The NFL postseason is down to its final two matchups to determine the representatives for Super Bowl LI. All four clubs playing in the conference title games have amazing offenses that could prove challenging for their opposing defenses to keep in check. Furthermore, the quarterbacks competing are some of the league’s cream of the crop.
Easily, some huge numbers could be recorded when the Green Bay Packers head to Atlanta to take on the highestscoring team in the NFL. Furthermore, there should not be a shortage of points when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots square off against one of the most powerful running back/wide receiver tandems in the league.
This brings us to discuss the most dangerous non-quarterback players who could make a huge impact for their respective teams.
1. Jared Cook, tight end, Green Bay Packers
Cook had somewhat of a quiet season with his new team in 2016. But over his past three games, he was targeted 28 times by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Cook was also anything but quiet during a stunning late fourth-quarter play in the Divisional playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys. The tight end made a brilliant 36-yard catch before falling out of bounds. It was close, but Cook kept his toes in bounds just long enough to make the reception count.
The yardage gained was just enough to bring out Mason Crosby, who in turn, nailed a 51-yard game-winning field goal.
Since the Packers have been without wide receiver Jordy Nelson, Cook has garnered more attention from Rodgers. As a result of gaining Rodgers’ confidence, Cook led the team in receiving yards with 104 and one touchdown in Sunday’s nail-biting win over Dallas.
We don’t see Cook’s level of production suddenly dropping off when the Packers take on the high-scoring Atlanta Falconsoffense in a must-win NFC Conference Championship battle.
2. Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell has been an absolute animal on the field since entering returning from suspension in Week 4. In only 12 regular season games, Bell averaged 157 total yards per contest. He also added nine touchdowns.
The regular season proved to be no fluke when Bell kept up with his stunning production to start the postseason. In the Wild Card game against the Miami Dolphins, Bell rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He followed up that incredible performance by rushing for 170 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.
Bell is now facing a tough opponent in that of the New England Patriots. Back in Week 7, New England held Bell to just 81 rushing yards and 3.9 yards per attempt.
But considering the pace at which Bell began picking up speed in Week 11, it would be hard to envision any defense keeping him bottled up. He should be primed to push New England’s defenders to the edge.
3. Devonta Freeman, running back, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman has had an extremely successful past two seasons with the Falcons, tallying 3,175 total yards and 27 touchdowns. The only thing different is in 2016 the Falcons won the NFC South.
Freeman’s valuable contribution throughout this past season helped the Falcons become the highest-scoring offense in the league. This is largely why Atlanta was nearly unstoppable when it beat the Seattle Seahawks by the score of 36-20 in the Divisional playoffs.
Once again, Freeman should be plenty involved, both through the air and on the ground as the Falcons attempt to outscore Rodgers and Co. on Sunday. Thankfully for Freeman, the Packers’ defense yielded an average of 363.9 yards per game during the regular season. It is not too difficult to envision Freeman piling up a substantial amount yardage and finding the end zone at least once.
4. Ryan Shazier, inside linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brady had better watch his back in Sunday’s game, because Shazier is on quite the roll. The third-year linebacker has recorded an interception in each of the past four games.
Even better, Shazier just tied a Steelers’ record after intercepting Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in last week’s win.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 16, 2017
Shazier could help present the perfect recipe for disaster considering Tom Terrific was a bit of off his last game last week. Uncharacteristically, Brady let the Texans defense get the better of him when he tossed two picks compared to two touchdowns. That performance wasn’t too brilliant considering Brady had thrown only two interceptions during the regular season.
Taking into account Shazier’s most-recent accomplishments, head coach Bill Belichick had better welcome the Steelers very prepared.
5. Julian Edelman, wide receiver, New England Patriots
Through thick and thin, Edelman remains Brady’s favorite target on offense. The injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski had much to do with Edelman’s stock rising midway through the season.
Over his last two games in particular, Edelman was targeted 26 times for a total of 16 catches and 288 yards. He scored once during this span and averaged a sweet 18 yards per reception. Considering Edelman just walked away with 137 receiving yards against Houston’s pass defense, he could be up for another stellar performance.
