By Steve Silverman
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The Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs always has the potential to be a little bit strange.
While every team playing postseason football has earned their spot, these teams are not the elite of the elite. These are the bottom four seeds of each conference’s playoff-eligible teams.
But what makes this year’s foursome of Wild Card games more strange than usual is that the road teams are all favored to win.
That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The second-place Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers are favored over the division-winning Houston Texans (AFC South) and Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North), respectively, and the same holds true in the NFC where the runner-up Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers have the pointspread edges on the Minnesota Vikings (NFC North) and Washington Redskins (NFC East), respectively.
No matter which team is favored in each game, a case can be made for all eight teams. It’s not just the stars or head coaches who will play the key roles. In this piece, we look at the X-factors on each of the Wild Card-round teams that could have the most impact on their respective games.
Kansas City Chiefs
WR Jeremy Maclin — The Chiefs had no downfield passing game to their wide receivers before Maclin arrived in Kansas City during the offseason. Touchdown passes to wide receivers were simply non-existent because the Chiefs were led by the likes of Dwayne Bowe, who was a sham in red and white.
You couldn’t have blamed Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith for feeling as though he was playing with one arm tied behind his back. But Maclin changed that. Instead of waltzing down field and running hard on one pattern out of every four like Bowe, Maclin has given it his all from start to finish. He has caught 87 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and look for him to make an early impact against the Texans.
OLB Whitney Mercilus — The Texans are in the playoffs largely because of their defense. When you think about this team and what they can do on the defensive side of the ball when they are functioning at their highest level, it can be scary.
Most of those thoughts revolve around reigning defensive MVP J.J. Watt, who had a memorable season with 17.5 sacks. However, Watt is not a one-man team. He has gotten support from Brian Cushing and Jadeveon Clowney. What’s more, Mercilus has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the league.
Mercilus had 12.5 regular-season sacks to go along with 52 tackles, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. If the Texans are going to beat the Chiefs, Mercilus will have to harass Smith throughout the game.
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint — Talk about an outsider, Toussaint had just 18 carries for 42 yards this season as he served in a minor backup role to DeAngelo Williams, who served in a major backup role to Le’Veon Bell. But with Williams now injured, Toussaint appears to be the go-to running back, and he has won mid-week praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
With Williams and Bell hurt, the Steelers will clearly rely on Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown in the passing game, but they need some credibility running the ball and Toussaint will be looking to bust a couple of big plays early.
QB A.J. McCarron — There’s no use fooling anyone here. If the Bengals are going to have a chance at beating their longtime rivals from Pittsburgh, they are going to need solid, if not spectacular, quarterback play.
McCarron has performed adequately since being forced into the lineup due to Andy Dalton’s broken thumb, but the jury is clearly still out on the former University of Alabama star. The Bengals have not won a playoff game in six tries under head coach Marvin Lewis, and all but one of those game included Dalton under center.
McCarron has a chance to rewrite the script here, but he must prove he is ready for the assignment
RB Marshawn Lynch — Lynch has been the Seahawks’ go-to running back and the leader of the offense for years, but he has played in just seven games this season due to a variety of injuries, the most serious being a sports hernia. Lynch has not played since Week 10, but head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this week he will be ready to be an impact player at Minnesota on Sunday.
Lynch will not only be running against a strong Vikings front, he is likely to be playing in brutal zero-degree temperatures. Lynch has just 111 carries this season, and it may be quite difficult to produce consistently under the circumstances of painful cold and a hard-hitting defense.
DT Tom Johnson — The Seahawks have come on with a rush in the second half of the season because quarterback Russell Wilson has simply been on fire and has torched defenses by putting the ball on target when he goes downfield. One of the teams he lit up was the Vikings back in early December.
The Vikings know they have to put pressure on Wilson and make him uncomfortable. Defensive end Everson Griffen put up a team-high 10.5 sacks, mostly coming around the corner. But you don’t necessarily want to get Wilson outside the pocket since he moves so well.
That’s where Johnson comes in. He is cat-quick coming up the middle and he can jump on Wilson before he has a chance to escape. Johnson had 5.5 sacks during the regular season, and he can take the heart out of the Seattle offense if he can sack Wilson early in the game.
Green Bay Packers
RB James Starks — The Packers have not gotten the kind of explosiveness out of their passing game this season that they are accustomed to, and the running game has often fallen flat because No. 1 back Eddie Lacy has not gotten the job done.
That’s why Starks should get his share of the carries on Sunday at Washington. Starks is just a little quicker than Lacy, and he is nearly as powerful. Starks ran for 601 yards in a back-up capacity and he also caught 43 of the 53 passes that were targeted his way.
The Redskins may not pay Starks much attention, and he must produce when he gets an opportunity.
LB Ryan Kerrigan — The Redskins are largely in the playoffs because quarterback Kirk Cousins had an excellent season and tight end Jordan Reed emerged as one of the best tight ends in the game.
However, during the Redskins’ four-game, season-ending winning streak, their defense came through with big plays at key moments. The Redskins are not going to shut opponents down completely, but they have the ability to make game-changing plays.
To that end, Kerrigan may be their most important defensive player. He had 9.5 sacks this season, and he must pressure Aaron Rodgers if the Redskins are going to advance to the divisional round.
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