After a week without Monday or Thursday Night Football, NFL action is finally back on Saturday — and it’s the playoffs baby, starring Connor Cook and Brock Osweiler! Not exactly what anyone expected, but that’s how the playoffs will begin before the Seahawks and Lions take the stage on Saturday night. Below, check out our picks for the players most important (not necessarily the best) to each team’s chances to advance to next weekend’s games and beyond.
Houston Texan -- Jadeveon Clowney, DE
A game with a ridiculously low 36.5 point total over/under projects as a defensive slog. Barring a large, early deficit, the expectation is that Oakland will lean heavily on its offensive line to create some space for the running backs. But Oakland will have to contend with Clowney, who has developed into one of the best run-stuffers in the league with 16 tackles for losses on running plays this year, trailing only a group of defensive studs at 17 including Aaron Donald, Olivier Vernon and Joey Bosa. The Raiders might wish to run to the other direction, but they could be without starting left tackle Donald Penn (knee).
Pittsburgh Steelers -- Le’Veon Bell, RB
Finally the Steelers have the entire Big Three together for a playoff game (Ben, Brown, Bell). DeAngelo Williams proved a capable fill-in for Bell down the stretch last season, but Bell is simply irreplaceable. Assuming Pittsburgh gets past the Miami Dolphins (as the 10.5-point spread and having a brain suggests), they’re going to need to lean on Bell at Kansas City, which is a bit more susceptible to the run than the pass.
Of course Bell will pile up receptions coming out of the backfield too. The Steelers are much likelier to survive an average game from Antonio Brown than Bell, who’s averaged 157 rushing and receiving yards per game this season.
Getty ImagesTom Szczerbowski
Oakland Raiders -- Khalil Mack, DE
If the Raiders win a game with rookie quarterback Connor Cook making his first career NFL start, against one of the league’s top defenses, they’re probably going to need a couple big defensive or special teams plays. Oakland has no surer bet to cause or create such a play than the disruptive third-year end who has 11 sacks, a whopping five forced fumbles and an interception this season. Texans QB Brock Osweiler also has a knack for getting passes batted down at the line, so look for Mack to get his paws on one and try to hold on.
Miami Dolphins -- Jay Ajayi, RB
If the Dolphins are to have a chance against the Steelers they’re going to need to play keepaway and keep that Steelers offense off the field, which is particularly dangerous at home. That means pounding the rock with Ajayi against a Steelers D that hasn’t been great at shutting down rushers in recent weeks — and the same defense (minus Ryan Shazier) that Ajayi ripped for 204 yards in Week 6. In games that Ajayi has a big workload, the Dolphins have been successful. They just need to keep the game close and keep pounding away.
USA TODAY SportsSteve Mitchell
New England Patriots -- Tom Brady, QB
Is it his nutrition? His pajamas with restorative healing powers? The mad scientist head coach? Somehow at age 39, Brady turned in a positively absurd 28:2 TD to INT campaign as he carved up defenses and created leads for LeGarrette Blount to salt away.
Kansas City Chiefs --Travis Kelce, TE
With Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, Kelce has become the league’s premier tight end. Too big for safeties, too quick for linebackers, he’s just a beast to defend. If the Chiefs get past (likely) the Steelers in the Divisional Round, they’re probably looking at another trip to New England, which has done a very good job at containing opposing tight ends this season. We will find out if Alex Smith’s favorite target (117 targets, 85 catches) can channel his inner Gronk for that meeting.
New York Giants -- Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, OTs
Wide receivers getting no love! The Eli Manning-Odell Beckham Jr. connection is obviously crucial to the Giants’ success, but the major impediment to the offense all year has been defenders collapsing on Manning -- often going around or through LT Flowers or RT Hart.
The Giants’ quick-strike passing offense doesn’t ask the linemen to hold blocks very long but the pair of tackles, who are much more adept at run blocking, have really struggled. If Eli has enough time to assess and step up, it’s on him to find the open receiver and accurately deliver the ball, which he hasn’t excelled at this season. (Watch Giants-Packers FSGO on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET.)
Green Bay Packers -- Aaron Rodgers, QB
Over the Packers' past seven games (six wins), Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdown passes against zero interceptions. He’s been flat-out ridiculous despite a reoccurrence of that calf injury, navigating the pocket to buy time and pick up a first down with his legs as needed.
Green Bay has rediscovered some semblance of a running game with converted wideout Ty Montgomery but the Pack will only go as far as Rodgers takes them. Green Bay’s defense is pretty beat up but if Rodgers continues to play as he has since the streak began, he may very well take them to Houston.
Seattle Seahawks -- Steven Terrell, FS
Terrell is is Earl Thomas’ replacement — and has proved that there is no real replacement for Earl Thomas. Thomas has unparalleled range and instincts and hits like a truck, as Rob Gronkowski has attested. Thomas is the glue to that defense.
Consider these figures via NFL.com: the Seahawks allowed 16.2 points per game (1st in NFL) and an opponent passer rating of 79.9 (5th) with Thomas and 24.5 ppg (19th) and a 105 rating (28th) without. The Seahawks can get past an overachieving Lions team with a subpar performance but but come Atlanta or Dallas, Terrell and the rest of that defense will need to step up and be the best versions of themselves.
Detroit Lions -- Darius Slay, DB
The Seahawks have struggled to run the ball all season behind a terrible offensive line, and the Lions have struggled to limit opposing passers all season, allowing a league-worst 106.5 passer rating against. It stands to reason that the Seahawks will attempt to pass their way to a win.
Slay is solid and the best the Lions’ secondary has to offer, and he returned to action in Week 17 after a hamstring injury looking less than 100%. The Lions’ front seven should be able to generate pressure but Slay will have to lock down the perimeter and perhaps move into the slot more to help contain Doug Baldwin.
Atlanta Falcons -- Vic Beasley Jr., LB
The Falcons offense has become an absolute juggernaut, and there’s no easy way to shut them down because they’ve got a solid offensive line, a pair of dynamic running backs capable of receiving, and of course, Julio Jones.
Atlanta's chances at a Super Bowl run will hinge on its defense showing enough resistance so the offense can outscore opponents. Enter Beasley, the Falcons' top draft pick from 2015 who became the league’s sack leader this season with 15.5 and also forced six fumbles. Beasley is going to have to lead an inexperienced and fairly talent-deficient defense.
Yeah, this isn’t complicated. Feed the beast. Feed him again. Then feed him more. Fellow rookie Dak Prescott has been impressive and capable but this offense is at its best and most efficient when the offensive line is beating down opposing defenses, keeping the ball away from opponents, while Zeke piles up carries and yards. Elliott averaged a league-leading 108.7 rushing yards per game this season and tallied a whopping 91 first downs rushing, nearly 20 more than David Johnson in second (Johnson added 42 in the receiving game).