Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights 14 players who could assume a critical role in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy ...
The star power in the NFL playoffs makes the postseason tournament must-see TV, but these games are routinely decided by less-ballyhooed playmakers who rise to the moment. These players might be overlooked Pro Bowlers, rising rookies or designated role players, but their impact is felt immensely in this single-elimination format.
With that in mind, I went searching for one X-factor on each of the 14 playoff teams. Here's what I found.
After taking a couple months to evaluate the offensive lineup without Tyreek Hill, Andy Reid and Co. pulled the trigger on a trade for Toney to add speed and big-play potential on the perimeter. Although injuries have limited Toney's contributions as a WR3/WR4, the second-year pro has flashed as a playmaker on jet sweeps, reverses and vertical routes. As Reid tinkers with his playbook heading into the postseason, the offensive guru could design a few "winners" to take advantage of Toney's extraordinary explosiveness in space.
While the Bills have enjoyed plenty of success in simply relying on The Josh Allen Show, the offense will need contributions from the running backs to balance the attack in the postseason. As an electric runner/receiver out of the backfield, Cook has the potential to put up 100-plus scrimmage yards in a variety of ways to keep defenders from exclusively keying on No. 17. In fact, he did just that in December wins over the Patriots and Bears. If the rookie can give Buffalo a few explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards/receptions of 20-plus yards) in the playoffs, opposing defensive coordinators will have a tough time matching up against a diverse offense with dazzling playmakers all over the field.
The third-year pro is the tackling machine who quietly anchors Lou Anarumo's stingy defense. As a sideline-to-sideline defender with instincts, range and cover skills, Wilson controls the middle of the field while adding some "thump" to the Bengals' run defense. In addition, he directs the action as the unit's designated traffic cop. Considering the dynamic offenses across the AFC playoff field, Wilson's leadership, communication skills and big-play ability could go a long way in determining how far the Bengals advance in the tournament.
The crafty veteran has added some spice to the Jaguars' pass rush as an inside/outside defender with great length and first-step quickness. Key's versatility and disruptiveness enable defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell to utilize various packages to attack the quarterback. With Jacksonville living off turnovers and splash plays from the defense, Key's playmaking ability could spark a takeaway that alters a game in a critical moment.
The Chargers' receiving corps is headlined by a couple of high-end playmakers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, but don't overlook Palmer's crucial function as a chameleon on the perimeter. The second-year pro can fill various roles as a starter or super-sub while aligning anywhere on the field as a slot or outside playmaker. With opposing defenses concentrating on Los Angeles' more established pass catchers, Palmer can punish nickel and dime defenders in one-on-one matchups. And given Williams' questionable status for Saturday night's game in Jacksonville, Palmer might be pressed into a very prominent role in the Bolts' first playoff tilt in four years.
The Ravens need another pass catcher to emerge as a credible threat to alleviate some pressure on Mark Andrews to carry the passing game. Likely could fill the void as a crafty route runner with enough speed and quickness to separate from linebackers and safeties down the field. If opponents elect to take away Andrews with brackets and double teams, the rookie could see an increase in targets and touches. It doesn't hurt that he just posted season highs in targets (13), catches (eight) and yards (103) against the Bengals, who are about to host the Ravens for the second time in as many weeks.
The Dolphins' murky quarterback situation puts the onus on the defense to create short fields and scoring opportunities with turnovers and timely playmaking. Holland could spearhead the charge as a dynamic defender with ball skills and pass-rush capabilities. With immense pressure on defensive coordinator Josh Boyer to take more chances in a single-elimination tournament, this emerging stud could take on more responsibility as a designated playmaker in a blitz-heavy game plan.
The do-it-all playmaker anchors a secondary that feasts on the overthrows and errant passes forced by a ferocious pass rush that just piled up 15 more sacks than any other team during the regular season. Gardner-Johnson's ability to man the middle of the field enables cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry to take chances on calculated guesses on the outside. Not to mention, Gardner-Johnson is tied for the NFL lead in picks himself with six, despite missing five games to injury. Given the inconsistent quarterback play we have witnessed from the postseason field generals in the NFC, this first-year Eagle could come through with a timely pick that seals the deal for Philly.
A fifth-round pick in 2021, Hufanga has become a pivotal piece to the 49ers' defensive puzzle in Year 2. A big hitter with versatile traits as a box-area defender, Hufanga makes his mark as a ballhawk/sack artist roaming from numbers to numbers. With the 49ers poised to make a run through a playoff field that features a diverse set of offensive attacks, the dynamic safety could emerge to national stardom on a defense that suffocates opponents in the tournament.
Minnesota's marquee trade acquisition has settled in as a designated chain-mover over the middle. Kirk Cousins has increasingly targeted Hockenson in key situations when opponents attempt to take away Justin Jefferson with double coverage. With defensive coordinators intent on forcing the Vikings to abandon their preferred approach, the big-bodied pass catcher could become the a primary option in the passing game during key stretches. The Vikes' open their postseason adventure on Sunday against the Giants, a team they just beat in Week 16. Hockenson's line in that game: 13 catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
The triple XL defender teams with Akiem Hicks to form an impenetrable wall at the point of attack. Vea's size, strength and run-stopping skills eliminate opposing ground games and force quarterbacks to throw into the eye of a blitz-heavy storm. Given Todd Bowles' desire to make opponents utilize a one-dimensional approach (pass only), Vea is a key component to the team's winning formula. Oh, and he also just set a new career high with 6.5 sacks in the regular season.
Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong and DeMarcus Lawrence headline Dallas' pass rush, but the trio has totaled just two sacks combined since the beginning of December. For the Cowboys to get their defensive groove back, they need to harass opposing quarterbacks at a high rate. Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick back in the 2015 NFL Draft, has flashed big-play potential as a rotational player. If he can win a few one-on-one matchups with his "bull in a china shop" pass-rushing style, the turnovers and splash plays could reappear for America's Team.
The rookie pass rusher really started to make his mark as a playmaker down the stretch, with three sacks, six tackles for loss, five QB hits, 28 total tackles and a defensive touchdown in his final five games of the regular season. Thibodeaux's initial quickness and "bend and burst" overwhelms lumbering edge blockers, resulting in big hits, sacks and turnovers. Considering the Giants' formula for success hinges on a complementary approach that relies on takeaways, the rookie's persistent pressure as a dominant pass rusher could tip a close playoff game in New York's favor.
The Seahawks' secondary no longer carries the splashy "Legion of Boom" nickname, but the unit has helped spark the team's surprising run to the playoffs. Diggs has played a key role as the elder statesman in the defensive backfield with his poise and penchant for playmaking. With a pair of rookie cornerbacks (Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant) making their playoff debut on the island, the veteran's ability to act as a big-play eraser/creator could determine whether Seattle's season stretches deep into the winter. After all, there's a good chance the 'Hawks don't make the postseason in the first place without Diggs' rangy overtime pick this past Sunday.