It seems like just yesterday that we were all in Foxborough, Mass. watching the Patriots open up the NFL season with a victory over the Steelers. Now, in four short weeks we’ll know which teams will face off in Super Bowl 50.
The real lights are on, which means the stars come out to play. Most playoff games are won by teams whose top-end players perform best on that particular day.
But to go far into the postseason, teams need some under-the-radar players to come up with big performances. Where would the Patriots have been without cornerback Malcolm Butler? Would the Packers have beaten the Cowboys without Davante Adams catching seven passes for 117 yards and a touchdown? Would the Ravens have advanced past the Steelers without a sack and six total tackles from unheralded defensive tackle Brandon Williams?
Who will be this postseason’s unlikely heroes? Here’s a look at one player currently in the background of each postseason team that you might be talking a lot about in the next month:
Broncos DE Malik Jackson: Often overshadowed by DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, Jackson has been one of the better interior rushers in the league for a few seasons. If the Broncos are to beat passing offenses like the Steelers and the Patriots, Jackson will have to be dominant. His contract year status should provide extra incentive.
Patriots DE Jabaal Sheard: Before he missed three games due to injury, Shead was gaining traction. You can make the argument that on a per-snap basis, he’s been the most productive Patriots defensive player. Because he kicks inside on passing downs, he’ll have ample opportunities to make plays.
Bengals WR Marvin Jones: Second on the team with 65 receptions, Jones is not exactly unknown. But in the postseason, teams aim to shut down their opponents’ biggest threats; therefore, the Steelers will turn their attention to WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert. Jones, who missed all of last season due to injury, should see a lot of one-on-one matchups.
Texans RB Akeem Hunt: The undrafted rookie is one of the few speed elements on the Texans’ offense, and they’ll look to exploit that in a variety of ways. Also, keep an eye on wildcat QB B.J. Daniels.
Chiefs WR Albert Wilson: A 5'9" undrafted free agent in 2014 out of Georgia State, Wilson is built well and has explosive speed. Look for the Chiefs to try to spring him on a few deep shots and slip screens. He can take it all the way.
Steelers CB Brandon Boykin: Following a preseason trade from the Eagles, Boykin inexplicably couldn’t crack the Steelers lineup until Week 13, yet in five games he’s produced an interception, five pass breakups and 18 total tackles. He’s a playmaker in the slot.
Panthers WR Devin Funchess: The second-round pick was slowed by injuries early in the season, but at 6'5" and 243 pounds, Funchess could be the x-factor after setting season highs with seven catches on eight targets for 120 yards and a touchdown in Week 17.
Cardinals DB/LB Deone Bucannon: Bucannon, a converted safety who has plyaed linebacker the past two seasons, is no secret to football junkies. Despite being just 6'1" and 211 pounds, he plays both the run and pass effectively, and is a scary blitzer.
Vikings DT Tom Johnson: The ex-Saint has been an invaluable utility lineman the past two years in Minnesota, with the ability to both get after the quarterback and stuff the run. Johnson dominated Packers RG T.J. Lang in Week 17.
Washington OLB Preston Smith: Trent Murphy still starts on the strong side but Smith, a second-round pick, has come on at the end of the season and is playing a lot of snaps. Smith has five sacks in his final three games, and his eight are the second most by a rookie in team history. Smith (6'5", 271 pounds) is big and powerful with a quick first step.
Packers CB Quinten Rollins: If standout CB Sam Shields stays in concussion protocol, the second-round pick would get the call again. Even if Shields returns, Rollins might still stay in the lineup over first-round pick Damarious Randall because Rollins has been that good over the past month.
Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane: Last seen by the masses exiting early in Super Bowl 49 against the Patriots, Lane returned to the lineup in Week 12 and the defense has improved ever since. The Seahawks missed his aggression ball skills. He’s produced two interceptions and six passes defended in six games. Who doesn’t love a comeback story?
Wet blanket report
Lovie’s record: Since Lovie Smith was fired as the Buccaneers’ coach Wednesday night, we’ve heard reports that his 8–24 record was the reason for his firing. Oh, please. He inherited a 4–12 roster devoid of talent with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback, so 2–14 was understandable. Then he picks QB Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and gets the team to 6–6 and in the playoff conversation before finishing a disappointing 0–4.
That’s called progress, unless you’re completely overrating your roster. Look, I’m no fan of Smith because he runs a dinosaur Tampa-2 defense that gets picked apart in today’s NFL. But anyone who knows anything about football knew that when you hired him. So if the Bucs want to give a reason for firing, don’t say it was because he didn’t win enough. Say the real reason: you messed up and hired the wrong guy. It’s your fault, not his. Smith was exactly what he’s always been.
Tom Coughlin: As a man, there are few people that I have more respect for in the NFL than former Giants coach Tom Coughlin. But in all the tributes going Coughlin’s way, let’s not forget that his teams were very inconsistent in the regular season to the point that the Giants missed the postseason in six of his final seven seasons. You could always count on the Giants to play down or up to their opponents. Coughlin was a good coach, but with his .531 winning percentage, let’s not put him in Canton just yet (for Jaguars and Giants). Dan Reeves and Mike Holmgren have more appearances and don’t appear to be going in. Ditto the others in the two-ring club: Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan and George Seifert.
