The 2016 NFL season has been boiled down to eight teams in the divisional playoffs.
Each surviving team this weekend will try to move within one step of Super Bowl LI.
At this point in the playoffs, the riff-raff is gone. There are no more easy wins.
The margin for error is so slight that each team’s fortunes could hinge on one of these under-the-radar X-factors.
While Julio Jones and Richard Sherman battle each other to a stalemate, Saturday’s game between the third-seeded Seahawks (10-5-1) and second-seeded Falcons (11-5) in Atlanta will be won somewhere else.
The Falcons’ 1-2 running back punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman? They combined for 50 yards in the Falcons’ 26-24 loss at Seattle in Week 6, and the Seahawks haven’t allowed 100 rushing yards in a game since Week 12.
A big play from Taylor Gabriel could tilt this game in the Falcons’ favor.
One of the Browns’ final cuts before the season, Gabriel has gone from not being good enough for the Browns to sharing the Falcons’ lead with Jones in touchdown catches with six. Five of them have come since Week 10. Gabriel also has run the ball four times for 51 yards and a touchdown on end arounds. Even if the Seahawks are prepared for that play, looking for it could take their attention away from another member of the NFL’s second-ranked offense.
Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season. Russell Wilson was sacked 41 times, tied for second-most among quarterbacks.
The Seahawks’ offensive line hasn’t exactly been a strength this season. George Fant, a undrafted rookie and converted basketball player, was the weak link of the line in the Seahawks’ 26-6 wild-card win over the Lions. Ziggy Ansah beat him for two sacks.
It also falls on left guard Mark Glowinski, center Justin Britt, rookie right guard Germain Ifedi and right tackle Gerry Gilliam to keep Beasley away from Wilson.
If they don’t, the Seahawks will learn that you get what you pay for. According to Spotrac, the Seahawks used 4.18 percent of their salary cap on their offensive line this season, the lowest percentage in the league.
Trey Flowers has quietly led the top-seeded Patriots (14-2) with seven sacks this season and the defensive end has played a role in the Patriots’ third-ranked run defense.
The latter will be key Saturday night against the fourth-seeded Texans (9-7). It wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots dare Brock Osweiler to try to beat them and force the Texans to rely on their average ground game.
Lamar Miller was 10th in the league with 1,073 rushing yards. As a team, the Texans averaged 4.1 yards per carry, tied for 18th.
That was Jay Ajayi that Flowers and the Patriots shut down in Week 17. They can handle Miller Saturday night.
Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout game in the Texans’ 27-14 wild-card win over the Raiders last week.
Benardrick McKinney is the glue of the Texans’ top-ranked defense, however. He leads the team with 129 tackles and is third with five sacks. One of those sacks came in the Texans’ 27-0 loss at New England in Week 3.
McKinney, a second-round pick in 2015, dealt with injuries in his rookie season. This season, however, he leads the Texans’ defense in snaps and has started every game.
If the Texans (9-7) are going to stop LeGarrette Blount, it starts with McKinney.
Just in case anyone wondered why the Patriots needed two tight ends when they traded for Martellus Bennett during the offseason, here’s your answer.
Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season after having back surgery in December. Since the start of Gronkowski’s career in 2010, this is the third time the Patriots will try to get to the Super Bowl without him.
They failed the first two times.
Gronkowski played in the Patriots’ 41-28 divisional-round win over the Texans in 2012, but left the game with a broken arm and was done for the playoffs. The Patriots lost 28-13 to the Ravens the following week in the AFC championship game.
In 2013, Gronkowski’s season ended with a torn ACL and MCL in December. The Patriots lost at Denver in the AFC championship game.
Gronkowski finally was healthy for the playoffs in 2014, and earned his first Super Bowl ring.
Bennett caught 55 passes and a career-high seven touchdowns this season. He’s no Gronkowski, but in the regular season he was second to Travis Kelce among tight ends in yards after the catch, according to Sporting Charts.
