The Biggest X-Factor for Every Remaining Playoff Team

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2020

The Biggest X-Factor for Every Remaining Playoff Team

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The NFL playoff field is down to eight teams, and all are talented squads led by some of the league's biggest stars. You know the guys who got them here—players like Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Derrick Henry and George Kittle.

    These are largely the same players who will carry their teams to Super Bowl LIV, should they make it that far.

    However, not every game is going to be decided by a jaw-dropping Patrick Mahomes throw or a critical Nick Bosa sack. The keys to victory will depend just as much on the players who don't get all the headlines.

    Here, we're going to examine the X-factor for each team, a potentially overlooked—though not necessarily unknown—player or unit on each team who can be the sneaky difference-maker over the next two weeks.


Baltimore Ravens: RB Gus Edwards

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    Ravens RB Gus Edwards
    Ravens RB Gus EdwardsNick Wass/Associated Press

    For most of the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens offense has centered around Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram II and the running game. While the likely MVP quarterback should be ready to roll, the Ravens may not get so lucky with Ingram.

    Ingram, who suffered a calf injury in Week 16, appeared on track to handle a full workload this week. However, he suffered a setback, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, and is now expected to have "a chance to play."

    It's no longer safe to assume the 30-year-old Ingram will be ready to handle a full workload this week or next.

    If Ingram cannot go or is at less than 100 percent, the Ravens will have to lean more heavily on backup Gus Edwards.

    Edwards saw his fair share of the workload during the regular season, finishing with 711 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He started the finale too, racking up 130 yards in the process. Continued hard running from Edwards could be Baltimore's quickest path to victory, particularly with opponents gearing up to slow Jackson.

Green Bay Packers: RB Jamaal Williams

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    Packers RB Jamaal Williams
    Packers RB Jamaal WilliamsCraig Lassig/Associated Press

    While the Green Bay Packers may not struggle too much to move the ball against the Seattle Seahawks and their 26th-ranked defense, they'll need all the firepower they can get if they make it to the NFC title game.

    The Minnesota Vikings (tied for fifth) and the San Francisco 49ers (eighth) both have top-10 scoring defenses.

    Green Bay's top trio—quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams—are players the team will clearly need to lean on. However, complementary running back Jamaal Williams could be the difference-maker if the Packers can also get him rolling.

    Jones is the leader of Green Bay's backfield, finishing the regular season with 1,558 total yards and 19 touchdowns. But Williams has been an impact player in his own right at times. Against the Detroit Lions in Week 6, for example, he produced 145 total yards and a touchdown.

    Against a team like San Francisco, Williams' receiving skills could be critical. Rodgers struggled to push the ball downfield the last time Green Bay played the 49ers, passing for a mere 104 yards, with 35 of that coming from Williams.

Houston Texans: DE J.J. Watt

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    Texans DE J.J. Watt
    Texans DE J.J. WattEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans were forced to play the second half of the regular season without standout defensive end J.J. Watt after he tore his pectoral muscle. They managed to win the AFC South without him, but his impact was sorely missed.

    The Texans finished the regular season ranked 29th in pass defense while allowing an average of 267.2 yards through the air.

    Against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs aerial attack, Houston's pass defense could be a significant liability. Therefore, a strong outing from Watt, who returned on Wild Card Weekend, could be critical.

    Watt played a limited role against the Buffalo Bills last Saturday, but he could see more playing time this week.

    "We have to see how he's doing," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "I think he felt good coming out of the game."

    Houston's ability to corral the Chiefs passing attack could hinge on their ability to pressure Mahomes. The same could hold true against the Ravens or Titans should the Texans meet one of them in the conference title game.

Kansas City Chiefs: S Tyrann Mathieu

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    Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu
    Chiefs S Tyrann MathieuNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    While the Chiefs defense took some positive steps over the second half of the season, specifically against the pass, stopping the run at the second level has remained an issue. Kansas City finished the regular season ranked eighth against the pass but 26th against the run.

    With the Chiefs utilizing a lot of 4-2-5 sub-package alignments, this places a lot of pressure on safety Tyrann Mathieu. It's not a coincidence that Mathieu led the Chiefs with 63 solo tackles during the regular season: He could be particularly important against the Titans or the Ravens in the next round.

