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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The NFL‘s first-ever Super Wild Card Weekend is in the rear view. Six teams were eliminated over the weekend, leaving the usual eight-team field for the divisional round. Each of these squads has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl, and each of them features plenty of household names.
From Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady to Lamar Jackson and Drew Brees, seemingly limitless star power remains in the postseason. Of course, star power alone isn’t going to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
Oftentimes, it’s the lesser-known players who shift the balance of a particular matchup. Take the Kansas City Chiefs’ performance in Super Bowl LIV, for example. While Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins headlined the Chiefs offense, it was running back Damien Williams (133 scrimmage yards, two touchdowns) who carried it for much of the game.
Who might be this year’s Williams? Here, we’ll examine the X-factor for each remaining playoff team, a potentially overlooked—though not necessarily unknown—player or unit that can be the sneaky difference-maker over the next few weeks.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards makes a return after appearing on last year’s list of postseason X-factors. The reason is quite simple. Edwards remains a vital but often overshadowed member of Baltimore’s rushing attack.
Naturally, opposing defenses are going to gear up to stop dual-threat extraordinaire Lamar Jackson. Rookie J.K. Dobbins has established himself as Baltimore’s lead back, and receiving weapons Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown get plenty of attention.
However, Edwards routinely has an impact on games despite a somewhat limited role. The 6’1″, 238-pound ball-carrier is capable of physically punishing defenses. This can be especially effective when teams go with smaller personnel groups to try matching the speed and elusiveness of Jackson.
Edwards isn’t just a bigger back who can pound the interior, though. He has enough breakaway ability that allowing him to get to the second level can spell disaster for the opposition. Edwards topped four yards per carry 11 times during the regular season and reached six yards per carry on five different occasions.
The Ravens could rely on Edwards often against the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round. Keeping Josh Allen and the Buffalo defense off the field will presumably be part of the strategy, and the Bills rank just 26th in yards per carry allowed.
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Adrian Kraus/Associated Press
Everyone is aware that Allen has developed into an MVP-caliber quarterback since the arrival of wideout Stefon Diggs. When the Ravens line up against Buffalo this weekend, containing Diggs will be one of the first entries on the goals list.
Those who haven’t followed the Bills closely, however, may not realize just how dangerous slot receiver Cole Beasley has been in their new-look offense. Those who have followed Buffalo know that Beasley is a matchup nightmare for the opposition.
“Cole Beasley is the slot receiver on my All-Pro team this year,” NBC Sports’ Peter King told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. “… Beasley led all NFL slot receivers in yardage this year and he was the most effective, efficient receiver in that pingpong-ball-type area.”
Beasley did have a phenomenal 2020 campaign, with 82 receptions, 967 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. He’s going to be a problem for opponents, thanks in no small part to the amount of attention Diggs receives on the perimeter. His ability to be a reliable safety valve for Allen is also a huge asset.
Against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, for example, Beasley caught all seven of his targets for 57 yards. In the regular season, 53 of his 82 catches were for first downs.
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Kirk Irwin/Associated Press
The Cleveland Browns have put together a fair bit of star power over the last couple of seasons. From Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb to Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett, the Browns feature plenty of household names. However, the best unit on Cleveland’s squad is the offensive line.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the offensive line put on a clinic. According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield was not pressured on any of his 34 dropbacks.
To be fair, Cleveland’s line does feature standouts like Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Jack Conklin and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. However, this unit is an X-factor because of its depth, versatility and how well it is coached by Bill Callahan.
Bitonio and Callahan were both absent from Sunday’s game because of COVID-19. Conklin left the game with a hamstring injury, and Bitonio’s replacement, Michael Dunn, also left the game. He was replaced by recent addition Blake Hance, who hadn’t even practiced with Mayfield before the game.
“A guy named Blake, who I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game, stepped up in the fourth quarter,” Mayfield told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.
If Cleveland is going to have a chance against teams like Buffalo and this Sunday’s opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s going to be because the line keeps Mayfield clean and opens holes for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
Most of the Green Bay Packers’ star power lies on the offensive side of the ball. While players like Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander do get their fair share of credit, the Packers are largely known for Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones and Robert Tonyan.
If Green Bay is going to reach and win the Super Bowl, though, it will have to make some big plays defensively. This is where second-year safety Darnell Savage enters the equation.
While Alexander and Smith were both Pro Bowlers this year, the play of Savage was far less heralded. However, he was fantastic. Savage is a true defensive difference-maker, one who racked up four interceptions, 12 passes defended, a sack and 75 tackles.
