The Most Important Player in Each Key Game of Week 17

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 1, 2016

The Most Important Player in Each Key Game of Week 17

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    Happy New Year to all.

    It all comes down to this.

    There are a total of 16 games remaining in the 2015 NFL regular season. As we know, all of these contests are of the divisional variety.

    Although we know 10 of the 12 teams headed to the postseason, there’s obviously a lot more to be determined. Three division titles are still up for grabs, and the seeding in both the AFC and NFC is still in flux. You will find all of those scenarios right here.

    Eleven games on Sunday still have some sort of “meaning,” and that will be the focus here. Who is the key player in each of these contests?

    Keep in mind that the most important player in each instance may not be from the team that needs to win the game (with the exception of Sunday night’s clash for the NFC North title).

    Enjoy the final week of a complete NFL schedule. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun watching football.

QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

    It feels like we are the masters of the obvious here, but the bottom line is that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the team’s steadiest performer.

    That’s because he’s been able to stay upright for 15 games. You would need both hands and both feet (and some friends as well) to total the number of games missed when it comes to Bill Belichick’s players this season.

    Nine weeks ago on a Thursday night at Foxborough, Brady completed 26 of his 38 throws for 356 yards and four scores without an interception in a 36-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins, this week’s opponent. A victory by the Pats would give Belichick’s club the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

    New England has dropped its last two games at Miami and has lost three of its last five contests following that 10-0 start this season. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins defense plans on rising to the occasion.

RB Mike Gillislee, Buffalo Bills

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    New York Jets at Buffalo Bills

    It’s been a banner season for the New York Jets and head coach Todd Bowles, who has led the club to a 10-5 record just one season after Gang Green finished with only four wins in 2014.

    But it may not mean much if the Jets are unable to wrap up a playoff berth Sunday, which they can do by simply beating the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park.

    "Simply" may be the wrong word. Buffalo has won four straight meetings in this series by a combined 140-57 scores. That includes a 22-17 Thursday night win over the Jets earlier this year in which Bills running back LeSean McCoy ran for 112 of the team’s 148 yards. But last week, it was recently signed Mike Gillislee who started in place of an injured McCoy and rushed for 93 yards and a score on only nine carries in a 16-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

    “I’ve always had this confidence, it was the matter of opportunity and the Bills gave me a hell of an opportunity,” Gillislee said to Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. “I’m taking advantage of it.”

    And the Bills would love to take advantage of the Jets in the clash between the top-ranked ground game in the league and the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense.

    On a side note, we’re still waiting to see if Rex Ryan will name Joe Namath as a team captain this week.

LB Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

    The Cincinnati Bengals are AFC North champions but can still clinch a first-round bye Sunday.

    They are also in the conversation when it comes to being one of the most balanced teams in the NFL.

    While the offense is trying to get by without quarterback Andy Dalton, the Cincinnati defense has rebounded in a big way this season. The team has more than doubled its sack total from 2014, dropping opposing quarterbacks 41 times this year compared to an NFL-low 20 sacks the previous season.

    At the same time, the Bengals defense can be had on the ground. And while the Baltimore Ravens are a shell of their recent self this year, they could threaten Martin Lewis’ team. The Ravens ran for 121 yards in Sunday’s 20-17 surprise defeat of the Steelers.

    Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is tied for fifth on the team with 62 tackles, which is not bad considering he’s played in only nine games this season. Lewis and his team could use a double-digit effort in terms of stops from the talented defender.

RB DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns

    A funny thing happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers on their way to controlling their own destiny and cruising to wins over the struggling Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in their final two games of the season.

    Last Sunday, Mike Tomlin’s inconsistent defense didn’t put a lot of heat on Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett (the team’s fourth different starting quarterback in 2015). Combine that with a shaky effort from Ben Roethlisberger and the results were a 20-17 loss.

    One way to help both the quarterback and the defense is to give running back DeAngelo Williams plenty of carries. The veteran runner is 101 yards short of 1,000 yards this season, and he and the Steelers face a Cleveland Browns squad that is dead last in the league against the run this year.

    Via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, the Browns will go with quarterback Austin Davis this week as Johnny Manziel is now in concussion protocol. Pittsburgh needs a win here and a loss by the New York Jets to return to the playoffs for the second straight season.

    Once again, it’s cut and dried for Tomlin and Co. this week.

WR Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans

    Following a 2-5 start, who would have thought we would see the Houston Texans on the verge of clinching the AFC South title?

    One year ago, a 9-7 finish had them two games behind the Indianapolis Colts for the division title. This year, Bill O’Brien’s team could complete a great comeback. This Sunday, Houston will go with quarterback Brian Hoyer, who is out of concussion protocol.

    “I thought he practiced really well last week...he ran the (scout) team, did some things on the side and (Wednesday) I thought he looked really sharp,” said O’Brien to Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press (via the Daily Tribune). “Again, it all depends on how it looks on Sunday obviously, but I think he’s looked good, he’s got good command of our offense and what we’re doing, and the ball seems like it’s coming out of his hand real well.”

