X-Factor – Offensive Line
The Colts boast the most dominant offensive line in all of football. Rookie Quenton Nelson and company completely eviscerated a Houston Texans pass rush that boasts a three-time Defensive Player of the Year (J.J. Watt), a former No. 1 overall draft pick (Jadeveon Clowney), and a 2016 All-Pro (Whitney Mercilus). Running back Marlon Mack might be the hottest rusher in all of football right now. Mack has 10 scores in his last 11 games (including touchdowns in five straight). Mack rumbled for 148 yards against Houston last week, and looks to replicate that total against a Chiefs defense that allowed the second most yards-per-carry to rushers this past year.
Question Mark – Road Games
Indy’s road record leaves something to be desired. Their two most recent wins in Houston were both impressive and necessary, but then it gets bleak. They beat a Blaine Gabbert-led Tennessee team in Week 17, got blanked by the Jaguars in early December, had a shootout with the Raiders in which they were losing at halftime in October, and had 80 points hung up on them over back-to-back weeks in losses to the Pats and Jets. They play in chilly Arrowhead this week, and may have to travel to Foxboro again for the title game.
X-Factor – Nick Foles
There’s something in the water in Philly. Doug Pederson and Foles continue to find ways to win games as an underdog. Although Foles wasn’t particularly great against Chicago (few quarterbacks were this season), he found ways to contribute. Foles tossed the game-winning touchdown on a crucial 4th down with Philly’s season on the line. Foles can do no wrong, and continues to play with an insane level of confidence.
Question Mark – Cornerbacks
The Eagles’ once-vaunted secondary has been brutalized by the injury bug. Starters Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby were lost for the year, and Sidney Jones’ availability remains up in the air for Sunday’s tilt. Philadelphia’s defense allowed the third-most passing yards per game (270.5) to opposing QB’s this season. The Eagles’ shallow secondary didn’t end up costing them against Mitchell Trubisky, but the problems in Philly’s defensive backfield could rear its ugly head against any one of the bevy of talented gunslingers left in the field.
X-Factor – Run Defense
There may not be a better linebacker combo in the NFL than the one in Dallas — and I’m not even counting Sean Lee. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are absolute forces in stopping the run and defending backs coming out of the backfield. Most teams don’t even have one guy they feel confident matching up one-on-one against the likes of Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara. The ‘Boys have two such players.
Question Mark – Passing Game
The greatness of Ezekiel Elliott and the gameness of Dak Prescott make way for a sufficient rushing attack in Dallas. Achieving balance on offense has always been the issue for the Cowboys in the Prescott-era. While Amari Cooper has certainly helped, it’s still a work-in-progress. Dak needs to be absolutely on-point against a Rams defense that is filled with playmakers waiting for a chance to force a turnover.
Los Angeles Chargers
X-Factor – Defensive Speed
Ousting Lamar Jackson and the Ravens from postseason play may have relieved the Chargers defense of their toughest potential matchup. Baltimore’s run-heavy approach starkly contrasted the rest of the field. The Chargers defense — a mix of explosive pass rushers and versatile defensive backs — was built to stymie modern offenses. With the Patriots up next, the Chargers could potentially dominate in the same fashion that the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants did.
Question Mark – Rushing Attack
Melvin Gordon’s health is an issue, and he hasn’t played all that well over the past month even when he’s taken the field. After racing to a 23-3 lead in the Wild Card round, the Chargers let the Ravens back into the game (and almost blew it) because they couldn’t get any first downs on the ground. They can’t have a repeat performance in Foxboro.
New England Patriots
X-Factor – Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck
The Patriots need the very best from Brady and Belicheck more than ever before. This roster has holes at nearly every position on both sides of the football. Brady hasn’t worked with a more unreliable group of receivers in over a decade. Defensively, they aren’t quite as stout as Belicheck-led teams of the past. Brady hasn’t been at his best this year. However, he will need to be perfect from here on out for New England to advance.
Question Mark – Pass Catchers
Namely, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Chris Hogan. Gronk has battled injuries all year long, and has been a shell of himself. Hogan has vastly underwhelmed after a strong postseason performance last year. One of these guys needs to step up and have a huge game to help relieve some of the pressures placed on the rest of the offense.
Los Angeles Rams
X-Factor – Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods
Todd Gurley is the straw that stirs the drink in LA. With that said, Cooks and Woods can be equally as important to this offense’s success. Sean McVay has all types of fun scheming ways to get his talented wide outs in space. If the Rams score early with big strikes down the field, it could spell doom for a Cowboys team that isn’t built to erase a deficit.
Question Mark – Josh Reynolds
Cooper Kupp’s absence becomes more and more evident with each passing week. Reynolds, a 2017 fourth-round pick, was expected to fill the shoes of Kupp. However, early results have been less than stellar. If Reynolds can make some plays (and at least force the defense to respect his presence), the Rams become increasingly difficult to game plan for.
Kansas City Chiefs
X-Factor – Skill Players
After a full season and a likely MVP award, it’s safe to assume Patrick Mahomes will show up ready to play against the Colts. Mahomes has proven that he’s an elite player with the ability to move the ball against any defense. The Chiefs’ season will come down to if the rest of the guys can make plays. With Kareem Hunt gone, it will be up to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Damien Williams to help out their QB.
Question Mark – Defense
The No. 1 seed in the AFC possesses arguably the worst defensive unit remaining in the playoffs. While Chris Jones and Dee Ford have played at an All-Pro level, question marks remain throughout the rest of the group. With Indy coming up, it will be interesting to see how Kansas City’s defense holds when it can’t generate a consistent pass rush. Andrew Luck might be picking on those poor defensive backs all day long.
New Orleans Saints
X-Factor – Turnovers
The Saints “limped” their way through the end of the season whilst playing some mightily unimpressive football along the way. While the offense has sputtered, New Orleans was able to close out game due to its defense coming up with timely turnovers. Drew Brees is human, and won’t be perfect every single week. The defense will need to continue to be aggressive and look for their chance to make a game-breaking play.
Question Mark – Team Speed
The Cowboys provided a strong blueprint to stifling a high-powered Saints offense. Despite averaging over 31.5 points per game, New Orleans’ star-studded offense was unimpressive to end the year. Teams began to take away the underneath routes — daring the Saints’ shallow receiving corp to win downfield. Having a linebacker with the speed to matchup with Alvin Kamara mitigates New Orleans’ chance for a big play. Ted Ginn’s return will certainly help, but the Saints offense isn’t quite as scary as they looked to be just a month ago.
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