In 2016, the Steelers allowed an average of 23.8 catches and 258.8 receiving yards per game. Edelman obviously catches passes from one of the best quarterbacks in the league. This makes him a dangerous offensive weapon the Steelers should not underestimate in this critical showdown.
6. Micah Hyde, strong safety, Green Bay Packers
The fourth-year defensive back made a game-changing play when he intercepted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the divisional playoffs. This specific play could have very well stopped a Cowboys score considering the previous play saw Dallas take the ball to the Packers 19.
The safety said he made the play based the films he had seen the previous week.
“We know if we load the box possibly that they’re going to have a run solution, whether it’s a glance by the No. 1 receiver throwing a slant,” Hyde said, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN. “[It’s] a ‘key play, a now play,’ whatever you want to call it.”
Hyde’s interception was his fourth over the past six games. But, he will definitely have his work cut out playing a Falcons offense that scored 38 passing touchdowns in 2016 and another three in the divisional round.
7. Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons
Speaking of the Falcons’ dynamic playmakers, Jones could prove challenging to slow down on Sunday. Despite Hyde’s valiant efforts against the Cowboys, the Packers’ secondary just allowed wideout Dez Bryant to put up nine catches, resulting in 132 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones could absolutely thrive against Green Bay’s Swiss cheese of a pass defense. He already made a mockery of Seattle’s defense last week when he led the team with six receptions, including this easy touchdown (more on that here).
If Jones gets the ball in his hands, watch out Green Bay. The speedy receiver is on record for averaging an astounding 17 yards per catch and 100.6 yards per contest during the regular 2016 season.
8. Dion Lewis, running back, New England Patriots
Lewis is a shifty, multi-faceted Patriots’ player that the Steelers need to take seriously. Since his return from injury, Lewis has burned some of the league’s better defenses. Back in Week 15, Lewis rushed for 95 yards at the rate of 5.3 yards per carry against the Denver Broncos.
Most recently, Lewis scored three times against the Houston Texans in the divisional playoffs. Unique about that performance was that he scored through the air, on the ground and on a return. Overall, Lewis piled up 64 yards offensively and 124 more yards on returns. This also included a 98-yard run (watch here).
Lewis’ accomplishments as of late are surely enough to earn him more work in the AFC Championship game. Plus, New England is going to have to kick it up some notches to keep up with Pittsburgh’s high-scoring offense. Lewis potentially sneaking in a return touchdown could be quite a game changer.
9. Ty Montgomery, wide receiver, running back, Green Bay Packers
Desperate circumstances earlier in 2016 led to Montgomery filling a dual role on the Packers’ offense. Green Bay doesn’t rely a lot on the run, but when Montgomery does carry the ball, he can be quite explosive.
During the regular season, Montgomery averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. He also caught 78.6 percent of his targets.
In last week’s Divisional playoffs, Montgomery led the offense with 17 total touches resulting in 81 yards. He also rushed in two touchdowns. Going up against the Falcons, Montgomery will be faced with a defense that gave up an average of 371.2 yards per game and 46 offensive touchdowns.
The Falcons had better be prepared for Green Bay’s multi-talented second-year standout. If not, Montgomery could be up for a grand day.
10. Chris Boswell, kicker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Lastly, we will cover the only player who was able to put points on the board for the Steelers in last week’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs. If the rest of the team fails at this task once again, Boswell will be heavily relied upon to keep Pittsburgh in the game.
Last Sunday, the Steelers barely beat Kansas City by the score of 18-16. It’s easy math to calculate that Boswell nailed the uprights on six field goals. It was enough that Boswell set a new playoff record with this stat. And if he had missed just once, the Steelers would have lost.
Now, Boswell and his team will face a Patriots defense that ranked eighth overall in 2016. We would like to think that Bell and wideout Antonio Brown could manage to score considering the talent each exudes. But, if the right circumstances don’t present themselves, Boswell might be up for another pressuring performance.
During the 2016 regular season, Boswell made 84 percent of his attempted field goals.