Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2022

Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

0 of 14

    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Fourteen NFL teams remain alive in the quest for the Lombardi Trophy. The playoffs are set to get underway on Saturday with Super Wild Card Weekend, and by Tuesday morning, only eight teams will remain.

    To get to Super Bowl LVI, teams will be looking to shut down—or at least limit—the best players on the opposing teams. Everyone knows who those players are, too. While it's easier in theory than in practice, if you contain Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow or Derrick Henry, you at least have a fighting chance.

    Here, we'll look past the biggest names and examine one player from each team with the potential to sway games in the postseason. These aren't superstars, 2021 Pro Bowlers or even rookie first-round draft picks, but each player on this list has the skill set, the proven production and the role necessary to change a game at any given moment.

    These are the X-factors of the 2021-22 NFL playoffs. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: OLB Markus Golden

1 of 14

    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals have plenty of offensive weapons, from quarterback Kyler Murray and running back James Conner to tight end Zach Ertz and wideouts A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins—if Hopkins is able to return from MCL surgery during the postseason.

    However, Arizona is a dangerous playoff team because of its balance. The Cardinals finished the regular season ranked 11th in scoring offense and 11th in points allowed.

    Pass-rusher Chandler Jones returned to Pro Bowl form in 2021 and remains one of the faces of the Cardinals defense. Fellow sack artist Markus Golden isn't as heralded, but he's a defensive X-factor whom teams cannot afford to ignore.

    Golden finished the regular season with 11 sacks (a half-sack more than Jones), 48 tackles, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 10 tackles for loss and 35 quarterback pressures. If opponents spend too much energy slowing Jones, Golden has the potential to make them pay. If the pass rush gets rolling, opponents will find it difficult to match points with Arizona.

Buffalo Bills: TE Dawson Knox

2 of 14

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills have the ability to go three-wide and create mismatches all across the board. With mobile gunslinger Josh Allen under center and Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders in the lineup, Buffalo's ninth-ranked passing offense can be extremely difficult to contain.

    What makes it even more dangerous is the presence of X-factor tight end Dawson Knox.

    More of a bit player in his first two seasons, Knox emerged as a legitimate playmaker in 2021. Despite missing two games with a fractured hand, he finished with 49 receptions, 587 yards and nine touchdown receptions, second on the team behind only Diggs.

    Knox is particularly potent because he can attack as both a downfield weapon (12.0 yards per catch) and a deep threat. He's also an incredibly reliable target, providing a passer rating of 127.8 when targeted this season.

    While Knox isn't the offensive focal point a la Kansas City's Travis Kelce or Baltimore's Mark Andrews, he can terrorize a defense if left unchecked.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tee Higgins

3 of 14

    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Burrow and rookie first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase are the stars of the Cincinnati Bengals' passing offense, and everyone knows it. If Burrow can't be flustered and Chase cannot be contained, the high-flying Bengals will soar past any opponent.

    However, it isn't a two-man circus in Cincinnati. The Bengals offense is especially dangerous because if defenses do focus on limiting Chase, second-year man Tee Higgins can go off. As evidence, see his 194-yard, two-touchdown game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16.

    Fellow receiver Tyler Boyd deserves a bit of an honorable mention here, because he too can gash a defense if given the opportunity. However, it is Higgins who has developed an undeniable chemistry with Burrow down the stretch.

    "Joe really trusts Tee to be in the right spots and come up with the ball," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, per Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

    Higgins surpassed 110 receiving yards in four of his last six games and finished the year with 1,091 yards. Expect him to be a huge piece of Cincinnati's puzzle in the postseason.

Dallas Cowboys: RB Tony Pollard

4 of 14

    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    When you think of the Dallas Cowboys' potent offense, you probably think of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. Unless you're a Cowboys fan or a fantasy diehard, you might not immediately think of running back Tony Pollard.

    However, Pollard has emerged as an important piece of the Cowboys offense—an X-factor, if you will. He's been more explosive than Elliott, averaging 5.5 yards per carry to Elliott's 4.2. Pollard actually tied for fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt, along with Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor and Miles Sanders.

    Pollard has also been a factor in the receiving game, catching 39 passes for 337 yards and providing a passer rating of 97.2 when targeted.

    While Elliott continues to be the lead back and the top goal-line option, opposing defenses cannot relax when he is off the field. Pollard is a fast, physical playmaker who can make something happen in any down-and-distance scenario.

    One could argue that Pollard deserves to be an even bigger part of the game plan than he already is. Perhaps he will be in the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers: CB Rasul Douglas

5 of 14

    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Everyone knows that to stop the Green Bay Packers, you must contain Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones and the rest of the offense. However, Green Bay is a legitimate title contender because it can also win defensively.

