The Biggest X-Factor for Every NFL Playoff Contender
The NFL playoffs change everything.
With the field whittled to 12, there are no bad teams. In most cases, there isn't even one major, definable weakness. Pressure rises in the bracket, and the margin for error slims with the pressure of the season being on the line every week.
There, more than usual, X-factors decide fates. That can be one player (and yes, some of the obvious names apply) or an entire unit. That can be a coaching or schematic detail, or simple consistency or injuries.
For the teams headed to the playoffs or close and in control of their destiny (sorry Dallas), these are the X-factors heading into the postseason bracket.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson
Say hello to the first truly obvious X-factor.
Lamar Jackson is in the middle of a historic MVP push and even shattered Mike Vick's rushing record on his way to leading the Baltimore Ravens to a 13-2 mark.
The numbers, in a word, are gaudy: He's completed 66.1 percent of his passes with 36 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushed for 1,200-plus yards. At least for this season, NFL defenses simply don't know how to limit Jackson's skill set and force him into areas of discomfort.
But it would be silly to completely discount playoff defenses from slowing Jackson, who certainly struggled in the playoffs last year. Against the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round, Jackson completed just 48.3 percent of his passes and was sacked seven times in a 23-17 loss.
He's much, much better now, but all the goodwill from this season goes poof if Jackson has one down performance and the Ravens bow out.
Houston Texans: Big Plays
The Houston Texans thrive on getting big plays down the field, which is a little different than the usual dink-and-dunk teams employ.
Deshaun Watson is just that good at extending plays behind a line that has coughed up nearly another 50 sacks—and his supporting pieces are just that explosive.
In the backfield, rushers have posted 13 runs of 20-plus yards this year to help the per-carry average climb to 4.6. Watson's targets through the air have posted 47 gains of 20-plus yards, helping him to throw 26 touchdowns against just 12 picks in spite of the offensive line.
When the big plays flow, the Texans can largely counteract a defense ranked middle-of-the-pack in scoring. But in the playoffs, the best defenses typically make it through, which means fewer chances to drum up the numbers. Over the last three weeks, Watson's offense hasn't scored more than 24 points, too.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes' Health
It's safe to assume Patrick Mahomes is feeling just fine for the 11-4 Kansas City Chiefs.
But health is such a precarious thing come playoff time. Since November 11, Mahomes has thrown multiple touchdowns in a game just twice—during the last two wins against mediocre Denver and Chicago squads.
Which isn't meant to undersell Mahomes much at all, but he's not exactly blazing another MVP path like the one fans saw last year.
That could end up being a problem in the AFC. Two of Mahomes' losses this year happened at the hands of Tennessee and Houston teams more than capable of pulling off another upset. If Mahomes isn't more like his early-season self (10 touchdown passes over three games), the Chiefs could be in some trouble.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady vs. Pressure
If everything with Tom Brady was rolling along per usual, a segment on the New England Patriots might be able to focus on the superb defense.
But everything isn't all right with the future Hall of Famer.
Brady is on a big downswing this season, having thrown just 22 touchdowns, which would be his lowest mark since 2001. His touchdown percentage of 3.8 is easily the lowest of his career, and according to Pro Football Focus (via the Washington Post's Neil Greenberg), his completion percentage crumbles to 34 percent when pressured as of early December.
Perhaps just as concerning is Brady hasn't been able to lead the Patriots over most of the big-time AFC contenders this year, having lost to Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore. Those teams nullify the elite complementary defense, and if Brady doesn't experience a turnaround in the postseason, the Patriots could bow out early.
Buffalo Bills: The Defense
Maybe Josh Allen should slot in here, but he just took on the elite New England Patriots defense and emerged looking good, rushing for 40-plus yards and throwing for 208 yards and two scores with no picks.
At best, Allen can negotiate a meet with Bill Belichick and come out looking good, even if it didn't lead to a win.
In an AFC littered with eye-popping firepower, even Buffalo's defense permitting just 16.4 points per game on average could end up having problems.
This isn't the regular season, in which matchups with both teams from New York, Washington and Denver, to name a few, inflate the numbers. The defense, despite its 42 sacks and 13 interceptions, has played a role in coming up short against New England twice, as well as Baltimore, not to mention the odd loss to Cleveland.
For Buffalo, the defense has to make it happen.
Tennessee Titans: Derrick Henry
Onlookers might be content to argue until they're blue in the face as to running backs' importance these days.
But it's hard to undersell Derrick Henry.
When Henry is on, the Tennessee Titans roll. Starting in the second week of November, the Titans rattled off four straight wins while Henry put up at least 100 rushing yards in each game, with multiple rushing scores in three of the four. The Titans lost last time out while Henry sat out with a sore hamstring.
