While experience can often help players handle the pressure of the NFL playoffs, not everyone needs to be a seasoned veteran to put his fingerprints on the second season.
Just ask Leonard Fournette.
This time last year, he was helping steer an upstart Jacksonville Jaguars team to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. His first playoff outing was a grind (21 carries for 57 yards), but after that, he was off to the races.
Between the divisional round and conference championship games, he totaled 49 rushes for 185 yards and four touchdowns.
After providing the schedule, odds and our predictions for the divisional round, we'll spotlight three first-year players who could be ready to make their own playoff splashes.
Divisional-Round Schedule and Odds
Saturday, January 12
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (-5.5) at 4:35 p.m. on NBC
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams (-7) at 8:15 p.m. on Fox
Sunday, January 13
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots (-4) at 1:05 p.m. on CBS
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints (-8) at 4:40 p.m. on Fox
Odds per OddsShark. All times ET.
In addition to the broadcast networks, all playoff games can be viewed on FuboTV.
Chiefs 34, Colts 30
Rams 27, Cowboys 17
Chargers 31, Patriots 27
Saints 31, Eagles 20
Rookies to Watch
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
If you could get an honest, off-the-record moment with an NFL executive who drafted in the top half this past April, you might hear them label Derwin James as the one that got away.
While he came off the board 17th overall, he spent the season providing evidence he should have gone even higher. The Swiss Army knife who doubles as the Chargers' safety basically excelled at everything. He led the team in tackles with 105 and filled the rest of his stat line with 13 pass breakups, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
"This guy's a tremendous football player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters. "He's good at everything. ... He's got good range, good speed, he's long, he's hard to block, very instinctive, good tackler, good blitzer. He's good at everything."
James, who made the All-Pro first team, may well be asked to do everything again on Sunday. Whether he's defending receivers, backs or tight ends in coverage, flying around in run support or even blitzing Tom Brady, James is likely to grab your attention early and often.
Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
While few should be surprised to see James in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race, it's hard to imagine many pegged Darius Leonard to be the primary competition.
He was the 36th pick out of South Carolina State—not exactly the bio you would expect from a budding star. But once the season started, he started furiously pushing his way to the front of the rookie line.
Leonard kicked off his career with a nine-tackle effort. In Week 2, he tallied 19 takedowns, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. By year's end, the fellow freshman first-team All-Pro had recorded an NFL-best 163 tackles (19 more than second place) along with eight pass breakups, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
He also impressed James in the process:
No defense features a more daunting task than Leonard's unit during the divisional round. If Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs can be contained, Indy's standout rookie will have plenty to do with it.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
A Pro Bowl spot didn't come the way of Leighton Vander Esch, and the Defensive Rookie of the Year honor almost certainly won't, either. But those are the only blemishes—if we can even call them that—on an otherwise brilliant rookie effort.
He's a tackle machine cut from a similar cloth as Leonard. In fact, Vander Esch's 140 tackles put him behind only Leonard and third-year Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez.
Vander Esch had six double-digit tackle performances in the regular season and picked up where he left off with 10 in the Cowboys' wild-card win over the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks had this season's best rushing attack. It never got off the ground in the opening round, finishing with just 73 yards on 24 carries.
Vander Esch, Dallas' tackle leader once again, was everywhere he needed to be:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
The Cowboys held the Seahawks to just 2.3 yards gained after close-in per carry, the lowest by the Seahawks in a game this season. LB Leighton Vander Esch (@VanderEsch38) led the charge for the Cowboys rush defense, racking up 10 tackles and 6 stops. #SEAvsDAL #DallasCowboys https://t.co/k8dTZuoDdP
The difficulty only increases on Saturday, with Todd Gurley (and maybe C.J. Anderson too) awaiting this defense. Vander Esch will have as much to do with limiting L.A.'s explosive attack as anyone.