Under-the-Radar NFL Players Who Could Decide the 2023 NFC, AFC Championship Games

Brad Gagnon@@Brad_GagnonFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 25, 2023

Under-the-Radar NFL Players Who Could Decide the 2023 NFC, AFC Championship Games

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 01: Philadelphia Eagles Wide Receiver Quez Watkins (16) goes in motion prior to the snap during the first half of the National Football League game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles on January 1, 2023, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    There's almost nothing "under the radar" about a pair of NFL conference championship games that involve four teams that went a combined 53-14 during the 2022 regular season.

    Of course, the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles have all been to the Super Bowl in recent years, and altogether they possess 24 Pro Bowlers this season.

    That said, some players who will likely see plenty of action on Sunday are a little less popular than others. Here are two from each remaining squad who have opportunities to make major differences en route to Super Bowl LVII.

Bengals OL Jackson Carman

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    CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 27: Cincinnati Bengals guard Jackson Carman (79) in action during the game against the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals on August 27, 2022, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    With regular Joe Burrow blindside protector Jonah Williams sidelined by a knee injury, 23-year-old sophomore Jackson Carman held it together nicely at left tackle as the Bengals beat the Buffalo Bills on the road last weekend.

    In his first career start at that position, the 2021 second-round pick allowed no sacks and just a single quarterback hit despite the fact the rest of the Bengals line was also in shambles in Buffalo.

    There's a chance Williams is healthy enough to play Sunday in Kansas City, but Carman was so impressive in the divisional round that the Bengals have to find a way to get him on the field regardless of Williams' status.

    If he can deliver against a strong Chiefs defensive front the way he did against the Bills, the Clemson product could be a key reason the Bengals head to a second consecutive Super Bowl.

Bengals LB Logan Wilson

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    CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 15: Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) celebrates in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals on January 15, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    After recording a team-high 123 tackles during the regular season, Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson isn't exactly an obscure presence in the national NFL realm. But he doesn't get as much attention as a lot of Bengals, mainly because he doesn't make a ton of blatantly game-changing plays.

    An exception came two weeks ago when the third-year third-round pick forced a critical fumble that led to an epic Sam Hubbard touchdown to swing a wild-card victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

    Now, Wilson is likely to play a massive role in both covering all-universe Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce while likely also being somewhat responsible for the movements of less-than-100 percent all-galaxy Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

    It's a recipe for a surprise game-changing performance for a stellar young player.

Chiefs WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling

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    CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04: Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (11) runs onto the field before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals on December 4, 2022, at the Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Based on DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders, the Bengals had the worst D in the AFC when it came to covering No. 2 wide receivers in 2022. They performed well against No. 1 wideouts and tight ends, which could be problematic for JuJu Smith-Schuster and/or Travis Kelce but could pave the way for Marquez Valdes-Scantling on Sunday.

    MVS has been a little quiet lately, but that's also what keeps the veteran under the radar. And he's been known to explode unexpectedly, with one particularly appropriate example coming when he put up 115 yards for the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game two years ago.

    You wonder if he might have some chances to catch the Bengals defense sleeping in this year's AFC title game as well.

Chiefs DE Mike Danna

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    HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Mike Danna #51 of the Kansas City Chiefs gets set against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Meanwhile, on defense, the Chiefs will try to take advantage of the fact the Bengals offensive line is dealing with a wide array of injuries. And while head coach Zac Taylor and Co. will likely spend much of the week planning for superstar Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones, underrated end Mike Danna could have a chance to pounce on Burrow.

    Danna has his moments. The 25-year-old had a pair of strip-sacks in Week 18, and he had a couple of sacks in a monster performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in November. A calf injury held him back earlier this season, but he's looking healthy now and should be a heavy part of the pass-rushing rotation against the Bengals.

    Danna seems as though he may have a knack for rising to occasions. This could be the latest exampleβ€”even if nobody's expecting it.

49ers WR Jauan Jennings

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    SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 14: Jauan Jennings #15 of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball during an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks at Levi's Stadium on January 14, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
    Michael Owens/Getty Images

    The 49ers offense is loaded with talented weapons, and at this point a quarterback can't be considered "under the radar," even if they're a rookie seventh-round draft pick. But there is one guy Brock Purdy might target Sunday who could be an unexpected hero in the event that the Eagles successfully focus on Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.

    That'd be Jauan Jennings, who quietly went over 400 yards in a limited role in 2022 after also quietly scoring a handful of touchdowns in his first healthy pro season in 2021.

    The Eagles had the No. 1 pass D in terms of DVOA this year, but they ranked in the bottom 12 at covering receivers who weren't considered by Football Outsiders to be No. 1 or No. 2 wideouts in opposing offenses.

    That could give Jennings a chance to do something special Sunday.

49ers LB Azeez Al-Shaair

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    SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 22: Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts during an NFL divisional round playoff football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on January 22, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
    Michael Owens/Getty Images

    With Jalen Hurts at the center of it all, the Eagles also have the league's top running game in terms of DVOA. Slowing down Hurts, Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell has to be the 49ers' top priority in the NFC title game, which could put a lot on the only non-star starting linebacker and arguably the least known member of the San Francisco front seven, Azeez Al-Shaair.

    Al-Shaair had a triple-digit-tackle 2021 season in San Francisco but lost a couple of months to a knee injury this year and has only started to get back into his former groove in recent weeks.

    Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw will have their hands full in that process, but those two are critical cogs in covering backs, tight ends and receivers. There will likely be times in which Al-Shaair will be left with the task of containing the mobile Hurts, and those times could very well decide who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LVII.

Eagles WR Quez Watkins

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 08: Quez Watkins #16 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs with the ball against the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field on January 8, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    If No. 3 Eagles receiver Quez Watkins wasn't already under the radar before the Eagles embarked on their playoff journey Saturday against the New York Giants, he certainly is now after being held catchless in that blowout Philadelphia victory.

    But Philly's focus there was understandably on burning a horrible Giants run defense, which meant few three-receiver sets and a season-low 22 snaps for Watkins. It'll likely be a different story Sunday against a 49ers defense that is stacked across the board after allowing a league-low 3.4 yards per carry this season.

    Watkins will almost certainly get more work in this spot, and San Francisco actually posted the third-worst DVOA in football when covering receivers who weren't considered No. 1 or No. 2 wideouts in 2022 (see: Greg Dortch and Shi Smith).

    We've also seen Watkins explode sporadically, and this could be his spot.

Eagles DL Milton Williams

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Milton Williams (93) during pregame of the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, October 30, 2022 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Even in a jacked Philly defense, Milton Williams may not remain under the radar much longer.

    After struggling to make plays while dealing with injuries early this season, the sophomore third-round pick put up four sacks, five quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss during the final 11 games of the regular season.

    Still, he's the only member of the Eagles' defensive line rotation who hasn't been a Pro Bowler, a first-round pick or both. And as a solid run defender, he may just be counted on to keep building momentum in a prominent role as the Eagles look to slow down Christian McCaffrey and a 49ers offense that may try to avoid putting too much on Purdy in such a big spot.

    Keep an eye on Williams on Sunday.

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