6 NFL Players Who Have to Rise to the Occasion in Divisional Playoffs

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2022

6 NFL Players Who Have to Rise to the Occasion in Divisional Playoffs

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    In the NFL playoffs, it doesn't take much for a player to go from zero to hero. 

    With each passing week, the field gets smaller, the stakes get higher, and the margin for error gets even thinner. 

    That's why it's imperative that players have a short memory in their quest to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. While some might not have put forth their best effort in the wild-card round, they could be the deciding factor in their team getting through to Championship Game Weekend. 

    Each player on this list was either quiet or downright bad as his team advanced last week. Now, they'll need to turn things around quickly and rebound if their team is going to keep the dream alive.

Eli Apple, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals got a large playoff monkey off their backs last week. Joe Burrow and Co. picked up the franchise's first playoff win since 1990 when they beat the Houston Oilers. 

    That win goes a long way toward changing the perception of the franchise, but they could pick up even more momentum by unseating the AFC's top-seeded team in the Tennessee Titans. 

    Burrow and the offense will obviously play a huge role in that. The second-year quarterback has commanded respect in his sophomore campaign and was a surgical 24-of-34 for 244 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover against the Las Vegas Raiders. 

    But the Bengals' ability to slow down the Titans offense will be pivotal as well. That's going to require a much better day from Eli Apple at cornerback. 

    With A.J. Brown and Julio Jones able to work the outside, the Bengals are going to rely on Apple to be solid in coverage. That wasn't the case against the Raiders. 

    Apple gave up six catches for 82 yards on eight targets, including a touchdown reception by Zay Jones. The Titans' outside receivers are a vast upgrade over Jones, so the Bengals are going to need Apple to have one of his best performances of the season.

Giovani Bernard, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    There's no way around it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are beat up on offense. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette have been out with injuries. Chris Godwin isn't coming back this year, and Breshad Perriman is dealing with a hip injury

    Fournette's status for this week is "up in the air," and he hasn't been in the lineup since Week 15. 

    That has left the Bucs with Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard as the only healthy backs involved in the gameplan. Le'Veon Bell saw no action while Vaughn and Bernard split carries, with Vaughn getting 17 and Bernard seeing 13. Neither cracked even four yards per carry, and Bernard's longest run on the day was just eight yards. 

    Bernard was decent in his usual receiving duties. He had five catches for 39 yards with one drop

    While the biggest burden on the Bucs offense will fall on Tom Brady, Bernard is going to have an important role as the lone dual threat. 

    The offensive line has injury issues, too. Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs are both dealing with injuries and will at the very least be limited in some capacity. 

    That will put more onus on the running backs to make plays. Bernard has to be better running the football and make the most of his receiving opportunities to help the Bucs maximize their offense.

Orlando Brown, LT, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl hopes were famously derailed by the Bucs when they had Patrick Mahomes running for his life in the championship game. 

    The Chiefs responded this offseason by overhauling the unit up front. Part of that overhaul included bringing in Orlando Brown to be the new left tackle protecting Patrick Mahomes' blind side. 

    His Kansas City playoff debut against the Steelers left a lot to be desired. While backup right tackle Andrew Wylie was able to keep T.J. Watt at bay for the most part, Brown led the team in pressures surrendered with four. 

    Brown was primarily responsible for Alex Highsmith, who is a good player but clearly not on Watt's level. Highsmith finished the game with a sack, a quarterback hit and a tackle for a loss. 

    If the Chiefs are going to advance against the Buffalo Bills this weekend, keeping Mahomes clean will be imperative. 

    The Bills sacked Mac Jones three times and accrued 10 total pressures last week. Brown will have to play an instrumental role in making sure those numbers don't repeat themselves in the divisional round.

Leonard Floyd, OLB, Los Angeles Rams

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    The Rams put forth a complete performance against the Arizona Cardinals, so it's hard to pinpoint an area of the team that didn't hold up its end of the bargain. 

    However, Leonard Floyd fits the bill to some extent. The edge-rusher was relatively quiet against the Cardinals. He racked up 13 tackles, one sack and an interception in two regular-season games against Arizona. 

    In the playoff game, he proceeded to have just three tackles. 

    Part of that could be chalked up to a back injury he's been dealing with. But this is the playoffs—Floyd will have to continue to battle through whatever ailments he can to make an impact. 

    His production will be important to keep an eye on against the Buccaneers. One of the Rams' best weapons against Tom Brady is the pass-rushing triumvirate of Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Floyd. 

    All three will need to challenge the offensive line and rough up Brady to give the Rams the best chance to beat the defending Super Bowl champs.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jimmy Garoppolo was just good enough for the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round. "Just good enough" isn't likely to get it done against the No. 1 seed in the NFC. 

    Garoppolo finished the game with a pretty unremarkable stat line. He completed 16 of 25 attempts for 172 yards with no touchdowns. 

    The stats by themselves are not the problem. The 49ers have the ability to control the game with their rushing attack. With the Packers giving up 4.7 yards per carry, it figures to be another run-heavy game plan featuring Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel. 

    The problem is Garoppolo isn't being asked to do too much and still put them in jeopardy of losing. With the Niners up 23-10 with just under 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, Jimmy G threw a costly interception that set up a Cowboys touchdown to make it a one-score game. 

    For the most part, Garoppolo was asked to dink and dunk against the Cowboys defense. His intended air yards per attempt was a mere 6.2 yards.

    The quarterback is dealing with a thumb and shoulder injury. However, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported he's expected to play against the Packers. 

    Garoppolo doesn't have to put up great numbers. He doesn't have to go blow-for-blow with Aaron Rodgers. He just has to keep the Niners in a good position to win the game, and that's going to occasionally call for him to make a few big throws.

Taron Johnson, CB, Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills finished the season with the top-ranked secondary, per Pro Football Focus. The fact that the unit did that without Tre'Davious White is one of the most impressive feats of the season.

    That unit will have to be at its best against Patrick Mahomes in the team's rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    But a secondary is only as good as its weakest link. Last week, that was Taron Johnson. The slot corner allowed five receptions on seven targets for 80 yards and a passer rating of 109.2 when targeted. 

    Heading into a matchup where he is likely to see Tyreek Hill in the slot, that's not good news. 

    According to PlayerProfiler, Johnson primarily covered Hill in the Week 5 matchup with the Chiefs. He was instrumental in holding the Chiefs offense to 20 points. Johnson gave up nine catches on 14 targets for 62 yards in that one. 

    By Hill's standards, that's a good showing. 

    It will take another performance like that from Johnson to give the Bills the best shot at avenging their AFC Championship Game loss from last year.

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