The next two games of the 2015 NFL season will determine who plays for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. The Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Saturday, while the Arizona Cardinals travel to face the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Here is a look at the offensive and defensive x-factor for each team playing this weekend:
New England Patriots
Offense: WR Julian Edelman
Without Edelman during the first meeting in Denver, the Patriots ran 61 plays, converted 2-of-11 third downs and held the football for just 26 minutes. Expect the return of No. 11 to help New England fix those numbers in the rematch. The Patriots converted almost 50 percent of third downs with Edelman on the field in 2015, but only 33 percent without him. Of his 10 catches against the Chiefs last weekend, two moved the sticks on third down and another—off a deflected pass—sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. Edelman is a game-changer for Tom Brady, especially in key moments.
Defense: LB Jamie Collins
Collins is one of New England’s best run defenders, and he’s equally effective dropping into coverage in the short areas and rushing the quarterback from a variety of positions. The Patriots missed his versatility in the first meeting, when Denver rushed for 179 yards and Brock Osweiler made several plays on simple, short passes. Collins left New England’s win over the Chiefs with a back injury, but if he’s healthy and ready to go for Saturday, he could make all the difference for the Patriots defense.
Offense: RB C.J. Anderson
The AFC title game will be hyped as Brady vs. Manning, but the Broncos can’t lean on their legendary quarterback and expect to advance to the Super Bowl. In fact, Anderson might be the most important player to the Denver offense. The Broncos are 5-0 when he rushes for more than 70 yards this season, including last weekend’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Anderson produced a season-high 113 yards and two rushing touchdowns in the first meeting, which ended on his 48-yard score in overtime. When he runs the ball well and carries the load on the ground, the Broncos are tough to beat.
Defense: S Darian Stewart
The Broncos won’t ask one player to stop tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has caught six touchdowns in six games against Denver since 2011. But Stewart will likely play a leading role in helping to contain one of the game’s biggest receiving mismatches. Gronkowski caught six passes for 88 yards in the first meeting, and he scored a touchdown when he broke tackle attempts from Stewart and T.J. Ward on his way to the end zone. Overall, the Patriots are 5-0 when Gronk catches a touchdown in the postseason. It’ll be on Stewart and a host of others to keep him from spiking in the end zone on Saturday.
Offense: QB Carson Palmer
Every quarterback this weekend could be considered an x-factor, but Palmer is especially notable. The veteran looked rattled for much of the game against the Green Bay Packers, who probably should have had four or five interceptions of Palmer if not for easy drops (see: Sam Shields). The Panthers are just as capable of winning the line of scrimmage and pressuring the quarterback, and it seems unlikely a guy like Josh Norman or Kurt Coleman will drop easy takeaways. Arizona needs Palmer to play far more steady and avoid big mistakes against a top defense to leave Carolina with a win.
Defense: LB Deone Bucannon
The Panthers possess the most diverse run game in the NFL, and few offenses are more physical at the point of attack. Both realities are going to put serious stress on Bucannon, a former college safety now playing inside linebacker snaps for the Cardinals. He weighs less than 230 pounds, but his ability to recognize plays and attack downhill has helped make the transition a smooth one. On Sunday, Bucannon will likely need to run down Cam Newton on scramble plays and cover Greg Olsen down the field. He wears No. 20, but no linebacker is more important for the Cardinals against the Panthers.
Offense: TE Greg Olsen
Few players in the game are as under appreciated as Olsen, who caught 77 passes for over 1,100 yards in 2015. He added six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown against the top ranked Seahawks defense last weekend. Cam Newton instinctively looks for him in almost every big situation, whether it be third down, on a scramble play or in the red zone. Of Olsen’s 83 total catches this season, 64 were good for first downs or touchdowns. He added 20 receptions over 20 yards, which trailed only Rob Gronkowski among tight ends.
Defense: CB Cortland Finnegan
When the Cardinals have the football, keep an eye on the slot—where Finnegan will see plenty of Larry Fitzgerald inside. The Panthers figure to give the veteran cornerback help, potentially with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. He’s one of Carolina’s best coverage players, even as a linebacker. Still, Finnegan will need to win his share of battles on the inside against one of the greatest postseason receivers of all-time. It’s no small task.