Perhaps Bennett’s best Gronkowski impersonation will be enough to get the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix might be best known as a blocker for Le’Veon Bell.
On Sunday at Kansas City, the third-seeded Steelers (11-5) will need Nix’s help on special teams. Tyreek Hill is lurking, and the Steelers allowed the third-highest yards per kickoff return (24.7) during the regular season, according to ESPN.com.
Hill has returned two punts for touchdowns and one kickoff for a touchdown. The Steelers’ punt-return unit also is vulnerable, but the problem isn’t as glaring as it is on kickoffs.
In Sunday’s 30-12 wild-card win over the Dolphins, the Steelers allowed Kenyan Drake to return three kickoffs for 101 yards.
In the Steelers’ Week 14 win at Buffalo, Nix made two loud tackles on kickoff returner Brandon Tate, stopping him at the Bills’ 14-yard line on one kickoff and at the 16 on another.
Nix could get some help from rookie linebacker Tyler Matakevich and fourth-year linebacker Vince Williams, who according to Team Rankings are first and second, respectively, on the team in special teams tackles.
Someone has to stop Hill. If not, it could cost the Steelres field position or even points.
In Terrance Mitchell, the second-seeded Chiefs (12-4) might have found a treasure in a scrap heap.
The cornerback was taken by the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. He bounced between the Cowboys and Bears in his first two seasons before the Chiefs picked him up this year. He was activated at midseason and has six passes defended in seven games.
Mitchell has worked his way into the secondary with Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson. The unit will need to stop Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown on Sunday.
The Chiefs didn’t do that in their 43-14 loss to the Steelers in Week 4. Brown caught four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs will see if Mitchell can make a difference on Sunday.
Beating the top-seeded Cowboys (13-3) will be hard enough for the fourth-seeded Packers (10-6). It becomes even harder without Jordy Nelson.
The Packers’ leading wide receiver is expected to miss Sunday’s game with broken ribs. If he’s out, Geronimo Allison becomes the Packers’ No. 3 receiver.
An undrafted free agent, Allison already has filled the void in Randall Cobb’s absence. Cobb missed the last two weeks of the regular season with an ankle injury, and Allison caught four passes in each game. His 10-yard touchdown catch from Aaron Rodgers increased the Packers’ lead over the Lions to 23-14 with 10 minutes left in their 31-24 Week 17 victory that clinched the NFC North.
Well, quarterback is one area where the Packers have the edge on the Cowboys Sunday, as long as Allison rises to the occasion.
On the defensive side of the ball, the first box the Packers have to check in their quest to upset the Cowboys is stopping Ezekiel Elliott.
The rookie led the NFL this season with 1,631 rushing yards and was third with 15 rushing touchdowns. Throw out Week 1 and he never ran for less than 80 yards in a game.
Defensive tackle Mike Daniels is the heart of a Packers run defense that limited the Giants to 70 yards in Sunday’s 38-13 wild-card win. The only reason the Giants averaged 4.1 yards per carry is because Eli Manning had one run for 11 yards.
Elliott ran for 157 yards in the Cowboys’ 30-16 win at Green Bay in Week 6. If he does that again, the Packers’ seven-game winning streak, and their season, will end.
The Cowboys were 13th in the NFL with 36 sacks during the regular season, but Pro Football Focus grades the Cowboys’ pass rush 25th in the league.
David Irving had a breakout game in the Cowboys’ 26-20 win over the Buccaneers in Week 15. He had 1.5 sacks in the fourth quarter and added another 1.5 in the Cowboys’ 42-21 win over the Lions the following week.
Irving’s other sack this season was the only time the Cowboys sacked Aaron Rodgers in their 30-16 win at Green Bay in Week 6. An undrafted free agent who the Cowboys signed from the Chiefs’ practice squad last year, Irving also forced three fumbles and batted down a pass in that game.
Rodgers has thrown 22 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last eight games, including Sunday’s 38-13 wild-card win over the Giants. If the Cowboys can’t put pressure on him, it will be very difficult for them to reach the conference championship game for the first time in 21 years.