The 2015 NFL playoffs begin this week, with a pair of Wild Card Round matchups in both the NFC and AFC kicking off the action.
Here are 10 players that could make-or-break this year’s postseason:
QB AJ McCarron, Cincinnati Bengals
Barring a miraculous recovery from Andy Dalton (broken thumb), McCarron will start Cincinnati’s first round showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’ll have to somehow score enough points to keep up with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense, while also trying to win a playoff game for the Bengals for the first time in 25 years. The pressure is on a quarterback who once won a pair of National Championships as the starting quarterback at Alabama.
TE Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
Quietly, Reed tied Rob Gronkowski for second in the NFL in touchdown receptions from a tight end this season (11). He caught five of those 11 over the final four games, a stretch in which Washington went 4-0 and averaged 32.8 points per game. A big body with the ability to stretch the field, Reed has the kind of skill set to really test the Packers defense, especially down in the red zone.
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are unlikely to have DeAngelo Williams (ankle) for the first round, leaving Toussaint and a few others to pick up the slack. They are big shoes to fill. Williams averaged 23 touches and over 100 total yards during his 10 games as the starting running back. The Steelers will still only go as far as Ben Roethlisberger will take them, but Pittsburgh needs a balancing presence at running back. For at least one week, Toussaint may have to provide that balance. He enters the postseason with exactly 54 career rushing yards.
WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
The Packers signed Cobb to a $40 million deal this offseason, but he’s been unable to produce No. 1 receiver numbers without Jordy Nelson. Despite playing in all 16 games with Aaron Rodgers, Cobb finished with just 829 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2015. For the Packers’ passing offense to finally come to life, Cobb needs to be a much bigger factor. He doesn’t have a touchdown since Week 11.
DE Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
Winning a rematch with the Seahawks will require the Vikings to handle Russell Wilson far better than the first meeting, when he threw three touchdowns and ran for another during Seattle’s 38-7 win. One way to combat Wilson is with pressure, and no one on Minnesota’s roster is better at providing it than Griffen, who lead the team in sacks with 10.5. The Vikings need his athleticism and disruptive ability to lead the way on defense.
CB Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City’s young cornerback had eight interceptions, which represented the most in the NFL in 2015 and the most from a rookie since 2009. He’s balanced giving up big plays in the passing game with creating several of his own. Now comes the big test. Peters will spend most of the first round against Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 111 passes with 11 touchdowns this season. If Hopkins scores a decisive win in the matchup, the Texans could spring the upset.
WR Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers
After catching just seven passes during his first seven NFL games, Funchess came alive during the second half of his rookie season. He had 24 receptions with five touchdowns over the final nine games, including seven catches for 120 yards and a score during Carolina’s Week 17 win over the Buccaneers. If the first-year receiver can provide Cam Newton with a reliable outside option, the Panthers will become an even greater favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
LB Dwight Freeney, Arizona Cardinals
The 35-year-old pass-rusher signed with Arizona in October to provide the Cardinals with another disruptive force on the edge. Freeney has been even better than expected. He produced eight sacks in just 11 games, including five over the final four contests. Two weeks after his late strip-sack preserved a win against the Vikings, Freeney’s three sacks helped pound the Packers into submission. The Cardinals could play either team in the Divisional Round. Expect Freeney to have a big say in how far Arizona advances.
RB Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Yes, Russell Wilson finished the 2015 season playing better than any quarterback in the NFL. But don’t discount the impact Lynch’s return to the lineup could have. Over just the last two postseasons, Lynch has rushed for 606 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 4.7 yards per carry and tallying four 100-yard games. Seattle could become an unstoppable freight train if Lynch returns and starts producing on the ground right away. The only worry is that Lynch’s comeback could throw a wrench into the way Seattle is currently playing offense, but that seems unlikely.
QB Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
It would be an incredible story if Manning recovered from a terrible stretch of play and a hurt foot to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl. He provided a spark off the bench in Week 17, when he completed five passes for 69 yards as the Broncos clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Manning isn’t capable of winning a game on his own, but he’ll probably have a chance to be the piece that binds together a productive running game and a strong defense during the postseason.