James Starks

3 of 15

    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Who is this guy?

    James Starks just has come out of nowhere in the last few weeks and his impact in Sunday's game against the Eagles can't be downplayed.

    Starks ran for 123 yards against the Eagles, which then brought the Eagles defense in, opening up the passing game even more for Aaron Rodgers.

    If Starks can do the same thing in Atlanta, the Falcons will have their work cut out for them.

12. Devin McCourty

4 of 15

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Devin McCourty is playing like anything except a rookie and quickly has become a key part of the Patriots defense: Seven picks, two forced fumbles, 82 tackles.

    Belichick doesn't care if his player is a rookie: If the guy can play, he gets on the field.

    Contrast that to some other coaches who steadfastly refuse to play rookies until a gun is put to their heads.

    McCourty will hound Mark Sanchez the whole game and it will be interesting to see how many passes go his way.

11. Jay Cutler

5 of 15

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Jay Cutler wants this game. The Bears finished the season 11-5, but Cutler had some very shaky outings and he's not getting a lot of help from his offensive line, which has been known to just leave the game in the middle of a play.

    If Cutler's protection holds up and he doesn't hurry his throws, Cutler will have a career day against the Seahawks.

    The good news is that the Seahawks defense isn't that great statistically. The bad news is none of that really mattered last week against the Saints.

    The Saints still scored a lot of points, but if Cutler is put under pressure, he has a history of making bad decisions.

10. Matt Forte

6 of 15

    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Matt Forte had more than 1,000 yards rushing behind a suspect offensive line, including six touchdowns.

    The Seahawks, which now officially are an enigma when it comes to predictions, have to stop this guy in addition to keeping Cutler contained.

    Last week proved the Seahawks' stats mean nothing, so if the defense can stop Forte, the Seahawks can put themselves in a position to win.

9. Santonio Holmes

7 of 15

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Santonio Holmes was one of the best offseason pickups of any team in the league last year. Holmes, whose off-field problems resulted in his ejection from Pittsburgh, quickly became the Jets' most reliable receiver.

    Holmes is the go-to guy for Mark Sanchez and if he can keep away from the Patriots coverage and make the kinds of catches only he can make, there won't be another blowout between the two teams this weekend.

8. Darrelle Revis

8 of 15

    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Darrelle Revis had a great game in Indianapolis and he's going to have to have another one in New England with Tom Brady.

    Revis didn't have a good day during Week 13, but Revis isn't the kind of player to dwell on the past and if Brady decides to challenge him, he knows he has to make sure that he's up to that challenge.

7. Troy Polamalu

9 of 15

    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Troy Polamalu is an X-factor in every game he plays in. Polamalu's nose for the ball and his style of play that leaves everything on the field makes him one of the biggest defensive threats in the NFL.

    This will be the third time the Ravens have faced the Steelers this year, but that doesn't mean the Ravens will be any better at neutralizing Polamalu.

    Part of Joe Flacco's routine before every snap will be to see where Polamalu is and go from there.

6. Ed Reed

10 of 15

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Ravens' answer to Troy Polamalu is Ed Reed, who is just as dangerous for the Ravens as Polamalu is for the Steelers.

    Reed will be looking to steal as many passes off of Ben Roethlisberger as he can, and even if the pass is completed, Reed will be there to make sure there isn't much more of a gain.

    Reed can shut the running game down as easy as he can the passing game and the Steelers have to take Reed's play into account when preparing for this game.

5. Joe Flacco

11 of 15

    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Joe Flacco can have a really good day or he can have a really bad day. It all depends on what the Steelers defense gives him.

    He didn't have great or terrible days the first two times around, but in both cases, the offense could have scored more points.

    Flacco's ability to overcome the Steelers incredible defense will be a key to the game.

4. Ben Roethlisberger

12 of 15

    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Ben Roethlisberger makes his own luck. Behind a very bad offensive line and with an offensive coordinator who seems incapable of using a lot of great players to their fullest potential, Roethlisberger succeeds where other quarterbacks would fail.

    Roethlisberger is a master of taking lemons and making lemonade, and the Ravens once again are going to have to deal with that.

    They didn't do a bad job in Week 13, but they still lost the game.

    If the Ravens can keep Roethlisberger contained, they can win the game.

3. Matt Ryan

13 of 15

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Matt Ryan is lights out at home, although a loss to New Orleans in Week 16 exposed a lot of flaws.

    Ryan isn't put into the same category as the Peyton Mannings or Tom Bradys yet, but a win this Sunday over the Green Bay Packers will go a long way to changing that.

    Ryan, like Joe Flacco, still is a young, developing quarterback. How he responds in this playoff game will be a great thing to watch.

2. Aaron Rodgers

14 of 15

    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Aaron Rodgers is the Packers offense.

    Rodgers' quality of play will go a long way toward determining if the Packers advance or not. With the emergence of a running game, though, it makes it a lot easier for Rodgers to do his thing.

1. Tom Brady

15 of 15

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Tom Brady is Tom Brady. Brady can take over a game and, once he does, there's very little that can stop him.

    The Jets have to be able to control Tom Brady or anything else they might accomplish will be in a losing effort.