- From Deion Jones and his 10 tackles—seven of which were solo—to Marcus Mariota and his touchdown pass to himself, player performances we're still talking about in the NFL Wild-Card round.
The playoffs bring out the best in NFL players, whether it be a new level of performance from an established star or a breakout performance from someone we'll be talking about beyond this January. Here are two such players from each of last weekend's wild-card matchups, and a little on how they changed the game.
Chiefs vs. Titans
Marcus Mariota: Mariota may be responsible for two of the most memorable plays of the postseason so far. One carried an element of luck—a batted pass at the goal line was swatted right back into his arms, which he then carried for a touchdown. But the other was a game-clinching block on a handoff to tailback Derrick Henry. That was all Mariota. He popped a hard shoulder right into the chest of Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo, which provided enough clearance for Henry to rumble for a devastating first down. He was immediately swarmed by his offensive line – a moment that solidified Mariota was one of the most liked passers by his front five in the league.
Derrick Henry: An interesting stat from Titans beat man Jim Wyatt: Henry had 191 total yards last week, which broke a franchise record by Billy Cannon that stood for nearly 60 years. It was also the most total yards from a back in a playoff game this decade. After waiting patiently behind veteran DeMarco Murray, Henry is finally getting his chance. A mix of patience and power, Henry has surprised those who expected him to simply be a hammerhead at the next level. Can he keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands this week?
Jaguars vs. Bills
Jalen Ramsey: The most exciting young cornerback in the NFL was a lock-down defender in a 10-3 win over the Bills last week. Think about how razor thin Jacksonville’s margin of error was against Buffalo and, according to Pro Football Focus, Jalen Ramsey allowed just a 36.7 passer rating in throws to receivers he was covering.
Calais Campbell: A popular defensive player of the year vote, not just for his sack totals but for the way he’s anchored a young defensive line. Campbell had six tackles and four—four!—quarterback hits to lead the Jaguars Tyrod Taylor isn’t easy to bring down, and Campbell made the already difficult proposition of throwing against the Bills that much harder.
Saints vs. Panthers
Drew Brees: The Saints’ star rookie running back Alvin Kamara averaged almost 100 total yards per game this season, making Brees’s life significantly easier. But over the weekend, Kamara had just 23 rushing yards and 10 receiving yards. With the game back on his shoulders, Brees hit Michael Thomas eight times for 131 yards and Ted Ginn four times for 115 yards and an 80-yard touchdown. Not a bad backup option for the Saints.
Cam Newton: Newton’s performance was pretty heroic given the circumstances. His 349 passing yards, two touchdowns and 37 rushing yards kept Carolina in the game along with some stellar defensive play. Following the loss, the Panthers got rid of both Newton’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, a sign that they believe Newton isn’t being utilized properly, and not that he isn’t playing up to his potential.
Falcons vs. Rams
Deion Jones: A team-leading 10 tackles, seven of which were solo. Jones also made a backfield stop and a tackle for loss. It would not be surprising in the least to see Atlanta return to the Super Bowl, and if they do it will be partially on the shoulders of the rapidly maturing second-year linebacker. In Jones, Dan Quinn has the ideal modern linebacker, who is smart and flexible in coverage and tough up front.
Aaron Donald: Donald had half a sack, a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss Sunday, but with Donald, his effectiveness has always been in the details. Pro Football Focus tallied 11 total pressures for the Rams defensive lineman, especially noteworthy considering Atlanta’s rebuilt offensive line and quick passing game. Donald is out of the playoffs now, but award season should be kind to him, as should his mega-deal to come.