Patriots slumping: Yes, the Patriots lost four of their final six games, which is very un-Patriot-like. They normally treat the final month of the season like an onramp to the playoffs. But provided Julian Edelman returns at full strength for the playoffs, I’m putting this finish in the same category as the loss to the Chiefs last season: it will be a distant memory. The Patriots dumbed things down as they struggled with injuries and poor execution (they rarely sent Rob Gronkowski down the middle). I’ve seen this movie before. The Patriots usually explode once they get their guys back. I expect the same this time.
Rodgers-McCarthy: This is just a vibe that I'm getting. I've covered both of these guys and know a little about what makes them tick, but their relationship is off right now. Aaron Rodgers has always had some issues with the way Mike McCarthy calls games, but something feels broken. McCarthy gave up playcalling, in part, to appease Rodgers and give the quarterback more control. McCarthy taking it back, and demoting Tom Clements, was McCarthy taking the offense back from Rodgers. And Rodgers doesn’t like to be doubted.
Colts dysfunction: So let me get this straight. General manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano spend all season sniping at each other through media leak. But at the end of the day, they hug it out and pledge to work together? Yeah, that’s going to work just great. If Pagano was their guy, then Grigson should have been fired. Too much has transpired for this to work.
Browns instability: Jimmy Haslam has been a disaster as owner. Peter King’s numbers laid it out very succinctly: 38 months, 61 coaches, three head coaches, four offensive coordinators, five presidents/general managers, 18–40 record. When are these neophyte owners going to learn? Hired someone, whether it’s a president or GM, to run football operations, including the hiring/firing of the coach. And then get out of the way for at least four years. Now, after a flurry of hiring, the Browns have a president (Alec Scheiner), executive VP football operations (Sashi Brown), chief strategist (former baseball executive Paul DePoesta) and still have to hire a general manager and coach. What the heck kind of flow chart is that? Just more of a convoluted mess in Cleveland.
Who needs to step up in the wild-card round in the wake of the following Week 17 injuries?
Duane Brown, LT, Texans (quad, injured reserve): The veteran anchor of the line suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in the Texans' Week 17 victory over the Jaguars, which is a huge loss for Houston. But the coaching staff thinks highly of his replacement, veteran Chris Clark, and the Texans have needed to give RT Derek Newton help. It’s very hard to help both tackles, so this injury will compromise the offense some.
Brandon Thompson, DT, Bengals (knee, injured reserve): Thompson, a solid backup interior lineman with the ability to spell Geno Atkins from time to time, was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Pat Sims will replace him, which could work out well for Cincinnati because Sims brings a little more in the pass rush department.
Humanitarian of the week
Chad Greenway, LB, Vikings
There isn’t much Greenway hasn’t done in the community. For seven years, his Lead the Way Foundation has raised more than $1.5 million and impacted more than 375,000 people in the Twin Cities.
Greenway, the Vikings’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, hosts an annual TendHER Heart Luncheon to honor the mothers of critically and chronically ill children and sends them home with special gifts. His Field of Dreams program fulfills sports wishes and vacation dreams for the families of critically and chronically ill children. Greenway also has Chad’s Locker, an electronic hub with tablets, portable gaming devices, DVDs, etc., in seven children’s hospitals.
10 thoughts on wild-card weekend
1. If the Texans are going to have any shot at beating the Chiefs, offensive coordinator George Godsey is going to have figure out a way to get the ball of quarterback Brian Hoyer’s hands quickly. That staff certainly has a lot of experience going against that scheme, since Kansas City’s defensive coordinator runs a version of Rex Ryan’s scheme.
2. Houston knows it has to run the ball well this weekend (they can’t air it out 50 times a game) against a defense that is 16th in yards per attempt (4.1). A big key will be the double-team effort against NT Dontari Poe and the ability to get cleanly to the next level.
3. Defensively, the Texans will deploy a similar approach as they did in Week 17 against Blake Bortles: keep Alex Smith in the pocket at all costs. While Bortles likes to throw on the move more, Smith is extremely dangerous when he looks to run. The Texans only allowed Bortles to escape the pocket once. If they can do the same to Smith, it could be a low-scoring game in the Texans’ wheelhouse.
4. The Chiefs will want to dictate tempo on both sides the ball, especially on offense; it’s in their favor to make the game a track meet. Kansas City’s twin pass rushers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, should tee off against backup LT Chris Clark, and subpar RT Derek Newton.
5. This has to feel like déjà vu to the Steelers: Last year they didn’t have Le’Veon Bell due to injury, and that sunk them against the Ravens. This year, it looks like backup DeAngelo Williams won’t be able to play. The Steelers are great passing the ball, but they would be better served by getting something out of the running game.
6. The Bengals’ vaunted offensive line had one of their worst games of the season in a 33–20 loss to the Steelers in Week 14. That unit has to dominate, and OC Hue Jackson has to run the ball, for them to advance.
7. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has to play the game of his life for his team to pull a big upset against a Seahawks team that beat Minnesota 38–7 on the same field a month ago. The Vikings had just 219 yards of total offense, 125 in the passing game. If Bridgewater can make a big play to Stefon Diggs early, that could open things up for Adrian Peterson.
8. The Vikings have some hope on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Vikings didn’t have four defensive starters for that game: tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safeties Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith.
9. The Packers are such a mess on offense that at this point, they need to stick with what worked early against the Vikings: two tight ends, run the ball and then mix in more playaction to open space that obviously isn’t there in the usual passing game.
10. Washington can’t get greedy on offense. If Kirk Cousins continues to take what the defense gives him, he should find ample openings against a Packers defense if their blitz concepts are picked up.