The NFL’s conference championship weekend is upon us, and the four teams left standing are powerhouses with star players on both sides of the ball.
The Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs will battle at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, starting at 3:05 p.m. ET. Then, the Green Bay Packers will take on the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to cap off the playoffs in the NFC Championship Game, which starts at 6:40 p.m. ET.
Looking at the two conference championship games, we’re focusing on the biggest X-factors. More specifically, we’re diving into which non-quarterbacks will be the biggest key to their team’s success.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re picking one offensive and defensive player per team. These are the biggest X-factors heading into the NFL’s conference championship weekend.
Adoree’ Jackson, cornerback, Tennessee Titans
The Titans stunned Baltimore’s high-powered offense last weekend, thanks in part to some outstanding work by Jackson in coverage.
It seems likely that Jackson will go head-to-head with Tyreek Hill often on Sunday, given his speed. Though, given what happened earlier this season, that may not be a win for the Titans, as Hill racked up 11 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown back in early November.
Chris Jones, defensive tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
One of the best interior defenders in the NFL, Jones was a late scratch for last weekend’s game against the Houston Texans. A dynamic pass rusher, he’s absolutely elite when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
He’s dealing with a calf injury suffered last week during practice and is questionable for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Jones is also a good run defender. If the Chiefs are going to have any hope of slowing down the juggernaut, Derrick Henry, then Jones needs to not only play but play well.
Jonnu Smith, tight end, Tennessee Titans
We know that the Titans will try and run the ball down Kansas City’s throat on Sunday. That’s the team’s bread-and-butter, and it’s what got them to conference championship weekend to begin with. Though he’s not in the same league as George Kittle when it comes to run blocking, Smith is no slouch, to be sure.
But what really makes Smith so dangerous is that he can absolutely kill opposing linebackers and safeties in the open field, and he’s become absolutely lethal when it comes to red-zone effectiveness — last weekend’s stunning touchdown catch being a prime example.
Don’t be surprised if Smith ends up being one of the biggest stars on the field for Tennessee on Sunday.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
Because the Chiefs have Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes, Watkins often gets overlooked as a lethal weapon in Kansas City’s arsenal. Though, it’s somewhat understandable given he has not caught more than five passes in a game since the first weekend of November.
Rest assured, the Titans are well aware of how dangerous Watkins can be, though. And it wasn’t all that long ago that he put up 198 yards and three touchdowns for the Chiefs when Hill was lost due to injury earlier this season. Also, let’s not forget that Watkins can do this.
Should the Chiefs find themselves in a scrap, and if Hill and Kelce are getting bottled up, Watkins can break the game open for the home team.
Blake Martinez, linebacker, Green Bay Packers
If the Packers are going to beat the 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, then their defense will have to step up in a major way. Remember, the 49ers’ offense absolutely shredded this unit during the regular season, and George Kittle feasted with six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Martinez is very good when he’s running downhill and is attacking the line of scrimmage. However, he struggles in space, especially going against speed.
You can be sure that 49ers head coach and noted offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan has a ton of stuff ready to attack Martinez on Sunday. How he is able to hold up in the middle will have a lot of bearing on the outcome of this game.
Emmanuel Moseley, cornerback, San Francisco 49ers
Richard Sherman is playing at an All-Pro level once again, and quarterbacks throwing his way have lived to regret it. Teams have been going away from him all year because of it, and that means the starting cornerback playing opposite Sherman has to be sharp.
Given the fact that Moseley was so darn good last time against Green Bay, and given the fact that Ahkello Witherspoon was benched in favor of Moseley last Saturday against Minnesota, we should see the second-year former undrafted rising star playing a ton Sunday against the Packers. How he holds up against Aaron Rodgers will determine what type of day the quarterback ends up having overall.
Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers
Packers receiver Davante Adams said leading up to Sunday’s game that he thinks they have a better plan of attack this time around than they did during the regular season. Presumably, that means the Packers are going to try to get the run game going, which was not viable in the first meeting between these two teams.
Jones averaged just 2.9 yards per carry the last time these teams met. He was mostly erased from the game plan, rushing 13 times for 38 yards while being shut out of the passing game. Another stinker of a performance by Jones would almost certainly doom the Packers Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. But if he can get loose and is a factor, then the 49ers may be in trouble.
Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers
The Packers know how dangerous this rookie is after seeing him make a sensational touchdown catch against them last time around. Samuel has only gotten better and become more of a force for the 49ers’ offense since then, with Jimmy Garoppolo often looking for this rookie in key situations.
This second-round rookie out of South Carolina had a huge rookie season, catching 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also a weapon in the team’s dominant run game and rushed for 159 yards on just 14 carries.