The longest regular season in NFL history is in the books and we saw one of the craziest finishes to it that I can remember, climaxing in the Sunday Night thriller, in which the Chargers and Raiders could have both made the cut with a tie in overtime, but Las Vegas decided to kick a game-winning field goal with time running out, to send their division rivals home. Now the postseason is set and we already have some great matchups in the first round already, while overall this thing might be as wide-open as we’ve seen in a long time.
So as we enter this 14-team tournament, I want to talk everybody squad here a little bit and instead of describing their strengths and weaknesses, like I usually do in weekly previews, I thought it would be fun to bring one X-factor to the table for each of them. So these are not marquee players – outside of maybe one of them, because of a reason I will explain at that point – or even starters in some cases, but rather guys, who I believe could make an impact in a certain role or matchup.
Here are the names I came up with:
Green Bay Packers – Josiah Deguara
There would be a lot of easy outs here for me, with David Bakhtiari back at left tackle last week and two defensive stalwarts in Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith bound to return eventually. However, those answers would be a little too easy I believe and instead I thought about which element this team may be missing to some degree. With the MVP killing teams in the quick game, to overcome a banged up O-line, orchestrated around one of the two best receivers in football and a defense, that has seen plenty of guys (young and old) step up, while being much better-coordinated, they’re set up pretty well. Could they use a few big plays from someone like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and would the return of those two All-Pro caliber defenders help – sure, but that’s more so something that will either come or not. A player I believe could be more heavily integrated is their third-round pick from 2020 in Josiah Deguara. At Cincinnati (university), we saw him be heavily utilized as an H-back, sliding across the formation off play-action or inserting in the run game, which is why I looked at the selection as more of a fullback / Matt LaFleur’s version of Kyle Kuszczyk, considering how many tight-ends they already had on the roster. We have already seen him go from one to 25 catches this season, even though his snap share has only increased by 13 percent. Still, while Marcedes Lewis still is a valuable player at his advanced age, I believe with Robert Tonyan out for the season, we could see Deguara become more of a factor for them, whether it’s using his strengths as an on-the-move blocker, kicking out the end-man on split zone runs and slipping into the flats to off that, where he can just provide for juice after the catch, for some more easy yardage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tyler Johnson
This is a fairly obvious one. With the loss of Chris Godwin to a torn ACL and Antonio Brown’s well-documented departure from the team, the offense all of a sudden went from arguably the most lethal aerial attack to Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and a bunch of role players. Obviously we should see Scottie Miller make an impact as a deep threat and we just saw him take a reverse 43 yards to the house this past Sunday, but the guy who should be more heavily involved as an every-down receiver is second-year man Tyler Johnson. Formerly a fifth-round pick out of Minnesota, where he racked up just under 2500 yards and 25 touchdowns over his last two seasons (to become the school’s record-holder in both categories), Johnson may lack a certain speed element, but he understands how to set up defenders as a route-runner, he finds open space against zone, has strong hands and can win above the rim in contested catch situations. After just 12 catches as a rookie, to go along with a huge grab during the Bucs’ Super Bowl run, when he converted a crucial third-and-long in New Orleans. We’ve seen his game and involvement in the offense grow throughout this season, catching 13 of his 18 targets since Godwin has gotten hurt. He may not be the kind of guy who can consistently beat man-coverage on the boundary, but putting him in the slot or stacking him up and allowing him to release freely into space has worked well. So having him work the middle of the field and going to him, when Mike Evans is tangled up with Jalen Ramsey or Jaire Alexander and a safety is shaded over the top of Gronk, could be a key component to Tampa Bay’s attempt at defending their title.
Dallas Cowboys – Kelvin Joseph
The season of Trevon Diggs has been well-documented, about how he has intercepted a league-leading 11 passes, but has also allowed more yards than any other player. Still, if you even those two things out, in a league where scoring is at an all-time high and turnovers are king, you’ll take that any day. The issue is the guy lining up on the other side of the field in Anthony Brown, who has been a liability for the majority of the season, allowing the third-most yards league-wide, but with only three picks. With the Cowboys pass-rush, you don’t necessarily need a lockdown corner out there, but if there’s one spot at which they could use an upgrade, it would be there. That’s why I’m interested to see how much Dan Quinn and his defensive staff wants to put their second-round rookie Kelvin Joseph out there, who I thought was a phenomenal talent, in terms of length, speed and ability to play the catch point at Kentucky. He has barely seen an NFL field, with just two games of 20+ snaps, but he’s shown some signs on those. In week 16, he was targeted five times, but didn’t allow any of those passes to be completed, and while the Eagles went after him a bit early on with stop routes by DeVonta Smith – trying to get him that team rookie receiving record – but he ended up being the highest-graded defensive player of the game, surrendering just 42 yards on as many coverage snaps. A big reason Quinn has had a resurgence in Dallas as the DC has been his ability to adapt and use individual skill-sets to his advantage. So I would not be surprised to see Joseph out there more, to crowd receivers off the line and have the make-up speed to get back in phase, if he’s beaten initially.
