Eight teams are left standing heading into the divisional round this weekend, and each of the four games feature superstars on both sides of the ball. Looking at the matchups heading into the divisional round, some players stand out as particularly critical for their team.
That’s what we’re focused on here. These eight players are the biggest X-factors for their respective teams during the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings: Danielle Hunter, defensive end
If the Vikings are going to knock off the 49ers in Santa Clara Saturday, then their defense will have to get under the skin of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers gunslinger is mistake prone under pressure, turning it over 18 times in 16 games this season — 13 interceptions thrown and five lost fumbles.
Hunter is a phenomenally gifted pass rusher who has the talent to make Garoppolo’s life hell on Saturday. He tallied 14.5 sacks during the regular season but has a tall task going against San Francisco’s offensive tackles during the divisional round. If he has a big day, then the Vikings have a shot to win. If not, then their odds decrease significantly.
San Francisco 49ers: Deebo Samuel, wide receiver
This rookie receiver has developed into one of the 49ers’ biggest go-to weapons in clutch situations. An after-the-catch monster, Samuel looks to dish out punishment as much as he tries to elude tacklers.
The second-round pick out of South Carolina racked up 57 catches for 802 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season. He’s developing into a legitimate playmaker for the 49ers, who now have three of those in the passing game with veterans George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders being the other two.
Tennessee Titans: Rashaan Evans, linebacker
If you can slow down Baltimore’s rushing attack, then you have a chance to keep Lamar Jackson and Co. from running up the score. Easier said than done, of course. If the Titans are going to have a shot to do it, then Evans needs to have another monster game like he did last weekend against New England.
Evans’ goal-line tackle against the Patriots was a tide-turning moment for the Titans in the wild-card round. He’s going to need a bunch more plays like the one above to keep Tennessee from going down big early on Saturday night in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens: Gus Edwards, running back
There is still some uncertainty about how healthy Mark Ingram will be this weekend as he continues to rehabilitate a calf injury suffered late in the regular season. With that in mind, the Ravens will need to get a big game out of second-year running back Gus Edwards.
The former undrafted free agent out of Rutgers had another solid season for Baltimore, tallying 711 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Edwards was also a star in the team’s final regular-season game against Pittsburgh, rushing for 130 yards on 21 carries. If he can continue to replicate that type of success against Tennessee, then the Ravens may roll.
Houston Texans: Darren Fells, tight end
Everyone knows about the talented receiving corps the Texans feature, led by DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, who will certainly try to play Sunday after missing the wild-card round with a groin injury. But when the chips are down and Deshaun Watson is scrambling around and extending plays, oftentimes it’s the team’s tight end making the clutch catch on third down.
Consider that Fells caught just 34 passes for 341 yards in the regular season, but of those catches seven went for scores. He’s a huge underrated weapon for the Texans, who saw him rack up six catches for 69 yards to lead all Houston receivers against the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Terrell Suggs, defensive end
Getting to Deshaun Watson is one of the biggest keys to the Chiefs advancing to the AFC Championship Game this Sunday. Frank Clark and Chris Jones are nightmares up front, but the addition of veteran Terrell Suggs is why the Chiefs have a real shot to make Watson’s life a living hell this Sunday at Arrowhead.
Signed by Kansas City just a few weeks ago after he was shockingly cut by Arizona, Suggs has already made his presence felt. During the team’s regular-season finale, he tallied a sack against Philip Rivers to get his feet wet with the Chiefs.
Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch, running back
It’s still a mystery whether Marshawn Lynch will be able to give the Seahawks enough of a boost offensively to help his team continue to advance this postseason. Lynch carried the ball just six times for seven yards last weekend as the Seahawks edged the injury-ravaged Philadelphia Eagles, though he did plow into the end zone for a powerful score.
Head coach Pete Carroll has hinted that the Seahawks are ready to unleash Beast Mode in full this weekend after he got his body attuned the past couple of games. Whether he is able to make headway against a Packers defense that’s vulnerable to being gashed on the ground remains to be seen. If Lynch cannot find running room, then Seattle is likely not going to get past Green Bay.
Green Bay Packers: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Wide Receiver
It’s no secret that Green Bay’s offense has struggled a bit this season as Aaron Rodgers continues to seek consistent play at the receiver position outside of Davante Adams. Marquez Valdes-Scantling was pegged by many as a player who was set to become a star for Green Bay in 2019, but in the end he hauled in just 26 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns while dealing with a bad case of butterfingers throughout the season.
Given the way Seattle’s pass defense stepped up in the second half of the season, the Packers will need MVS to step up in a big way this Sunday when they take on the Seahawks. If he comes through for Rodgers and Co., then it seems likely the Packers will have enough firepower to beat the magical Russell Wilson at Lambeau Field.