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NFL: X-factors for each playoff team

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In the playoffs, games can swing in a matter of seconds. Just ask David Tyree about how memorable one great playoff moment can be. Coming up big during the playoffs are what every player dreams of. In any given game, there are a list of guys that one can expect to have a major impact on the game, but in the playoffs, it can be the under the radar players that come up the biggest. Here are a list of the players for each team that could make the defining plays that give their team the edge.

Miami Dolphins: Kenny Stills

Very few are giving Miami much of a chance to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in their wildcard matchup this weekend. That is for good reason, as the Dolphins are starting their backup quarterback Matt Moore. While no was confusing Ryan Tannehill with Tom Brady, there is a reason he was starting over Moore. One thing that could give Miami a chance against the Steelers is their ability to create big plays in the passing game. All year Kenny Still has been their big-play creator. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception and had ten receptions of 20+ yards. Even with Moore at QB, Stills displayed his explosive capabilities, albeit against the New York Jets. On a team where Jarvis Landry and Devante Parker will command most of the attention, Stills has an opportunity to generate a big play that could help Miami spring the upset.

Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack

While Mack is far from an under the radar player, he is the player that gives the Raiders a chance to make a run in the playoffs. With Derek Carr out for the season, the once-prolific Raider offense will struggle mightily to score against just about anyone. This puts more onus on a defense that has been fairly awful throughout most of the season. The lone star has been Mack, who once again garnered All-Pro honors while giving every offensive tackle in the league nightmares. His explosive ability off the edge allow him to create a potential game-changing play to give the Raiders a victory. In just his third season, Mack has vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the best defensive players in football, and he’ll need to be the best version of himself if the Raiders want to advance in the postseason.

Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney

The fact that the Houston Texans are even in the playoffs is mind-boggling. It is difficult to remember a team that has as much ineptitude at QB and still managed to back their way into the playoffs. Part of that is due to a resurgent season from former number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. He has begun to emerge as the pass-rushing phenom that the Texans envisioned when they took him first overall in 2014 (four slots ahead of Mack). Similar to the reasons Mack is the key for Oakland, Clowney gives the Texans a chance to overcome anemic quarterback play. That being said, it would take a small miracle for the Texans to make any noise in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Eli Rogers

Pittsburgh boasts two of the most explosive playmakers in all of football with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. It is no secret that the Steelers will try and get these guys the ball as much as possible, but Rogers needs to emerge as an option opposite of Brown. Teams will load up to take away Brown, if that’s even possible, and having an option for Ben Roethlisberger on the other side of the field will be key for the Steelers. When Pittsburgh’s offense is operating at full capacity it is a buzz saw that destroys everything in its path, and in order for them to reach that level Eli Rogers must come up big. Rogers has shown an ability to slip open for third down conversions, and sustaining drives is essential for a team that has a good not great defense.

Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters

The Chiefs have quietly been the most consistent team in the NFL over the last two seasons, going an amazing 23-5 over their last 28 games. They have accomplished this despite playing without Jamaal Charles. Their offense has gotten a shot in the arm from Tyreek Hill, but the story of the season has been the way they have been able to take the ball away on defense. Eric Berry has received much fanfare for his incredible return to football after his battle with cancer, but Marcus Peters epitomizes the Chiefs’ defensive mindset. Peters led the NFL in interceptions as a rookie with eight and followed that up this year with six more. The most impressive thing Peters did this season came against Carolina in an improbable fourth quarter comeback when he stole Kelvin Benjamin’s lunch money. The term “ball hawk” is thrown around very liberally, but in his two seasons in the NFL, Peters has embodied it, and turnovers are often the difference in playoff games.

New England Patriots: LeGarrette Blount

Any team that has Tom Brady at quarterback is already at a distinct advantage over the competition, but Blount provides the gear that could put the Pats over the top. When they made their Super Bowl run in 2014, Blount bulldozed over opponents. As the weather turns more frosty, having a strong running to lean is key for any team. Blount’s physical nature makes him even more effective as the weather conditions worsen. Look for the Patriots to establish Blount early before letting Brady carry them to the finish.

Detroit Lions: Golden Tate

The saying goes that cats have nine lives and Detroit may have used every single one in getting to the playoffs. With Matt Stafford’s finger in tough shape, it is difficult to envision Detroit making a playoff run, but Tate is a player that gives them a chance. In the absence of Calvin Johnson, Tate has flourished as a run after the catch monster who utilizes running back skills while possessing wide receiver hands. His strength and speed allow him to be make big plays without having to go deep, which Stafford will struggle to do with his injury. Tate will look to exact some revenge on his former team in Seattle.

New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.

Like with Mack, Beckham is far from under the radar, but is so incredibly good that his performance makes all the difference for the Giants. The Giants have become very Beckham-or-bust offensively, and more often than not he delivers. The way their defense is playing, one or two explosive plays from the star wide out could be enough to lift them against the Packers and set up a third matchup with Dallas. Conversely, if Beckham struggles and becomes frustrated, the Giants could see their season slip away very quickly. Beckham has as much impact on his team’s success as any player, including quarterbacks, in the entire playoffs.

Green Bay Packers: Ty Montgomery

As brilliant as Aaron Rodgers has been during this recent six game winning streak, being able to run the ball in the postseason is always of massive importance. Montgomery is not a traditional running back, but his impact of out the backfield has allowed the Packers to give some semblence of balance. The injuries in the defensive secondary will be difficult to overcome, but one way the Pack can mitigate the damage is to control the clock. Playing keep away from opposing offenses and sustaining long offensive drives would go a long way toward allowing Green Bay to make a deep playoff run. Ty Montgomery gives the Packers the best shot at accomplishing this kind of plan.

Seattle Seahawks: Jimmy Graham

In the weeks since safety Earl Thomas got injured the Seahawks have looked lackluster. They were obliterated by the Packers in the Lambeau and have looked discombobulated at every level defensively. Offensively, their offensive line is a mess and their running game has been close to non-existent. With all that said it is difficult to count out a team that has been to two of the last three Super Bowls. Jimmy Graham is a weapon that could provide especially useful in the red zone. Steven Hauschka has had a subpar year kicking, and coming away with points in the red zone is at a premium in the playoffs more than at any other time. Look for the Seahawks to exploit Graham’s athleticism and take advantage of the middle of the field.

Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley

The Falcons’ second year pass rusher has gone from disappointing rookie to quarterback nightmare in just one season. He led the NFL in sacks with 15.5, helped in part by his standout performance against the L.A. Rams. The Falcons offense has received much of the publicity, for good reason, as Beasley and the defense have been relatively unimpressive this season. They struggled tremendously against the pass all season, and with top cover guy Desmond Trufant out for the postseason that problem is not going away. Beasley is the one guy that can help alleviate some of that pain because of his ability to disrupt offenses timing. Similar to Von Miller, Beasley has the ability to completely change the way a team calls their plays because of how effective he can rushing the passer.

Dallas Cowboys: Jason Witten

Much of Dallas’s success has been attributed to their pair of rookie standouts in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot. There is no denying the talent of the those two young studs, but the playoffs are an entirely different animal. Witten is one of the few players on this Dallas roster with significant playoff experience, and his ability to be a security blanket for Prescott will be vital for their success. In their loss to the Giants in the meadowlands, Prescott had trouble converting third downs, going just 1-for-15. Witten has made a career of finding the soft spots in the zone on third down, and he will need to continue that if Dallas wants to build on their 13-3 campaign. The Cowboys are full of flashy stars, but the veteran presence of Witten will be crucial for a team comprised mostly of guys that have never been under the bright lights of the postseason.