Los Angeles Rams – Cam Akers
Whenever you have a player, who everybody had as a “breakout candidate” heading into the season, making an unexpected return (considering he tore his Achilles less than a few before their first preseason game), that is something to pay attention to. It took Cam Akers a while to find his groove in the NFL during his rookie season, fighting through some nagging injuries early on, but over the final five games he established himself as the workhorse for this L.A. offense, touching the ball 152 times for 802 yards and four touchdowns over his final seven games (including the postseason). With him being ruled out for the season, the stage was set for another day two draft pick in Darrell Henderson to have a big year – and he has certainly had his moments – but he’s been banged up for stretches and just not given them enough of a steady presence on the ground. Surprisingly, the largely criticized trade for Sony Michel from New England during the preseason has been key down the stretch, as his 540 rushing yards (on 129 attempts) over these last six weeks rank second to only Jonathan Taylor in the whole NFL. Michel is a hard-nosed runner, who can churn out yards through contact and give the Rams that physical component. Yet, with his arthritic knees and some of the damage he has taken since entering the league, he doesn’t offer much of an explosive element – Cam Akers does. Coming off an injury that would typically sideline somebody for a full calendar year, we don’t know if we’ll see it right away and his debut against the 49ers was far from inspiring (six yards on eight touches), but exactly that makes him an X-factor.
Arizona Cardinals – Rondale Moore
Instead I went with one of the young talents on this team, who had his injury troubles in college, but was a dynamite for Purdue when available. Rookies are always unknowns to some degree, if they haven’t yet established themselves in the league – especially heading into the postseason. And I still don’t think Arizona really knows how they should use this kid, but I have seen what Rondale Moore is capable of in the Big Ten as well as flashes of it in the NFL. He is explosive off the line, his start-and-stop quickness is video-game like, he has the contact balance of a 220-pound running back and he has the long speed to win over the top as well. One of my big issues with his usage his last year in college and his rookie season with the Cardinals has been the fact that he was never allowed to really work down the field. There is certainly work to be done still with him intermediate route-running, lacking some finesse in setting up his breaks and at 5’7” he doesn’t offer a very large radius (even if his leaping numbers are absurd). However, constantly being limited to jet sweeps, bubble screens and the occasionally streak route is doing the player a disservice. Looking at his numbers with Arizona, Moore currently sits at -3 yards before the catch and his average depth of target is just 1.4 yards. We saw him score a 77-yard touchdown all the way back in week two against the Vikings, when the defense completely lost him on a Kyler scramble drill, but he’s caught just one other pass of 20+ yards since then. I’m not saying he can replace what D-Hop would be, because they’re just completely different players, but getting him out there for some slants, stop routes and vertical patterns could lead to some big plays.
San Francisco 49ers – Ambry Thomas
And since we’re talking about rookies, how about another one on the opposite side of the ball from this NFC West team. I do understand that right guard and tackle are areas of concern as well, but their biggest weakness or at least unproven commodity is their play on the perimeter defensively. I loved seeing Jason Verrett finally stay healthy for a full season last year and he performed at a Pro Bowl level, but he didn’t even least one full game in 2021. Since then, the Niners have been forced to throw rookies out there and just been vulnerable to teams with legitimate outside receiving threats. Emmanuel Mosley has been a solid starter for them, but they still needed somebody to step up as the left CB for them. The guy who has commanded that role over the past month is Ambry Thomas, playing over 90 percent of snaps in each of their last five games. I was a big fan of his competitive spirit during Senior Bowl practices and liked what I saw on tape, dictating route stems against bigger receivers, showing rapid feet and good speed to stay in phase on vertical routes, while also being able to stop his momentum effectively. The lack of height and length made him a projection for the slot – where he basically never lined up in college – but his skill-set matches well with all the two-high safety shells from San Francisco. You see him stay in the hip-pocket of receivers on posts and corners, but he does have his issues at times when the ball is in the air. We saw that this past Sunday, when Tyler Higbee came down with a jump-ball for a touchdown against him, yet he did vindicate himself with the game-sealing interception in overtime. Because they leave their corners on sides, the rook will face quite a few challenges.