    The Packers finished the regular season ranked ninth in total defense and 13th in points allowed. Their defense is going to get a postseason boost with the return of star cornerback Jaire Alexander.

    Opposing quarterbacks won't simply be able to avoid targeting Alexander in the playoffs, though. The presence of Rasul Douglas—signed off the Cardinals practice squad in October—will make that virtually impossible.

    Douglas has been nothing short of spectacular since entering Green Bay's rotation. In 12 games, he's tallied 13 passes defended, five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns and allowed an opposing passer rating of only 44.5.

    With Alexander, rookie Eric Stokes and Douglas in the lineup, Green Bay's defense should be able to match up with just about any receiver group it faces.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Committee Backfield

6 of 14

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When you think of the Kansas City Chiefs, you probably think of Mahomes, Kelce, Tyreek Hill and a powerful passing attack. There's good reason for that. However, the Chiefs have been particularly dangerous this season because they've found ways to attack on the ground as well.

    While Kansas City only ranks 20th in rushing attempts, it ranks seventh in yards per carry (4.5). This could become a huge factor in the postseason, especially if opponents gear up to stop the downfield passing attack.

    If a team does sell out to slow Kelce, Hill and Co., the Chiefs can hurt them in the running game. They topped 120 rushing yards in each of the last three games of the regular season.

    It's impossible to give the "X-factor" title to any single player, though, as Kansas City has relied on a committee approach. With a backfield that includes Darrel Williams, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Derrick Gore and Jerick McKinnon, the Chiefs are sure to create running back mismatches throughout the 2021-22 postseason.

Las Vegas Raiders: DE Yannick Ngakoue

7 of 14

    Ellen Schmidt/Associated Press

    While not as potent offensively as the Chiefs, the Las Vegas Raiders are certainly capable of chewing up yardage. They finished the year ranked sixth in passing, 11th in total offense and 18th in scoring offense.

    If the Raiders are going to make a deep playoff run, though, they will have to create some big plays defensively. This is where Las Vegas' powerful defensive front—headlined by defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue—enters the equation.

    In the season finale against the Las Angeles Chargers, for example, the Raiders sacked Justin Herbert three times while forcing one interception and consistently harassing him throughout the game.

    While Crosby made the Pro Bowl this season, Ngakoue did not. However, this doesn't mean opposing quarterbacks can afford to ignore him. Ngakoue is a dangerous pass-rusher who finished the regular season with 10 sacks, 23 quarterback hits and 36 quarterback pressures.

    Ngakoue and Crosby form an elite tandem, and they give the Raiders a real chance of progressing in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Rams: RB Sony Michel

8 of 14

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    To stop the Los Angeles Rams offense, teams need to contain Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr. and the passing game, right? Well, that certainly goes a long way, but if teams do sell out to stop the pass, they could be hurt by Sony Michel on the ground.

    Michel hasn't been statistically impressive this season, averaging a so-so 4.1 yards per carry. However, he's been great at handling large workloads and wearing down defenses.

    Consider that the Rams went 8-1 in games when Michel saw at least 10 carries. They went 4-4 in games where he did not. There is, of course, a correlation between leading in games and rushing opportunities, but also consider that in Michel's eight games with double-digit carries, five were decided by one score.

    Getting Michel going adds balance to L.A.'s offense, makes it more difficult for the opposition to pressure Stafford and creates downfield opportunities for Kupp and the receiving corps.

    Cam Akers deserves an honorable mention too. While he only returned from a torn Achilles in Week 18, he's likely to help Michel establish the power-running game in the postseason.

New England Patriots: LB Kyle Van Noy

9 of 14

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots are in the postseason thanks largely to their impressive defense, which ranked fourth overall and second in points allowed in the regular season.

    While standouts like Matt Judon and J.C. Jackson headline the Patriots defense, do-it-all linebacker Kyle Van Noy is the unit's true X-factor. He returned to New England in 2021 after spending a year with the Miami Dolphins, and it took him no time to become an impact player in the heart of the Patriots defense.

    Van Noy played 81 percent of the defensive snaps this season, finishing with 66 tackles, five sacks, 10 passes defended, two forced fumbles, one defensive touchdown, one interception and 18 quarterback pressures. He is also a vocal leader who will ensure his teammates are prepared for the task at hand.

    "The Bills won the division," Van Noy said of New England's wild-card matchup, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald. "They're playing at home. We gotta go up there and win. An we have to prepare like this week's the last week."

