Top 10 difference makers heading into the NFL playoff run

Time is running out for teams to jump aboard the NFL playoff train. With only four more regular season games remaining, contending teams will be pulling out all of the stops.

This brings us to list some of the top difference makers that can help their teams finish strong. We already know that one NFL franchise has secured a playoff spot. That storyline and a look at some other key players that will be the deciding factors of their own team’s success are covered here.

10. David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Not too many things are sure bets in life. We can count on the sun to rise each day. Just as surely, we can count on seeing Johnson touch the ball a lot during any given game.

If the Cardinals want to have any shot at reaching the postseason, they’ll need to keep their No. 1 playmaker heavily involved.

David JohnsonTo date, Johnson has carried the ball a total of 228 times. Multi-faceted, he is heavily leaned upon as a receiver and has tallied 64 catches for 84 targets. As a result, Johnson is the highest-targeted running back in the league.

The Cardinals’ receiving corps is loaded with some amazing talent starting at the top with veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. But outside of Fitz, Johnson is quarterback Carson Palmer’s go-to guy.

Right now Johnson has tallied a total 1,709 combined yards and 15 touchdowns. That’s tremendous. But his involvement will necessarily increase as the Cardinals attempt improve their status in the NFC.

9. Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit Lions

NFL Playoff, Matthew Stafford

Pulling some wildly successful plays out of his hat at times, Stafford is about as clutch they come when it comes to quarterbacks this year.

If the Lions want to keep roaring the rest of the season and dominating the NFC North, Stafford’s signal calling will need to continue at its prime level. Fortunately, the switch to offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter last season made a world of difference in the quarterback’s performance.

He is completing a career-high 67.2 percent of his passes, which matches up with last year’s rate after the switch was made. To date, Stafford has passed for 21 touchdowns versus just five interceptions and is averaging 268.7 passing yards per game.

It is not rocket science to see that the Lions do not have much of a run game. So, moving forward, it is all up to Stafford to keep up with his keen skill of moving the offense into scoring range.

8. Minnesota Vikings defense

When Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford takes center stage behind one off the league’s worst offensive lines, things get downright frightening at times.

As a result of an inept offense that ranks 31st in the league, the Vikings’ defense has stepped up huge at times this season. And, it will need to continue steamrolling opposing offenses in order to help advance the team into the postseason.

Minnesota’s defense is doing an excellent job at keeping its opponents bottled up, allowing an average of just 17.4 points per game. It also ties for second in the league as far as total takeaways with 22 on the books.

Because of plays like this one here made by cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings are staying afloat with a 6-6 record.

Minnesota is tied for second place behind the Lions in the NFC North, two games back. Unfortunately, all players on the Vikings defensive line, secondary and special teams are going to have to keep picking up the slack to keep the playoff dream alive.

7. Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Brown has been and will continue to be the glue that keeps the Steelers’ offense thriving. Once again, the four-time Pro-Bowler is having an superb season.

On course for 1,402 yards and a career-high 14-plus touchdowns, Brown has garnered 127 targets, which is the second-highest in the league. Continuing to feed Brown the ball should be the plan of action from here on out as the Steelers battle for a wild card spot.

Antonio Brown

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has attempted to get the team’s other young receivers more involved. Outside of running back Le’Veon, who has 63 receptions, are guys like Sammie Coates. Coates has shown great potential, but he has also dropped five of his 45 targets. Whereas, Brown has only let two balls slip away on 127 targets.

A.B. is key for keeping the Steelers in the hunt during the final stretch.

6. DeMarco Murray, running back, Tennessee Titans

The Titans were beyond wise to take a flyer on Murray after his lackluster season with the Philadelphia Eagles. The rugged running back has only three games in 12 that he has not scored either a rushing or receiving touchdown.

In his first season with his new team, Murray is the staple of the Titans’ offense. And, for the first time since 2008, Tennessee is tied record-wise with the Houston Texans atop the AFC South. Having a workhorse like Murray was something quarterback Marcus Mariota was truly missing in his rookie season.

As a result of Murray’s valuable contribution, the Titans have the third-best rushing offense in the league. Last year, Tennessee ranked a miserable 25th in this stat.

The team’s success moving forward will continue to be based on Murray’s legs pounding the ground.

5. Landon Collins, strong safety, New York Giants

Improving by leaps and bounds from his rookie year, Collins currently ranks No. 3 at his position, according to the folks at Pro Football Focus. He is tied for the second-most interceptions (five) and has returned one for a touchdown — a play of the year candidate (watch here).

The second-year safety also leads all Giants defenders with 94 combined tackles. As a result of Collins’ efforts, the team’s anemic 24th-ranked defense last year has risen up the food chain quite nicely.

Teams opposing the Giants are scoring an average of just 19.8 points per game. Next up for Collins and his defense is that ever-so anticipated second game against the Dallas Cowboys.

And, might we remind that the Giants are the only team that has defeated Dallas this season.

4. LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England Patriots

After 12 games, it is apparent that Blount is a key cog within the Patriots’ offense a big reason for his team’s overall success.

New England had to play without starting quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games. During that time, Blount put up 362 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Not coincidentally, he Pats went 3-1 during that stretch.

Now at the tail end of the Patriots’ season, the team is without tight end Rob Gronkowski. There should be no fears because Blount is here. He leads the league in rushing touchdowns with 13 scores on his record. With Brady missing Gronk and dealing with a banged up receiving squad, Blount gives the Patriots that edge they need to survive the postseason.

3. Kansas City Chiefs secondary

Eric Berry

The Chiefs secondary has been on fire as of late in a key category, with turnovers being the name of the game. The Chiefs lead the league with 25 combined takeaways.

Displaying how truly threatening the Chiefs defense is, strong safety Eric Berry just made a mockery of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. He slickly picked Matty Ice off twice, and returned both catches for a total of eight points (watch here). Kansas City won by one point.

Berry has three interceptions to date, which is just two less than cornerback Marcus Peters.

The Chiefs offense already runs like a well-oiled machine. But, the special talents of their defense will carry the team that extra mile when it is crunch time.

2. Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland Raiders 

Carr and a couple of gentlemen we are going to mention next should be in the running for the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

But, this is Carr’s spot, so let’s toot his horn. The third-year passer has simply been stellar this season and helped boost the Raiders to wins after coming behind in clutch situations. For his efforts, he is the sixth-highest rated quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus.

He is thriving with Michael Crabtree and second-year wideout Amari Cooper. They make for one of the best offensive trios in the league. To date, Carr has 24 touchdowns compared to just five picks on record.

The Raiders’ defense is improving, but Carr is the MVP who will make the most difference, especially when it comes to achieving postseason success.

1. Dallas Cowboys rookies

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas has a whole new vibe after finishing last season practically on life support with a 4-12 record. Now, they are the first team in the league to have secured a playoff spot. Hear that, Patriots?

The smooth drafting of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott with pick No. 4 started the ball rolling. Then who would have predicted the fabulous emergence of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, drafted in the fourth round?

It was certainly not the plan by Dallas to have this later-round, rookie backup for Tony Romo be under center starting this year. But, fast forward 12 games, and the 11-1 ‘Boys will make at least one postseason appearance.

Elliott is the real deal and leads the league in rushing yards after averaging 107.1 per game. He also has 13 touchdowns. As for Prescott, he looks nothing like a rookie and is completing 67.9 percent of his passes. Mobile as well, Prescott has 24 combined scores compared to just two interceptions.

These rookies are the keys to the car. A car not many envisioned being first in the race to the Super Bowl after 12 games.