Rick Scuteri/AP

Will their teams rise up or fall down during the final two months of the regular season? Identifying 10 players whose play could determine the playoff picture

By Greg A. Bedard
October 30, 2014

As the second half of the season starts, expect to see some tight playoff races down the stretch. The AFC North, NFC West, NFC East and NFC South, in particular, look like they are going to come down to the wire. Here are the 10 players, in no particular order, who we think will be a key to whether or not their teams sink or swim down the stretch:

DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys 

Taken with the second pick in the second round of May’s draft, Lawrence has been on injured reserve since fracturing his right foot early in training camp. The Cowboys expected the 6-3, 251-pound Lawrence to be an immediate contributor to the pass rush after they released veteran DeMarcus Ware. The general consensus among scouts is that Lawrence was the draft’s third-best pass rushing end behind Jadeveon Clowney and Dee Ford. Last week in the Cowboys locker room, Lawrence said he has added 20 pounds of muscle and looks very well put together. The Dallas defense is 28th in the league with nine sacks in eight games; only Henry Melton (4) has more than one. The pass rush will need to be better down the stretch when the games get more important.

• ANDY BENOIT: The real stars of Dallas aren't playing in the games

C Jason Kelce, Eagles 

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Philadelphia rose quickly under new coach Chip Kelly last season mostly because of its spread running game, led by LeSean McCoy, that averaged a league-high 160.4 yards per game (16.2 yards better than runner-up Buffalo). Having such a great running game made life much easier for QB Nick Foles, who looked effortless throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. This season, LG Evan Mathis and Kelce (among others) were lost in the first and third games, respectively. As a result, the Eagles are 14th in the league with 115.1 yards per game. Mathis is a terrific guard and will soon be back, but Kelce (sports hernia) is the fulcrum for that running game. It all goes through him. He’s due back this week.

C Nick McDonald, Browns 

When Mike Pettine was hired as coach in Cleveland, he had a fairly simple blueprint. He wanted a quarterback who would take care of the ball, a strong running game for the bad weather games, and a defense to be the backbone. It went according to plan as the team started 3-2 punctuated with a 31-10 victory over the rival Steelers. But stud center Alex Mack was lost in that game for the season. The impact has been evident. Before Mack’s injury, the Browns averaged 146.4 rushing yards per game; since, they've managed just 54.0, as the Browns were bombed by the winless Jaguars and struggled to beat the one-win Raiders. After trying right guard John Greco, the Browns have gone with McDonald, a journeyman who has played limited snaps for the Packers and Patriots previously. If McDonald can't help get the run game back on track, the Browns are going to have to go off script and ask more of quarterback Brian Hoyer, which would be dangerous.

• JOEL BITONIO: A Browns rookie's first-person perspective on starting from Day One

CB Jason Verrett, Chargers 

Taken 25th overall in the draft, the rookie out of TCU had been even better than advertised and was a key to the Chargers’ 5-1 start as the defense was allowing an average of 15.2 points per game. But he suffered a shoulder injury against the Raiders (returned to make a game-saving interception) and missed most of the next two games as the Chargers allowed an average of 29 points per game in losses to the Chiefs and Broncos. It’s not known when Verrett will return from injury, but with games against the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs down the stretch, the Chargers will need their best players in the secondary.

NT Letroy Guion, Packers 

Letroy Guion's ability to play run defense is vital to the Packers' title hopes. (Duane Burleson/AP) Letroy Guion's ability to play run defense is vital to the Packers' title hopes. (Duane Burleson/AP)

Green Bay has one of the league’s top offenses, a defense that features Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers coming off the edge and excellent cornerback play. The Packers have had problems, however, when their opponents make a concerted effort to run the ball, especially with the lead. For going on two years, the Packers can’t make the stops to get Aaron Rodgers the ball back. With an undersized defensive interior, that’s not going to change anytime soon. The run defense sinks or swims with Guion, the lone big and experienced body up front. If he goes down or struggles, the Packers could be in big trouble.

DE Cameron Jordan, Saints 

A year ago, Jordan was a true difference maker for the Saints and often dominated games to help an undermanned defense survive. The Saints were fourth in the league with 49 sacks, and Jordan had 12.5 of them. Before Sunday night’s 44-23 victory over the Packers, the Saints had nine in six games, and Jordan had one. He had two sacks against the Packers, and another five hurries according to Pro Football Focus. That needs to continue for the Saints to improve on defense. Coordinator Rob Ryan hasn’t gotten enough pressure from his front four and instead has had to rely on bringing blitzes, which have gotten them burned in the secondary. If the front four, especially Cameron, can return to their dominating ways, then the Saints can take the weak NFC South.

QB Carson Palmer, Cardinals 

The Cardinals, with a 6-1 start and a two-game lead over the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West, have been one of the surprises at the midway point of the season. Palmer (4-0) and Drew Stanton (2-1) both played very well. Palmer, 34, has never won a playoff game in his career, and to have that opportunity, he’s going to have to win a lot of big games down the stretch against Dallas, Detroit, Seattle (twice), Kansas City and San Francisco. Can Palmer finish it off?

DE O’Brien Schofield, Seahawks 

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Last season, Seattle rode its pass defense all the way to a Super Bowl title. The Seahawks were a marvel, giving up just 172 yards per game and generating 28 interceptions in the pass-happy league. So far this season, the Seahawks rank 10th at 226.6 and are tied for 26th with three interceptions. The problem hasn’t been the coverage, or even the new rules emphasis. The issue is the Seahawks don’t have near the same pass rush after watching Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald leave via free agency. The players they thought would step up have not (though the Carolina game was a promising start). Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have continued to do a good job, but the rest haven’t elevated their game. Really, you could pick any number of players and put them on the spot. We’ll go with Schofield, who has just six total quarterback pressures in 96 pass rushes (according to Pro Football Focus).

OLB Aldon Smith, 49ers 

Under suspension by the NFL, Smith hasn’t played since the 49ers lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. He could be back for the Nov. 9 game against the Saints, and for the 49ers, the return of Smith can’t come soon enough. They haven’t been bad on defense, but when Smith is right, he’s a difference-maker at rushing the passer. When the 49ers held joint practices with the Ravens, he was the most dominating player on either team. If Smith can quickly round into form, then San Francisco can get some of its nastiness back on defense, just in time for two matchups against the Seahawks, and the season finale against the division-leading Cardinals.

RT Andre Smith, Bengals 

For the past two seasons, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been among the least pressured quarterbacks thanks to the consistently top-notch play of coach Paul Alexander’s unit. Increasingly each week during the Bengals’ medicore 1-2-1 stretch, Dalton has been facing increased pressure. For the Bengals to get back on track, their protection needs to be better. It involves many factors (including the domino effect of not having injured wide receiver A.J. Green), but if you were going to point to one player that could pick his game up, it would be Smith. He has allowed four sacks in the past three games (six last season) while battling through a knee injury. If Smith can get healthy, the Bengals should be fine. If it gets worse, the Bengals could be in trouble.

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