    Van Noy might not be the face of the Patriots defense, but he's a key cog who can impact the game in an endless variety of ways.

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts

10 of 14

    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The lone quarterback on this list, Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles is the epitome of an X-factor at the position. Unorthodox and still relatively raw, Hurts is a dual-threat quarterback whose skills the Eagles have fully embraced.

    With Hurts feeding the machine, the Eagles' rushing attack surged in 2021. No team rushed for more yards or more rushing touchdowns than Philadelphia. Hurts was responsible for 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

    Hurts cannot be discounted as a passer either. While not the most efficient of quarterbacks (87.2 rating), he has a powerful arm and can make all the throws. Hurts passed for 3,144 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season.

    If teams are going to slow the Eagles offense, they're going to have to contain the second-year quarterback both on the ground and through the air. That's a tough challenge, and it's why the Eagles have a chance to advance in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers: TE Pat Freiermuth

11 of 14

    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    If the Pittsburgh Steelers have any chance of going deep into the postseason, they're going to have to avoid slow starts and put points on the board early. Getting behind early has proved costly, as it has taken the ground game out of the equation and allowed opponents to tee off on aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    The Steelers rallied but fell short in games against the Chargers and Minnesota Vikings. Against the Chiefs and Bengals, they started slow and never recovered.

    While Harris, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are obvious pieces of the Pittsburgh offense, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth has emerged as a potent X-factor.

    Though he's only topped the 50-yard mark twice this season, Freiermuth has become a reliable target for Roethlisberger. He's caught at least four passes in nine of his last 11 games, scored in six different games and provided a passer rating of 121.1 when targeted.

    If the Steelers hope to match points with teams like Kansas City and Cincinnati, they need to target Freiermuth early and often, especially in the red zone.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Brandon Aiyuk

12 of 14

    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    If this list were solely about the best and most versatile playmakers, Deebo Samuel would be the San Francisco 49ers' pick hands down. Samuel has morphed into a dangerous receiving and rushing threat, and he even tossed a touchdown pass in the season finale.

    However, Samuel is a Pro Bowl commodity that teams will be focused on stopping in the postseason. When they do, budding X-factor Brandon Aiyuk will be there to make them pay.

    The second-year wideout has emerged as a dangerous downfield weapon down the stretch. With Samuel working double duty as a receiver and a runner, Aiyuk has become one of San Francisco's go-to receivers. While he finished with only 826 receiving yards and five touchdowns, 685 yards and four touchdowns came in the final 10 games.

    Aiyuk caught 10 passes for 201 yards over the final two weeks alone.

    So, while Samuel and tight end George Kittle will undoubtedly be the focal points for opposing defenses, Aiyuk might be the difference-maker in the postseason.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Leonard Fournette

13 of 14

    Don Montague/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans got some good news this week when the team designated running back Leonard Fournette for return from injured reserve. Fournette has been out with a hamstring injury since Week 15, and his return will be huge in the postseason.

    Fournette is more than just a powerful ball-carrier for the Buccaneers. He's a tremendous all-around back and a legitimate X-factor.

    In 14 games this season, Fournette rushed for 812 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. He also caught 69 passes for 454 yards and scored 10 combined touchdowns.

    Having a legitimate every-down back like Fournette in the lineup is important. Quarterback Tom Brady loves to utilize his running backs in the passing game, and Fournette can be both an underneath weapon and a security blanket for the 44-year-old signal-caller.

    The Bucs have other backs like Ronald Jones II and Giovani Bernard on the roster, but Fournette leads the charge in the Tampa backfield.

Tennessee Titans: DT Jeffery Simmons

14 of 14

    Matt Durisko/Associated Press

    Everyone knows that with Henry set to return from foot surgery, stopping him and the rushing attack will be the key to stopping the Tennessee Titans offense. Opponents will still have to put up points on Tennessee's sixth-ranked scoring defense, though, and that's where Jeffery Simmons becomes a problem.

    A first-round draft pick in 2019, Simmons has emerged as a significant difference-maker this year. Capable of stuffing the run and bringing interior pressure, Simmons can almost single-handedly wreck a game plan.

    Simmons started all 17 games for the Titans this season and played a career-high 85 percent of the defensive snaps. He finished the regular season with 54 tackles, 42 solo stops, 8.5 sacks, six passes defended, 12 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback pressures.

    While Simmons may not be quite as impactful as Aaron Donald, he's one of the most game-changing defensive tackles in the league. If opposing quarterbacks don't account for him on every play, Simmons will wreak havoc.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.