By Steve Silverman
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The NFL season has reached the home stretch, and the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, and Philadelphia Eagles have passed nearly all their tests up to this point.
Those teams are all likely to secure their place in the postseason shortly and will almost certainly be among the favorites to make runs at the Super Bowl.
There are other contenders, including the Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons, who can determine their own destinies. Superstar players are going to have to come through for them to get to the postseason, but other key players also must deliver.
Here are five of those players who have to perform in vital late-season games.
Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina
Olsen has been out most of the year with a foot injury, and when he came back last week against the Jets, he reinjured the foot and was sent back to the sidelines. Further evaluation indicated that Olsen did not do any major damage and will be able to continue his comeback.
He is vital to the Panthers because he is their most skilled pass catcher. Quarterback Cam Newton lacks consistency and doesn’t always give his receivers an easy ball to handle. That’s where Olsen comes in. He is usually able to catch anything he can get his hands on, and he makes Newton a much better quarterback.
If Olsen can stay in the lineup and produce, the Panthers’ chances of becoming an impact team in the postseason will increase dramatically.
Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Oakland
The Raiders were a dominant team at this time last year. This season, at 5-6, they have been a major disappointment and only have a chance to make the playoffs because the Chiefs have lost their grip after a 5-0 start.
Oakland is just a game behind Kansas City, and if it is going to catch and pass the Chiefs, its defense needs to perform quite a bit better.
The Raiders rank 24th in yards allowed and regularly get pushed around. Mack, who has 52 tackles, 6½ sacks, and two passes defensed, is by far their best defensive player, on paper. Mack does not have a forced or recovered fumble, and he has not been the beast the Raiders need him to be.
There has been a passiveness to his game, and that must change this week against the Giants. Mack had 11 sacks a year ago, along with 11 other QB hits and 76 hurries. He must again lead the Raiders by ferocious example.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo
Sometimes it is about the quarterback. Sometimes it is about the coach having faith in the quarterback. That has clearly not been the case for Taylor this year, as rookie head coach Sean McDermott tried to replace him with Nathan Peterman two weeks ago against the Chargers and the results were embarrassing.
Taylor is not the game’s best pocket passer, and that frustrates McDermott. However, Taylor excels at making plays on the run, and the coach needs to embrace his quarterback’s skills and somehow convince his players that he believes in him.
Taylor is trying to get the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and while it’s a long shot, an outstanding stretch run would give Buffalo a legitimate shot.
Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers (5-6) have come back from the depths of an 0-4 start and are chasing the Chiefs. They are just a game behind at this point, and many believe they are the best team in the AFC West and will eventually take over the division lead.
While big-name quarterback Philip Rivers is the triggerman, the Chargers are loaded with big-play performers on both sides of the ball.
Los Angeles needs to get defensive production from pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and it needs Melvin Gordon to provide a running game. However, Allen is the most dangerous threat, as he plays with speed and an acrobatic touch that few other receivers have.
Allen has 67 receptions, 927 yards and four touchdowns to this point and he has 10 plays of 20 yards or more. He must keep going and improve on that rate over the last five games or the Chargers could very well fall short of their ultimate goal.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Atlanta
The Falcons appear to be on the verge of turning their season around after a rather uninspired start that saw them fall to 4-4 after a Week 9 loss to the Panthers. However, since that time they have won three consecutive games, and they are currently own the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC.
During their 27-7 victory over the Cowboys in Week 10, defensive end Clayborn had a once-in-a-lifetime game with six sacks. The Falcons need to show they can get to the quarterback down the stretch, and Clayborn must be their guy. If he can consistently get to the quarterback from this point forward, the Falcons should return to the postseason.
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