NFL Wild Card Weekend lived up to expectations, as fans were treated to some dramatic finishes and major upsets in the first round of the playoffs. This weekend’s slate of games should be no different, as the eight teams that remain have earned their way here, and there are some epic matchups on tap for the Divisional Round.
The Colts and Chiefs will kick off the action on Saturday afternoon, as Indianapolis, fresh off a dominant performance against Houston, will try to extend their four-game win streak against Patrick Mahomes and the AFC’s top-seeded Chiefs. In the nightcap, two of the NFL’s top running backs in Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley will go head-to-head under the bright lights of Los Angeles, with the Rams hosting the Cowboys.
Sunday’s games figure to be entertaining as well, as the Los Angeles Chargers will travel to New England, seeking revenge against the Patriots, in a rematch of the 2007 AFC Championship game. A matchup of former Super Bowl MVPs will wrap up the Divisional Round, as Nick Foles and the reigning champion Philadelphia Eagles will take on Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
And since we’ve already hit on some of the storylines and matchups, let’s take a look at some unheralded players that could be difference-makers in the Divisional Round. Here are ten X-factors to watch in this weekend’s games.
Marlon Mack, running back, Colts
Andrew Luck’s resurgence has taken center stage for the Colts, and deservedly so, but one player who has quietly put together a string of big performances as of late is Marlon Mack. The second-year running back has reached the century mark for rushing yards in three of the last four games, and he has five touchdowns in that stretch.
Against the Texans’ third-ranked run defense last Saturday, Mack rushed for a career-high 148 yards. It will be interesting to see if he can top that this week against a Chiefs defense that allowed 132.1 rushing yards per game during the regular season.
Golden Tate, wide receiver, Chiefs
The Eagles drew heavy criticism for their trade-deadline acquisition of Golden Tate in October, but the veteran wide receiver was able to justify the move with a gritty performance against the Chicago Bears last Sunday that saw him catch five passes for 46 yards, including the game-winning touchdown.
Philadelphia is hoping to get more of the same from Tate this week against the Saints, who struggled to defend the pass during the regular season, allowing just under 270 yards per game through the air. It’s worth mentioning that Tate is a free agent after this season, so a good performance on Sunday could go a long way in helping him secure a new deal in free agency.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, linebackers, Cowboys
The Seattle Seahawks led the league in rushing at 160 yards per game during the regular season, but were held to a mere 73 yards in last Saturday’s playoff loss against Dallas. Vander Esch and Smith were a big reason why, with 17 tackles between them. They also finished with the highest overall Pro Football Focus grades on the Cowboys defense, as you can see in the graphic below.
If the Rams learned anything from Seattle’s shortcomings, it’s that forcing the run game probably isn’t the best strategy against a defense that excels in shutting down that phase of the game. That should force LA to put more trust in the arm of Jared Goff, which could be risky, depending on which version of the Rams quarterback shows up. We could see the Goff that lit up defenses early in the season, or the one that struggled down the stretch.
Pierre Desir, cornerback, Colts
Kansas City’s strengths in the passing game have been well documented this season by the success of Mahomes, who is the frontrunner for the MVP Award after throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns during the regular season. For what it’s worth, the Colts effectively denied Deshaun Watson from having a big game against them through the air last week, but Mahomes is a whole different beast. At the very least, Indianapolis might be able to take away one of the Chiefs’ playmakers with Desir in coverage. The journeyman cornerback has been locking up wideouts all season long.
If Desir and Co. can keep the game from turning into a shootout, the Colts have a great shot at knocking off the Chiefs, who come into the game as the favorite.
Ted Ginn, wide receiver, Saints
New Orleans is expected to be at full strength on offense Sunday, with a healthy Ginn back in the lineup. The veteran wide receiver was on injured reserve for two months due to a knee injury, but he returned in Week 16 to catch five passes for 74 yards in a win over Pittsburgh. He was held out of the team’s season finale, but recently told The Times-Picayune that he’s feeling “back to normal.”
Ginn was huge for New Orleans in playoff games against Carolina and Minnesota last year, catching 12 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown. With Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas likely drawing most of the attention on defense from Philadelphia, Ginn should have ample opportunities to make plays for New Orleans.
Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Patriots
Despite missing New England’s season finale with a knee injury, Patterson has been practicing, and will likely be available to play on Sunday, after getting three weeks to rest. The versatile playmaker figures to have an impact as a receiver, rusher and returner on special teams.
The Patriots have done a good job of utilizing Patterson’s strengths up until this point, as evidenced by his 1,138 yards from scrimmage, and they should continue to get him involved in creative ways on offense. The former first-round pick is still a threat to ignite his team with one big play nearly every time he touches the ball.
Josh Reynolds, wide receiver, Rams
The Rams have no doubt missed Cooper Kupp in the passing game. Goff had completed 77 percent of his pass attempts to Kupp, for six touchdowns and no interceptions this season, prior to the second-year wide receiver tearing his ACL in Week 10, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Reynolds, though, has had his moments in Kupp’s absence. In LA’s season finale against the 49ers, for example, Goff connected with Reynolds for two touchdowns. He had big games against the Chiefs and Eagles as well.
It’s no secret that the Rams are going to test the Cowboys’ secondary on Saturday. That’s a given, considering how stout Dallas has proven to be against the run. It will be interesting to see if Reynolds will be able to help out his quarterback in key moments of the pivotal game.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Chiefs
Watkins returned to practice on Tuesday, and if he plays on Saturday, he could provide the Chiefs with a much-needed boost on offense. According to ESPN’s Adam Teicher, the Chiefs averaged just under 38 points per game in the 10 games that Watkins played prior to sustaining a foot injury, and just over 31 in the six that he didn’t.
Not that Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the rest of Kansas City’s pass-catchers can’t get the job done against Indianapolis, but having Watkins would certainly help make their job easier. The former first-round pick was really starting to get comfortable in the Chiefs’ offense before his injury, and he could possibly pick up where he left off on Saturday.
Hunter Henry, tight end, Chargers
Henry was nearly added to the active roster last week to play in the Wild Card Round game against the Ravens. Fortunately for the Chargers, they were able to buy the stud tight end another week to prepare for his first game action since last season, as he suffered a torn ACL in May. Well, he was activated on Monday, and has practiced this week, so he’s expected to play on Sunday. However, head coach Anthony Lynn has already made it clear that Henry’s snaps will be limited.
“You can’t put a player out there for an extended period of time that hasn’t played since last December,” Lynn said on Monday, via ESPN’s Eric Williams. “It would be in certain situations, probably. And he would be on a pitch count.”
Still, if Henry can go out there and give the Chargers a bit extra on offense, it might be just what they need to beat the Patriots. Prior to the injury, Henry was really coming into his own as the replacement for future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. He had 12 touchdown catches over his first two seasons in the NFL, and could prove to be a huge boost in the red zone.
Eric Berry, safety, Chiefs
Another impact player possibly returning to the Chiefs just in time for the postseason is Berry. The All-Pro safety missed the first 13 games of the season due to a heel injury, and was on somewhat of a pitch count for the only two games he played in during the regular season. Not surprisingly, Kansas City’s defense struggled in Berry’s absence, ranking near the bottom in every major category, including yards allowed per game (405.5).
A healthy Berry could make a huge difference, though. Luck may not feel all that confident throwing the ball downfield if the savvy veteran is back there to make him think twice about doing so.