Opposing quarterbacks who targeted Savage had a passer rating of just 67.3.
Rodgers and Co. are likely to hold up their end of the bargain against most opponents. If Savage is able to have a big game as well—like his five-tackle, one-interception performance in Week 16—it’s difficult to envision the Packers not walking away victoriously.
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Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
The Chiefs have plenty of firepower on the offensive side of the ball and Pro Bowl defenders in Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark. If we’re looking for an X-factor on this star-studded roster, we have to consider linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
Hitchens is one of Kansas City’s most reliable run defenders, and his presence could be vital in the postseason. He racked up 78 total tackles, 44 solo stops and two tackles for loss during the regular season. Unfortunately, he missed the final two weeks on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Presumably, Hitchens will be back for the divisional round.
“Glad to be back in the building today appreciate y’all boys getting that bye much needed time to get back to work!!” he posted Wednesday on Twitter.
The return of Hitchens will be especially important for Kansas City because of the remaining AFC playoff field. The Browns and Ravens are teams capable of taking over on the ground. While the Bills are less of a running team—they ranked just 20th in rushing this season—Allen can gash defenses with his legs when it’s necessary.
Given the amount of offensive talent the Chiefs possess, opponents are likely to try shortening games and grinding them out on the ground. If Hitchens is able to bolster the run defense and prevent that from happening, Kansas City might be borderline unbeatable.
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Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
Pass-rusher Leonard Floyd had a solid rookie season for the Chicago Bears in 2016, but he was mostly an afterthought in the three following seasons. He had 7.0 sacks in his inaugural campaign and just 11.5 over the remainder of his Bears tenure.
Then Floyd joined the Los Angeles Rams and exploded in 2020. Playing alongside Aaron Donald and with a great secondary led by Jalen Ramsey certainly helped. However, Floyd proved that he can be a game-wrecker in his own right while amassing 10.5 sacks and 28 quarterback pressures.
Floyd’s presence could be even more important moving forward, as Donald is dealing with torn rib cartilage—though he does expect to suit up against Green Bay.
The Rams were able to run over the Seattle Seahawks on Wild Card Weekend because their defense dominated. That’s going to be the formula against the Packers and any future opponents, especially with the Rams offense dealing with injuries of its own.
Quarterback Jared Goff is still recovering from thumb surgery, fellow quarterback John Wolford was knocked out of Saturday’s game, and wideout Cooper Kupp is battling bursitis in his knee.
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Butch Dill/Associated Press
Taysom Hill may or may not be the quarterback of the future for the New Orleans Saints. However, he remains one of the biggest utility players on the team. He went 3-1 as a starter during Drew Brees’ absence, and he has regularly made plays as a runner, receiver and passer.
Now, it’s worth noting that Hill’s lone dropback against the Chicago Bears resulted in a lost fumble. However, he also rushed for 15 yards and caught two passes for five yards in that game.
It’s Hill’s ability to run and catch the ball that could pay big dividends against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in round three of their AFC South rivalry. Tampa’s biggest asset defensively is its run defense, and utilizing Hill can help augment New Orleans’ ground attack.
When the Saints shellacked the Buccaneers 38-3 in Week 9, Hill carried the ball seven times for 54 yards and had a 21-yard reception. At the very least, Hill’s presence in subpackages will keep Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles guessing.
Brees is now healthy and facing the pressure of delivering the Saints one more Super Bowl. However, Hill can aid him by continuing to be the proverbial Swiss Army knife that few other teams are able to feature.
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
As previously mentioned, Tampa Bay possesses a tremendous run defense—one that ranked first in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed in 2020. The Buccaneers have also seen an offensive explosion in recent weeks, as Tom Brady and his supporting cast finally appear to be in sync.
However, amassing points and slowing opposing ground attacks will only carry the Buccaneers so far in the postseason. If the Buccaneers are going to move past the Saints and potentially the Packers next week, they’re going to need their pass rush to dominate like it did at times during the regular season.
The pass rush rarely rattled Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who threw for 306 yards with a touchdown, an interception and two sacks on Saturday. However, we’ve seen pass-rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul take over games during the regular season.
Against the Packers in Week 6, for example, the pass rush got to Aaron Rodgers four times and made him uncomfortable throughout the game. Rodgers finished with just 160 passing yards, two interceptions and a passer rating of 35.4.
The Buccaneers pass rush produced 48 sacks during the regular season and came close several more times. Barrett alone was responsible for 41 quarterback pressures in 2020.
If the pass rush produces, there isn’t a team in the entire playoff field that Tampa cannot challenge this postseason.
Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.