NFL Playoffs Potential X-factors
Jermaine Gresham, TE
Wide receiver A.J. Green gets more attention, but second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham has developed into something of a security blanket for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. Gresham was second on the Bengals with 56 catches and six touchdowns in the regular season, and the Bengals will need him to step up as defenses focus their attention on Green.
Owen Daniels, TE
Daniels stepped into the void created by star wide out Andre Johnson's nine-game injury absence to become the Texans' leading receiver this year, catching 54 balls for 677 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games -- all team highs. Johnson being healthy for the playoffs should take some of the opposition's attention away from Daniels, who could have an easier time getting open as a result.
Titus Young, WR
Opposing pass defenses will be locked in on trying to stop wide receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (and to a lesser extent, wideout Nate Burleson), something that should open up holes for speedy Young. The rookie receiver was fourth on Detroit with 48 catches for 607 yards and is a solid big play threat -- something that could come into major play in the playoffs.
Chris Ivory, RB
Ivory only played in six regular season games due to injuries, but he should get the bulk of the Saints' playoff carries with Mark Ingram going on Injured Reserve earlier this week. The second-year back did well at the end of the season, averaging nearly five yards per carry on 58 attempts. He really broke out in New Orleans' Week 17 win against Carolina, running the ball 19 times for 127 yards and a score.
Curtis Lofton, LB
Lofton isn't particularly well-known outside of Atlanta, but he certainly should be. The fourth-year middle linebacker had a very good season, leading the Falcons and coming in fifth in the league with 147 tackles. If his solid play carries over into the playoffs his profile -- and the Falcons' title hopes -- will shoot way up.
Kenny Phillips, S
Phillips had a career year in 2011, setting new personal highs in tackles (82), interceptions (4), passes defended (11) and forced fumbles (1). The hard-hitting strong safety also finished the regular season well, getting a pick in both Week 15 and Week 16.
Isaac Redman, RB
Redman will receive the vast majority of the Steelers' postseason carries with starter Rashard Mendhenhall sidelined for the rest of the year due to a torn ACL. He saw extended duty last week in Cleveland, rushing for 92 yards and one touchdown and fumbling twice on 19 carries after Mendenhall went out injured. Expect him to get more carries than that in Pittsburgh's playoff games, especially if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's bum ankle continues to be an issue.
Robert Ayers, DE
While Ayers only had three sacks and 39 tackles in the regular season, he could be poised to breakout in the playoffs. Opposing offenses will be focused on blocking the left side of the line -- where Von Miller (11.5 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (9.5) operate -- giving right end Ayers the one-on-one matchups he'll need to get into the backfield.
Michael Crabtree, WR
When the 49ers manage to beat teams through the air (they don't do it often, their passing game was ranked 29th in the league this year), it's often through receiver Michael Crabtree. The former Texas Tech star led San Francisco in 2011 with 72 catches and 874 yards and should be a big factor if his team hopes to compete with the high-flying offenses in Green Bay and New Orleans.
Stevan Ridley, RB
Rookie running back Stevan Ridley burst onto the scene at the end of the regular season, leading New England in both carries and rushing yards in the final three weeks. He'll likely be the Patriots' featured back in the playoffs and could arrive on the national stage with some solid play.
Jimmy Smith, CB
The 2011 first round pick started his rookie year slowly, but performed well down the stretch, getting both of his interceptions and seven of his eight passes defensed in the second half of the season. He'll play as the Ravens' nickel back in the playoffs.
Tramon Williams, CB
Williams didn't have his best year in 2011, but the fifth-year corner could very well bust out in the postseason. Williams was great in last year's playoffs, making three postseason interceptions to help the Packers win the Super Bowl. He'll be looking to recapture some of that magic when Green Bay kicks off their divisional round matchup next Sunday.