    This week, Mathieu is going to play a key role defending the middle of the field against Houston's receivers, particularly DeAndre Hopkins. Containing running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Carlos Hyde will also be a challenge.

    The Chiefs may lean on Mathieu even more with fellow safety Juan Thornhill done for the season after tearing his ACL in Week 17.

Minnesota Vikings: The Linebacking Corps

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    Vikings LB Eric Kendricks
    Vikings LB Eric KendricksMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Vikings have a difficult challenge ahead of them. If they're going to beat the 49ers, they'll need to slow San Francisco's talented backfield. With running backs like Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, the 49ers are capable of overwhelming opponents via head coach Kyle Shanahan's creative rushing attack and with the short-passing game.

    This makes Vikings linebackers Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson some of the most important players of the divisional round.

    Not only will the linebacker corps be responsible for limiting the run game, but it will also have to handle a lot of coverage at the second level, where 49ers tight end George Kittle will also be roaming.

    Leaning on sub-packages won't be a primary option for the Vikings. They have already placed cornerback Mike Hughes on injured reserve and will be without fellow cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

    If Minnesota cannot hold up in their base 4-3 defense, they're going to have a difficult time getting past San Francisco and into the NFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Deebo Samuel

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    49ers WR Deebo Samuel
    49ers WR Deebo SamuelStephen Brashear/Associated Press

    If the 49ers want to put added pressure on the Vikings defense—and potentially either the Seahawks or Packers in the next round—they'll want to stretch the field and attack the perimeter. This wasn't often their primary offensive focus in the regular season, but this is the best way to both exploit Minnesota's banged-up secondary and open up underneath routes and the ground game.

    This is largely why the 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders just before the in-season deadline. However, Sanders may not be the most important wide receiver on Saturday. This title will likely go to rookie wideout Deebo Samuel.

    The 5'11", 214-pound South Carolina product has the size to out-physical most defensive backs and enough quickness to boost the vertical passing game. If the 49ers can get him going against Minnesota, the trickle-down should allow the rest of San Francisco's offense to flourish.

    Samuel could be equally important against either the Seahawks or the Packers should the 49ers advance. He topped the 100-yard mark in each regular-season game against Seattle—both one-score games—and produced 50 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay.

Seattle Seahawks: The Pass Rush

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    Seahawks DE Jadeveon Clowney
    Seahawks DE Jadeveon ClowneyChris Szagola/Associated Press

    Though he wasn't a major factor in every single game—and he missed three due to injury—there were times when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was a one-man wrecking crew. After being limited in the season finale, he returned to form against the Philadelphia Eagles on Wild Card Weekend and was a major force in the game.

    "Jadeveon Clowney was really a factor," head coach Pete Carroll said, per Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times. "You saw everybody was active. If there’s one thing, though, I think his impact was really noticeable."

    The Seahawks will need a strong outing from Clowney, Ezekiel Ansah and the rest of their pass rush if they hope to contain quarterbacks like Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo in the postseason. As previously mentioned, defending the pass hasn't been Seattle's strong suit.

    With Ansah aggravating the stinger that cost him time in the regular season on Sunday, the responsibility of bringing pressure may fall largely on Clowney and the play-calling of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Tennessee Titans: WR A.J. Brown

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    Titans WR A.J. Brown
    Titans WR A.J. BrownEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Titans have pushed into the second round of the postseason with the hard running of Derrick Henry and some efficient play from quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The game plan for opponents will be to try to contain Henry, the league's rushing champion, and force Tannehill to beat them.

    This is a game plan the New England Patriots weren't able to enact last weekend. Tannehill passed for a mere 72 yards, but the Titans still escaped with a one-point victory.

    Putting up 14 offensive points likely won't be enough against the Ravens or the rest of the AFC field. If the Titans hope to push the ball downfield and open up the running game, they're going to need good performances from rookie wideout A.J. Brown.

    Brown has been fantastic for the Titans, at least in stretches. However, consistency hasn't been his greatest strength. He finished the regular season with 1,051 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He also had six games with fewer than 30 yards.

    Against the Patriots, he had just one catch for four yards.

    If the Titans can get Brown going, their offense will be difficult to stop. If they cannot, they'll be one-dimensional, which could be a problem against Baltimore, Kansas City and Houston.