The divisional round of the NFL playoffs gets underway this weekend with four matchups that are sure to delight fans of postseason football, and the stage is set for unheralded stars to come up with the plays that could mean the difference between moving on or going home.
As wild-card weekend showed us, not only does every play matter, but no lead is truly safe, as evidenced by the two overtime games last weekend. The divisional round looks like it could go the same way with how evenly matched the teams are.
Here are eight unheralded stars to watch this weekend who could play an important role in deciding their team’s fate.
Vikings: Eric Kendricks
Kendricks is a perfect example of an unheralded star. Despite being named a first-team All-Pro this season, the veteran linebacker was snubbed in the Pro Bowl selection process, probably because he’s not a household name in the NFL. But Kendricks quietly put together a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year. PFF praised Kendricks as one of the best coverage players in football this season, but he’ll have his hands full going up against George Kittle, who many regard as the best tight end in the league.
49ers: Deebo Samuel
Assuming the Vikings do everything in their power to take away Kittle, some other receiver will have to step up for the 49ers, and Samuel might be the guy they look to for a big play or two. The second-round pick has impressed as a rookie, particularly after the catch where his ability to make defenders miss resulted in him forcing 16 missed tackles, according to PFF. Drops have been an issue for Samuel, but he’s a big play waiting to happen if he can manage to cut down on those.
Titans: A.J. Brown
Another rookie receiver who impressed this season is Brown. The first-round pick finished with 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns, becoming the first Titans’ pass-catcher to cross the 1,000-yard mark since Delanie Walker in 2015. Brown was blanketed by New England’s secondary last weekend resulting in just one catch for him in his first postseason game. And while it doesn’t get easier for him in the divisional round going up against an equally tough Ravens secondary, the Titans will need their go-to receiver to make some plays for Ryan Tannehill.
Ravens: Gus Edwards
With Mark Ingram potentially hobbled by a calf injury, it looks like Edwards could get some run as the Ravens’ lead running back, a role he’s actually pretty familiar with having led the team in rushing a season ago before Ingram’s arrival in Baltimore. Much of what the Ravens do on offense is centered on the running game, and if the defense is solely focused on stopping Lamar Jackson, Edwards could benefit from the lack of attention.
Texans: Will Fuller
Fuller was unable to play against the Bills last weekend because of a groin injury, and it was evident that not having him to stretch the field allowed Buffalo to pay more attention to DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller is currently a game-time decision for the divisional round against Kansas City, but if he’s able to give it a go, look for him to test that Chiefs secondary down the field and open things up for Hopkins.
Chiefs: Frank Clark
The Chiefs don’t have any issues putting up points, so it will be on the defense to prevent Deshaun Watson and company from pulling off any late-game heroics, like they did against the Bills last weekend. As Buffalo demonstrated in that loss, getting pressure on Watson is key, but that also means playing as close to mistake-free football as possible. Watson made the play of the game in overtime against the Bills after escaping the grasp of two defenders on a would-be sack that allowed him to complete a pass for a big play.
The Chiefs brought Clark in via trade as an upgrade to their pass rush, but he fell way short of expectations with just eight sacks on the season. However, he appeared to be hitting a groove the last few weeks, so it’s possible the Chiefs can still get somewhat of a return on their investment if Clark is able to harass Watson enough to force him into making mistakes instead of game-changing plays.
Seahawks: D.K. Metcalf
Injuries at running back have forced the Seahawks to go from a running team to a passing team, and that has opened the door for Metcalf, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, to shine on the national stage. The big-bodied receiver was targeted nine times in Seattle’s victory over the Eagles last weekend, and he went off on their secondary for seven catches, 160 yards and a touchdown.
The fact that Marshawn Lynch came out of retirement and is now the team’s lead running back should tell you all you need to know about the state of the running game. Fortunately for the Seahawks, they should be able to overcome the lack of a ground game with Russell Wilson making plays in the passing game to Metcalf and others.
Packers: Za’Darius Smith
Knowing that the Seahawks will rely heavily on Wilson to make plays for them, Green Bay’s gameplan on defense on should be pretty straightforward. Wilson has been playing at an MVP level for most of this season, but even he can make mistakes sometimes, especially if the opposing team is successful at getting pressure on him.
Despite missing out on the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, Smith has been a major bright spot for the Packers. His 13.5 sacks this season were a personal best for him, not to mention the most sacks by a Packers player since Clay Matthews in 2010. If Smith and the rest of Green Bay’s pass rush can make Wilson uncomfortable enough to the point that he starts to make mistakes, that should be enough to put Green Bay over the top.