Playoff heroes can come from unexpected places, but we can guess which players will be the most important on conference championship Sunday.
Whether it’s because a team centers its offensive or defensive game plan around a certain star, a key matchup that puts a player in the spotlight or the inherent value of the quarterback position, some players are more important than others. The play of these 10 players will go a long way in determining which teams advance to Super Bowl LII:
10. Philadelphia Eagles CB Jalen Mills
Mills, a 2016 seventh-round pick, has had his ups and downs. Yet, with the Eagles’ season on the line in the divisional round, he found himself across from Falcons superstar Julio Jones on fourth-and-goal. And Mills battled Jones. Jones fell down, then had a potential game-winning pass go past him. Mills played well in the divisional round – most of Jones’ production came against Ronald Darby on the other side – and he’ll have a tough assignment Sunday whether he’s against Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs. The Eagles need Mills to have another big game.
9. Minnesota Vikings WR Adam Thielen
You’ve heard the name “Stefon Diggs” about 6,000 times this week, and he’s very good. But Thielen is clearly the No. 1 option in the offense and will be featured again Sunday. Thielen finished this season with 91 catches for 1,276 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Thielen was born and raised in Minnesota, and what better story would there be than him helping the Vikings to a Super Bowl in his home state?
8. Jacksonville Jaguars S Tashaun Gipson
The Patriots famously take whatever the opponent gives them. Jacksonville cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are among the best in the game, and while Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan are good, you have to assume the Patriots won’t lock in on those matchups to exploit. The Patriots will use tight end Rob Gronkowski extensively, and that’s where Gipson comes in. The Jaguars often use Gipson against opposing tight ends, though strong safety Barry Church will probably see some time with Gronk too. The Jaguars have been very good against tight ends this season, and their ability to slow down Gronkowski is a big key on Sunday.
7. Philadelphia Eagles LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Vaitai has done pretty well in a tough spot. He replaced left tackle Jason Peters, a possible Hall of Famer, after Peters’ season-ending injury. But this week will be tough for Vaitai. Vaitai will be matched up against Vikings right end Everson Griffen, whose 13 sacks were tied for fourth in the NFL. If the Eagles can’t get Griffen blocked, it will make Nick Foles’ job even tougher.
6. Minnesota Vikings QB Case Keenum
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Keenum’s breakout season is he hasn’t had many bad games. His rating has dipped below 75 only twice, and once was his first start against Pittsburgh when he didn’t know until the last minute that he’d be starting. If you’re expecting Keenum to fall apart, it’s not based on anything we’ve seen this season. Keenum did have one bad interception against the Saints, and the Vikings don’t want to see a repeat of that. They probably won’t; in six of Minnesota’s last seven regular-season games Keenum didn’t throw a pick.
5. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady
It’s not that Brady isn’t extremely important, it’s that we know what we’re getting out of him. Brady’s 337-yard, three-touchdown game wasn’t even considered one of his better postseason performances, which lets you know where we are with Brady after so many great seasons. The Patriots obviously can rely on Brady, though this week is a big challenge. The Jaguars have the best pass defense in the NFL, so Brady will need to be sharp. It’s a good bet that he will be.
4. Minnesota Vikings S Harrison Smith
Smith made his first All-Pro team this season, and it was well deserved. He is a versatile weapon who had another big game against the Saints, with six tackles and a sack. He had five interceptions during the regular season. The Vikings are great on defense, and the biggest reason is that Smith can do it all. If there’s anyone on the Vikings defense who is going to make a play to turn the tide of the game, it’s probably Smith.
3. New England Patriots RB Dion Lewis
The Jaguars were No. 1 in pass defense and No. 26 in rush defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. We all know the Patriots don’t care about “establishing their identity.” They attack weaknesses. Therefore, we should expect the Patriots to deploy a run-heavy attack Sunday (though, you never know with Bill Belichick). Lewis had 24 and 26 carries in Weeks 16 and 17, so the Patriots trust him with a big workload. He averaged 5 yards per carry in the regular season and is also capable as a receiver. You’re going to see a lot of Lewis on Sunday.
2. Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles
Be careful to not fall into the trap that Foles had some incredible performance last week. He was good. But the Eagles carried him, not the other way around. That’s OK, because the Eagles are a very good team. Even though Carson Wentz was a legitimate MVP candidate, the Eagles are more than just a quarterback. Still, against this Vikings defense, Foles needs to be at least as good as he was last week, and probably better. If the Foles we saw struggle in Week 16 against the Raiders and again in a quarter of work in Week 17 appears again, it’ll be tough for Philadelphia to overcome it.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles
We all know the Jaguars’ profile by now. Their defense is excellent. Their offense is … well, who knows. Some weeks it looks OK. Sometimes it’s painfully bad. The roller coaster is engineered by Bortles, who can look solid one game and really bad the next. Compare how Bortles struggled on wild-card weekend against the Bills, then his solid game against Pittsburgh last week, and it’s like two different players. If Bortles can play like he did last week against the Steelers, passing well enough to keep the defense honest and hitting a couple big plays, that gives the Jaguars a shot at an upset. We just don’t know if we’ll get that from him.
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