The ins and outs of Wild Card Weekend are vast.
This is no ordinary slate of games. There are only four over the course of two days, but the depth of each contest surpasses a typical 16-game slate.
There is no sluggish Thursday contest. No Monday showdown. Just four games with everything at stake, in which all participants enter as equals no matter the paths traveled to get to this point.
With that in mind, some of the names lost behind the spotlight of others deserve nods with the games on approach. After all, playoff wins are team efforts, no matter how many times folks attempt to put win-loss records on quarterbacks.
2014-15 NFL Playoffs Bracket
Wild Card Weekend Predictions and Viewing Info
|Saturday, Jan. 3||4:35 p.m. ET||Arizona at Carolina||ESPN||Watch ESPN||CAR|
|Saturday, Jan. 3||8:15 p.m. ET||Baltimore at Pittsburgh||NBC||NBC Sports Live Extra||PIT|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||1:05 p.m. ET||Cincinnati at Indianapolis||CBS||CBSSports.com||IND|
|Sunday, Jan. 4||4:40 p.m. ET||Detroit at Dallas||FOX||Fox Sports Go||DAL|
Underrated Players to Watch on Wild Card Weekend
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers owe a lot to running back Jonathan Stewart, who hit healthy status just in time for a late-season push resulting in an NFC South crown and a trip to the postseason.
Much of the story surrounding the Panthers goes to Cam Newton. Fair enough. A few weeks removed from a scary car accident, the former Auburn star carried the team to the playoffs despite a losing record.
He had help, though, as Stewart exploded over the course of a four-game winning streak to close the season:
For a team with no running game to speak of before the stretch, those are important numbers.
Carolina needs more of the same Saturday with the Arizona Cardinals in town. The team figures to have DeAngelo Williams back, but coach Ron Rivera is not ready to commit to him as a starter.
“No, I’m not worried about that,” Rivera said, per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer. “He’s part of this chemistry. He’s part of why we are where we are today. … When he’s healthy and ready to go he’ll get his opportunities to get on the field.”
Arizona ranks 13th against the rush this year, which places the Panthers in danger of being a one-dimensional attack through the air. In order to keep things balanced and have a chance at making it to the next round, Stewart will need to remain productive in the face of his biggest test since his return from injury.
Joique Bell, RB, Detroit Lions
Most still think of Reggie Bush when it comes to the Detroit Lions backfield.
While Bush is back and healthy, the pressure of production falls on the churning legs of Joique Bell.
Bell is the owner of 860 yards and seven scores this year on a pass-first offense. His ability to keep things balanced, even with Bush out of the lineup, took pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford.
That is the only way the Lions will go to Dallas and beat the Cowboys, as Stafford is 0-17 on the road against teams that finish with a winning record. He simply locks up, with only a strong running game doing the heavy lifting being the remedy.
One problem: Bell will need to accomplish this feat against the league's eighth-ranked rush defense. Dallas takes a lot of slack for a porous defense, which a rank of 26 against the pass justifies, but the Cowboys rarely struggle to shut down backs.
If Bell struggles, Dallas will tee off on Stafford and force mistakes. Now the lead back, Bell better be ready for his biggest challenge to date.
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Here are the Cincinnati Bengals, in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time.
Along for the ride is the struggling Andy Dalton with only A.J. Green as a top-tier target. The opponent is the Indianapolis Colts, a team that laughed the Bengals out of the city back in a Week 7, 27-0 shellacking.
The rematch promises to be more competitive now that Cincinnati has a ground game thanks to rookie back Jeremy Hill. Key lessons from the first game are important, though.
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Chief among them pertains to tight end Jermaine Gresham.
On the road and in the face of consistent pressure, Dalton leaned on his tight end in a big way. Gresham led the team with 12 targets, catching 10 for 48 yards.
The former Oklahoma star is a key cog as of late, too, with three touchdowns in as many games to end the season.
Add up recent importance, usage rates against the Colts and the fact Green is in concussion protocol, and Gresham is the most important player on the Cincinnati offense this Sunday.
Based on his recent outings, the offense is in good hands.