Every so often, a player steps out from the shadows and makes a significant impact in a meaningful game. As Santana Moss famously said, “big time players step up in big games“. But it’s not always the ones you think.
Monday night’s BCS National Championship was a perfect example. With their starting quarterback struggling, Alabama replaced him with Tua Tagovailoa, an unproven freshman, in the second half. Tagovailoa went on to mount an incredible comeback for the Tide, capping it off with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime.
While most of the attention will be focused on the superstars of the remaining Super Bowl contenders, NFL rosters hold 53 players. Any of these guys has the potential to make a big impact on the outcome of the game.
Here are the biggest X-factors for every remaining playoff team.
Atlanta Falcons – Taylor Gabriel, WR
After being claimed off waivers from the Browns, Gabriel has proven to be a sneaky good player. At 5’8″ and 165 pounds, Gabriel is a shifty and elusive pass-catcher. In 2016, Gabriel racked up 579 yards and 6 scores in the explosive Atlanta offense.
This year, under Steve Sarkisian’s command, Gabriel’s involvement in the offense has dwindled. In fact, he did not record a single catch in the Falcons’ Wild Card game against the Rams.
His talent is not a question, though, as he showed with a 5-catch, 79 yard, one touchdown performance in Week 3 against Detroit. If Sarkisian decides to work him back into the game plan, Gabriel could be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles – Corey Clement, RB
All the talk about the Eagles rushing attack is surrounding Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. But the undrafted rookie, Corey Clement, has been a dynamic part of Doug Pederson’s offense.
Clement is a well-rounded player, pairing a slashing running style with good hands out of the backfield. This season he rushed for 321 yards and posted 123 through the air. He scored 6 total touchdowns, most among the Eagles talented running back group.
When involved in Duce Staley’s rotation, Clement has proven to be more than just a change-of-pace back. Against a stout Denver defense in Week 9, Clement went for 66 total yards and 3 scores. If given the opportunity, Clement can help swing the game in the Eagles’ favor.
Tennessee Titans – Jonathan Cyprien, SS
All eyes were focused on Marcus Mariota and the offense last weekend. But it was the Titans’ defense that stepped up to help pull off the shocker at Arrowhead Stadium.
Jonathan Cyprien’s hit on Travis Kelce knocked the tight end out of the game and stifled the Chief’s offense on Saturday. Strong safeties are typically responsible for handling tight ends, so Cyprien could play a vital role, especially against Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots.
With NFL interceptions leader Kevin Byard and veteran pass-rusher Bryan Orakpo, the Titans have the pieces to limit offenses. If the hard-hitting Cyprien can step up in coverage, look out for Dick LaBeau’s defense in the playoffs.
New England Patriots – Marquis Flowers, OLB
Acquired from the Bengals for a seventh round pick, Flowers saw only 283 snaps on defense for the Patriots this season. However, he eventually got a chance to start in New England’s final two regular season contests.
In those two games started, Flowers notched 14 tackles and 3.5 sacks, including a safety of the Jets’ Bryce Petty in the fourth quarter of Week 17.
Along with getting after the quarterback, Flowers has shown speed and good anticipation in pass coverage. Flowers can prove to be a difference-maker for Matt Patricia’s defense in January.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Keelan Cole, WR
There are no questions surrounding the Jaguars’ defense. They have proven every week that they are a dominant force full of playmakers at every position. Where Jacksonville struggled in their Wild Card matchup was on offense.
Blake Bortles ran for more yards than he passed. The Jaguars need a receiver to step up. Keelan Cole burst onto the scene in the back half of the season.
He displayed incredible speed and a knack for getting behind the defense, racking up 426 yards in the final 4 games of the season. One false step in the secondary is all Cole needs to make a game-changing play.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Martavis Bryant, WR
Suspended the whole 2016 season, Bryant was a source of trouble this past season as well. Benched for disciplinary reasons and the subject of trade rumors, Bryant’s season was not what many hoped.
Just 26, Bryant was once viewed as the game’s next young star. In 2015, Bryant showed the ability to take the top off the defense, a trait that’s hard to find for someone with a 6’4″ frame.
Defenses will key on rookie Juju Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown as he returns from injury. The playoffs are a great opportunity for Bryant to shed his bad reputation and re-establish himself as one of the more talented receivers in the league.
New Orleans Saints – Marcus Williams, FS
Safety Marcus Williams had a strong rookie season for the New Orleans Saints. He’s been all over the field, notching the third most tackles on the team.
A second-round selection out of Utah, Williams was praised by scouts as an athletic, ball-hawking safety. Against 44 targets, he posted 10 interceptions in his final two college seasons.
The Saints defense already includes first-team All-Pro Cameron Jordan and lockdown rookie corner Marshon Lattimore. Williams is another exciting young player capable of making game-changing plays.
Minnesota Vikings – Jerick McKinnon, RB
After rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL, the Vikings began taking a committee approach to their backfield. Although Latavius Murray ended up leading the team in carries, McKinnon is the most dynamic of the two.
The compact back was fourth on the team with 421 receiving yards. McKinnon works well in space, with a shiftiness that helped him notch 7 plays of 20 yards or more.
McKinnon also makes contributions in the return game, averaging 26 yards per kick return. Playoff games are often determined by one score, and McKinnon’s role on both offense and special teams gives him a good chance to make an impact.