In the NFL’s postseason, just one player can be the difference between advancing to the next round and going home early.
Here is one x-factor for all eight teams participating in this weekend’s Divisional Round:
Kansas City Chiefs: TE Travis Kelce
It’s no secret that the Chiefs will have to run the football and pressure Tom Brady to beat the Patriots in New England. But winning in the postseason must also include big plays in the passing game, and it’ll likely fall on the shoulders of Kelce to provide them.
Jeremy Maclin, who caught 87 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015, might not play due to an ankle injury. Kelce led all players with 128 receiving yards during the Wild Card Round, and he burned the Patriots for eight catches, 93 yards and a touchdown during Kansas City’s rout last season.
New England Patriots: RB James White
Think back to last year’s Super Bowl, when New England used running back Shane Vereen as a vital chess piece against Seattle’s fast, attacking defense. Vereen caught 11 passes, including five for first downs. The Patriots could use White in a similar role against the Chiefs on Saturday.
Since replacing Dion Lewis as England’s go-to receiving running back, White has caught 40 passes, with four touchdowns. His ability to find space underneath could help the Patriots negate some of Kansas City’s pressure against Tom Brady.
Green Bay Packers: Offensive Line
The Packers lost in Arizona in December by 30 points, mostly due to a beat-up offensive line that allowed Rodgers to be sacked eight times—including twice resulting in fumble recoveries for touchdowns. The Cardinals’ unrelenting pressure caused four giveaways, which Arizona turned into 28 points.
The Packers can hang with the Cardinals if the Green Bay offensive line plays as well as it did Sunday in Washington. If not, another blowout is probably on the horizon. Getting back left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is progressing from an ankle injury, should help.
Arizona Cardinals: DL Calais Campbell
The Packers had no answer for Campbell during the first meeting, when Arizona’s Pro Bowl defensive lineman tallied three tackles for losses and 2.5 of the Cardinals’ nine sacks. He’s often too much to handle for interior offensive linemen, and his ability to attack off stunts has opened up rushing lanes for veteran Dwight Freeney.
Green Bay knows it has to protect Rodgers far better to have a chance at the upset. Campbell can single-handedly blow up that plan, much like he did back in Week 16.
Seattle Seahawks: LB Bobby Wagner
Wagner is one of the only linebackers in the game capable of handling everything the Panthers will throw his way Sunday. Not only is he athletic enough to spy Cam Newton and cover tight end Greg Olsen down the field, but his attacking style provides the anchor for Seattle’s top ranked run defense.
The Seahawks didn’t have Wagner for the first meeting back in October. To better contain the Panthers offense and advance to the NFC Championship Game for the third straight year, Seattle must get a great game from their All-Pro inside linebacker.
Carolina Panthers: WR Devin Funchess
The Panthers have everything they need on offense, save for maybe a go-to outside receiver. Funchess is slowly, but surely, developing into that player late in his rookie season. At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, Funchess has game-changing size and growing confidence within a diverse Carolina offense.
The Panthers can run the football in many different ways, and tight end Greg Olsen and speedster Ted Ginn provide contrasting abilities in the passing game. If Funchess comes on, even Seattle’s No. 1 ranked defense might fold under the pressure of Carolina’s multifaceted attack.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Martavis Bryant
The Steelers might be without both Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a shoulder injury that could limit his ability to throw the football. How will Pittsburgh score enough to win on the road in Denver?
Insert Bryant, one of the playoff’s true big-play creators. His ability to get open vertically, win in the red zone and create in the open field should make him the Steelers’ go-to player on offense if Brown and Williams can’t go. In the first meeting between these two teams back in December, Bryant caught a season-high 10 passes.
Denver Broncos: QB Peyton Manning
The Broncos have the defense and running game to make a deep run into the playoffs, but the quarterback position remains the one question mark. Manning will get another shot to weld all the pieces together.
He did just enough in the second half of Denver’s Week 17 win, and he’s probably as healthy now as he’s been all season. But what can we expect from the 39-year-old quarterback? The Broncos need Manning to stay efficient and avoid the big turnovers.