Riding Henry is a fair enough blueprint to keeping a quarterback such as Brady or Mahomes on the bench. The Titans aren't going to get some unexpected escalation from Ryan Tannehill under center (20 touchdowns, six interceptions), so Henry it is.
Keep in mind one of those mentioned wins over the four-game streak was an upset of Kansas City while Mahomes tossed three scores, largely because Henry had 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson
It almost seems a little lazy to throw another quarterback out there, but (a) welcome to the playoffs, and (b) Russell Wilson is just that good.
To be blunt, the Seattle Seahawks as a whole aren't that inspiring. The ground game isn't threatening, only two targets have breached the 350-yard mark in the passing game, the pass rush has generated just 26 sacks, and the defense ranks in the bottom half of the league while allowing nearly 25 points per game.
But the Seahawks boast 11 wins because Wilson has been his usual magician-esque self in the pocket despite 40-plus sacks, completing 66.4 percent of his passes with 3,877 yards and 29 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
If the Seahawks make it out of their first game, then it means Wilson is ticking—if he's ticking, it could mean a deep run.
Green Bay Packers: The Pass Rush
This past offseason, it almost seemed like an act of desperation when the Green Bay Packers threw money at both Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith in free agency. Both guys had good seasons in the past, but throwing $50-plus million at each seemed like a reach.
But Packers brass and coaching staff sure come out looking swell now. Preston, formerly in Washington, has 12 sacks through 14 games, and Za'Darius, formerly of Baltimore, has 13.5.
Consistent pressure has a positive ripple effect on an entire unit, something the Packers have enjoyed for most of the season. Perhaps the glaring exception was a 37-8 loss to San Francisco out of a bye. Both Smiths were active but couldn't do enough to stop the bleeding.
While it's nice the Packers still have a high-efficiency Aaron Rodgers (24 touchdowns, three interceptions) to fall back on, it's the pressure creating mistakes by the opposition (16 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles) that can alter the course of a postseason bracket.
New Orleans Saints: The Defense
The big three on offense for the New Orleans Saints—Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas—aren't performing too far out of the realm of expectations.
But when they haven't, or when injuries have played a role, the defense hasn't always been able to keep pace.
Things sound good. The Saints only allow 22.1 points per game, and the unit has 20-plus sacks. But when the offense sputtered to a halt against bad Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons teams this year, losses followed. In a heavyweight shootout with the San Francisco Giants, they suffered a close defeat.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so concerning if Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins weren't sitting on injured reserve. But the depleted unit with some rough marks on the resume will need big games to survive what could be an offensive onslaught during the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo's Struggles
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has faded down the stretch, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions over his last two outings with a 1-1 win-loss mark.
This wouldn't seem so concerning at face value given Garoppolo's overall completion percentage of 68.5 with 27 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. But two of his three four-touchdown games came against struggling Arizona and New Orleans, whose issues were mentioned already. His lone other showing with more than two touchdown passes came against one-win Cincinnati. He's thrown one or no touchdowns in a game eight times.
And hey, this isn't the biggest deal in the regular season thanks to Kyle Shanahan's offensive wizardry. But it hurt the team in losses to contenders like Baltimore and Seattle. Defenses in the postseason have a full season's worth of film to browse, and if they can find a way to fluster Garoppolo, that may define San Francisco's chances at hoisting a Lombardi Trophy.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook's Health
The Minnesota Vikings lean on a healthy dose of balance to win games, though most of that goes out the window without Dalvin Cook.
Cook didn't suit up in Week 16 and presumably won't close the season either, which cuts short a fantastic campaign. Over 14 games, he rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns on a 4.5 per-carry average and also slotted second on the team in receiving with 53 catches for 519 yards.
While the backs behind Cook on the depth chart aren't slouches, there are few in the NFL as explosive as Cook when he's healthy. Struggles for Cook against contenders like Seattle and Kansas City played a part in losses of seven points or fewer this year, so swapping him out for a backup only dampens the outlook.
If the Vikings find themselves in a knockdown, drag-out fight against Philadelphia or otherwise again, Cook could be the key, provided he's 100 percent.
Philadelphia Eagles: Doug Pederson's Magic
Most teams would give it all to have a coach like Doug Pederson.
The guru behind the Nick Foles runs of recent years now has a healthy Carson Wentz in December. The fourth-year QB just picked off the Dallas Cowboys with everything at stake, posting a 31-of-40 line with 319 yards and a score.
And Pederson was just quietly behind the scenes working the chess pieces. He lost key defenders at points and still held Dak Prescott without a score and Ezekiel Elliott under 50 yards. Zach Ertz got hurt, so Dallas Goedert stepped in and led the team in receiving with nine grabs for 91 yards and a score.
This is just one week's worth of examples. While 8-7 isn't the prettiest mark and there have been some ugly losses, takedowns of Buffalo and Dallas, as well as playing New England and Seattle close, suggest Pederson might just have another epic run beginning to boil.