    While the Texans have their own star wide receiver in Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, the dangerous Jacksonville Jaguars have big-play wideout in Allen Robinson, who has totaled 75 receptions for 1,292 yards and 14 scores this season. Fellow second-year performer Blake Bortles has thrown for 35 scores this season, and Robinson has been targeted at a team-high 142 times.

    The Texans have to keep the star pass-catcher under wraps and not allow him to do too much damage.

RB Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts

    Contrary to some thought processes, the wins by Clemson and Alabama Thursday night did not help the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff positioning this week.

    In all seriousness, no team needs more help this weekend than Chuck Pagano’s club. And if you believe those reports (which we have no reason to doubt), there’s more than a playoff berth on the line for Pagano here. Mike Wells of ESPN.com reports there won’t be a fifth season in Indianapolis for the team’s current sideline leader.

    Only two teams in the league have rushed for fewer yards than the Colts this season. But now would be a good time for the club to unleash veteran Frank Gore in a big way against a Tennessee Titans defense that has been mediocre (17th in NFL) when it comes to stopping the run.

    The 11-year pro comes off a productive effort in the team’s ugly 18-12 win at Miami, carrying 15 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the six-point victory.

TE Owen Daniels, Denver Broncos

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

    Down 14-0 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, the Denver Broncos came all the way back to win in overtime 20-17.

    Quarterback Brock Osweiler would throw for 299 yards and one score in the win. And it seemed like every time he needed a key completion in the second half, he turned to veteran tight end Owen Daniels. After being limited to one catch for nine yards in the first half, Gary Kubiak’s favorite tight end hauled in four passes for 61 yards in the second half.

    Daniels has not been a big factor with Osweiler at the controls, with more than half of his 45 receptions and all three of his touchdown receptions coming from veteran signal-caller Peyton Manning. But perhaps something clicked last week against the Bengals.

    This week’s opponent is San Diego, and with a win, the Broncos can wrap up the AFC West for the fifth straight year. With a victory and a loss by the Patriots, Kubiak’s team could be the top seed in the conference.

CB Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs

    It’s been quite a year for the Kansas City Chiefs. A 1-5 start has been followed by a nine-game winning streak, and the team is headed to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Andy Reid’s club can still win the AFC West with a victory over the Oakland Raiders and a loss by the Denver Broncos.

    Although the Raiders passing game has faded a tad in recent weeks, wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper have been among the best tandems in the league. They both present a challenge to a Kansas City secondary that has come up big this year, especially rookie cornerback Marcus Peters.

    The 2015 first-round pick is tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions this season (two returned for touchdowns). He also ranks fourth on the team with 59 tackles and has knocked down an impressive 25 passes.

    Let’s see if Peters and his teammates can add to the Chiefs’ total of 21 interceptions, second-most in the NFL this season. This was a club that picked off only six passes in 16 games in 2014.

QB Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers

    Suddenly, the Minnesota Vikings are finding ways to score points, and a lot of it has to do with their offense.

    After a 10-game stretch in which coordinator Norv Turner’s unit scored two touchdowns or less, the Purple Gang has totaled a combined 87 points and nine offensive touchdowns in consecutive wins over the Chicago Bears and New York Giants.

    Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has awoken as of late and now takes aim at a Green Bay defense that has had its ups and downs this season. While both of these clubs are playoff-bound, the winner here is the NFC North champion and will host a playoff game next weekend.

WR Ted Ginn, Carolina Panthers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers

    It’s been a career year for not only Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers franchise but nine-year veteran wideout Ten Ginn Jr. as well.

    And if Ron Rivera’s club is going to finish 15-1 and wrap up the top seed in the NFC this weekend, it will need a little more help from Ginn, who was a virtual no-show in last Sunday’s 20-13 loss at the Georgia Dome.

    The speedy performer has caught 44 passes for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. But the well-traveled receiver caught just one pass for nine yards against the Atlanta Falcons last week. He had entered last week’s contest on quite the three-game run, snaring 13 passes for 285 yards and six touchdowns—with two scores in each of those contests.

    The Carolina ground attack ranks second in the league, but Newton and company have an explosive passing attack. Without that last week in Atlanta, the Panthers scored a season-low 13 points. The Panthers need Ginn to show last week was just one of those off days. His 10 touchdowns this season lead the NFC South champions.

    UPDATE: Ginn is now being listed as doubtful (knee) for Sunday's game with the Buccaneers.

DE Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

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    Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals

    Just when it appeared that the Seattle Seahawks were in the midst of a serious roll and quarterback Russell Wilson was in a major groove, Pete Carroll’s club ran into the St. Louis Rams once again.

    Wilson was sacked four times, as Jeff Fisher’s club frolicked on defense in the 23-17 win, completing a sweep of the Seahawks for the first time since 2004.

    But let’s not get sidetracked here. Seattle plays the Arizona Cardinals, who can still claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs with a victory and a loss by the Carolina Panthers. While outside linebackers Dwight Freeney leads the Cards with seven sacks, defensive end Calais Campbell is arguably the team’s best performer on the front seven. He and a pass rush that totaled nine sacks in last week’s 38-8 win over the Green Bay Packers have Wilson clearly in their sights.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com.

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