It's NFL Wild Card Weekend: These are the game-changing players to watch on each team

It's NFL Wild Card Weekend: These are the game-changing players to watch on each team

In the playoffs, individual performances can become the stuff of legend. Every team remaining has star players capable of such performances, and these players have the potential to decide the outcome of their game. There’s no “next week” anymore – it’s all about now. Get it done and survive until the next game. Don’t, and you can start your vacation plans early.

Let’s look at who could be the make-or-break player for each team in the Wild Card round, some of whom may not be the first player that comes to mind ...

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Bills vs. Colts:

Bills vs. Colts:

Buffalo linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

Illustration for article titled Its NFL Wild Card Weekend: These are the game-changing players to watch on each team
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Aside from the offense needing to get out to a good start, the Bills should be committing wholly to stopping the prolific rushing attack of the Colts. An outdoor game in Western New York in January does not sound like a friend for Philip Rivers. If the Bills can make him drop back and throw a ton, they’ll be in great shape in this one.

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Bills vs. Colts:

Bills vs. Colts:

Colts running back Jonathan Taylor

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On the flip side, the running game is exactly what the Colts need to do. Other than the “Hail Murray” that handed the Bills one of their losses, the other two times the Bills have lost, their opponent won the turnover battle, and controlled the time-of-possession. Jonathan Taylor will need to continue his dominant stretch for the Colts to control the clock and protect the ball. That’s the recipe.

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Seahawks vs. Rams

Seahawks vs. Rams

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

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Wilson’s second half of the season has looked markedly different from the first. If the Seahawks are going to beat the Rams, Wilson is going to need to demonstrate his iconic wizardry to avoid the rush, and will need to limit his turnovers against this elite defense. Look for Wilson also to run more than we’ve seen lately to slow down the defensive front.

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Seahawks vs. Rams

Seahawks vs. Rams

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald

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Speaking of the defensive front, Aaron Donald is the best defender, and arguably the best player, in football. He’s a game wrecker. He’s second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks and has 4 forced fumbles. He’s a monster. At any time, he’s capable of sheer dominance, as demonstrated with his 4 sack and 1 forced fumble performance against Washington in October. Seattle absolutely must find a way to at least slow down Donald.

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Buccaneers vs. Washington Football Team

Buccaneers vs. Washington Football Team

Bucs running back Ronald Jones

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Tom Brady is old and has never been known to move well in the pocket. When he’s pressured, it doesn’t go well. Earlier this year, the Buccaneers got embarrassed by the New Orleans Saints, 38-3. In that game, Brady was sacked three times, and pressured into throwing three interceptions. The Washington defensive front has been one of the best in the league, and has racked up the 6th most sacks. If Tampa Bay is going to find a way to take pressure off Brady, the running game with Ronald Jones would be a great way to do it. If they can’t get the ground game going, Brady could be in trouble.

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Buccaneers vs. Washington Football Team

Buccaneers vs. Washington Football Team

Washington running back Antonio Gibson

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On the other side of the ball for Washington, with the countless injuries and quarterback problems they have had, it will be equally helpful to rely on the rushing attack. Rookie standout Antonio Gibson will have a tall order against the Tampa Bay defense, who has been the best defense against the run this year. This game has the makings of a defensive, hard-hitting, slugfest. If Gibson can keep the chains and the clock moving, I like their chances to upset Tampa Bay.

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Titans vs. Ravens

Titans vs. Ravens

Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown

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I know the Titans run through Derrick Henry, and rightly so. He became only the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. However, to keep up with the Ravens offense that has averaged 37.2 points per game in the last five weeks, the Titans are going to have to hit on some passing plays as well. Off the play action, second-year wide receiver A.J. Brown is going to have to come up big against a very good Ravens secondary.

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Titans vs. Ravens

Titans vs. Ravens

Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins

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Part of the offensive surge for the Ravens has been the reëmergence of the rushing attack, headlined by rookie J.K. Dobbins, who is coming off a 160 rushing yard, 2 TD performance. This is how this team is built – pound the rock with their backs and with quarterback Lamar Jackson. Dobbins is the motor that makes the offense go, and they will lean on him heavily.

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Saints vs. Bears

Saints vs. Bears

Saints running back Alvin Kamara

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As Kamara goes, so goes the Saints. He is one of the greatest playmakers in the NFL, and will be the focal point of the Saints offense with Drew Brees back under center. There’s not much to say here – Kamara is an elite talent and will continue to do what he’s been doing, whether on the ground or through the air.

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Saints vs. Bears

Saints vs. Bears

Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky

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It’s fair to say that this is the biggest game of Trubisky’s career, and he’s going to have to have the game of his life if the Bears are going to have any chance at pulling off the upset. The Saints defense is strong up front, good at generating pressure, and great at eliminating the run. This game will fall on the shoulders of Trubisky, and he’s going to have to be damn-near perfect.

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Steelers vs. Browns

Steelers vs. Browns

Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson

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The Steelers offense finally showed signs of life two weeks ago before resting Ben Roethlisberger in preparation of the playoffs. Diontae Johnson has been an explosive playmaker with a serious case of the drops, and he’s going to need to demonstrate sure hands to keep the offense on the field. If the drops continue, not just for Johnson but for the team as a whole, then this offense could return to the sputtering flop that it was for roughly a month.

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Steelers vs. Browns

Steelers vs. Browns

Browns running back Nick Chubb

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In a weird week where the Browns are dealing with a COVID outbreak and only now, on Friday, were able to practice for the first time, their bruising, elusive running back would provide a sense of normalcy to their offense. He is the tip of the spear of this team, and by feeding Chubb, the Browns would wisely keep the ball away from an opportunistic Steelers secondary. Chubb missed four games this year, but still finished 7th in the league in rushing yards, and was third in rushing yards per game. He’s capable of dominating a game, and should be given the chance to do so.

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