Philadelphia Eagles – Nate Herbig
I’m still fascinated we have this Eagles team as part of the playoff field. Considering they at point were 2-5 and the only time they were above .500 until week 16 came in the season-opener, it’s quite remarkable they defied the odds of being a team projected to pick in the top five of the upcoming draft. And you can look at several factors here, but really what it comes down to for me is having found an identity, which is built on winning up front and punishing teams in the run game (number one in rushing yards), while their defense has excelled at limiting plays through the air (tied for second-fewest passes of 20+ yards). Early in the season it was a heavy dose of RPOs, where teams would fly down and force Hurts to pull the ball, which is why from weeks two to seven they were actually one of the teams with the fewest amounts of running back carries. However, at some people Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen realized they needed to take advantage of the movement that big O-line created for them and how they could run all kinds of power and zone schemes, without making a true 50-50 decision on if the ball was actually handed off. Since then, Hurts has always seen clearer pictures and the offense has been much more effective overall. However, when you look at those five guys up front, the one who is a bit of a question mark – and the only one to play less than 50% of snaps – is Nate Herbig. With the third-best grade by PFF for a guard over the last four weeks, there’s reason for optimism, but I want to see what happens when he’s asked to down-block on Vita Vea or anchor against a bull-rush from Ndamokung Suh on Sunday.
Tennessee Titans – Derrick Henry (‘s health)
I know calling a two-time NFL rushing leader an X-factor is kind of cheating, but how can he not be? The Titans somehow finished with the number one seed in the AFC, despite the King missing the second half of the season, their duo of receivers being out there healthy together for like a couple of games and having ten different offensive linemen start at least one game. The side of the ball that has played at a Super Bowl level since their week one debacle against Arizona and a bad first half at Seattle is the defense. Sure, they’ve had a few down-spots, but they’ve literally won them some games single-handedly, finishing as the number-two defense against the run and top-ten in sacks and pressures. On the other hand, since Henry got hurt, the averaged just 17.6 offensive points over their next seven games, before the offense started to finally wake up these last two weeks, with those receivers back in the lineup. A big part for that unit hitting their groove again is the re-emergence of that run game led by D’Onta Foreman and in the process opening up the play-action game, which also results in drastic drop-off in turnovers committed (14 from weeks nine to 15, compared to zero over these past three). Foreman has provided a physical presence for them as sort of a mini-Derrick Henry (not trying to be disrespectful at all), but the King is back and what he can bring in terms of a bull-dozer, who can also be the fastest player on the field if he can get rolling and take it the distance on any given play, could be huge. So if he’s back at 100 percent and now defenses have to put that plus one in the box, while A.J. Brown is working the middle and taking advantage of the resulting voids, they could be a well-balanced squad. With everybody having to come to Nashville, to go along with having that extra bye week to get healthy, they’re set up better than anybody in that AFC field.
Kansas City Chiefs – Byron Pringle
Whoever has watched the Chiefs this (and to some degree last) season knows that the passing offense comes down to Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and then probably Patrick Mahomes scrambling as the top three options. And guess what? The rest AFC knows that as well. So we’ll see defenses bracket those guys at a high rate and it will be up to those other pass-catchers to win their one-on-one matchups. I wouldn’t say Sammy Watkins was a reliable number three throughout his tenure in Kansas City, but he at least had his moments, such as that deep ball against Richard Sherman in the Super Bowl, to basically secure the Lombardi Trophy. Mecole Hardman has been more involved this season, but it’s either at the line of scrimmage or screaming downfield, and we have yet to see anything from Josh Gordon. So the one name here that we’ve seen beat guys on the outside and become a key contributor in a few games has been Byron Pringle. Right now, Mahomes has a passer rating of 127.6 when targeting him and he has moved the chains on 32 of his 42 receptions. He does a great job on secondary routes and gets vertical immediately after the catch, while having size to gain yards through contact. Unfortunately, he’s also had butterfingers at times, as he has dropped four passes and fumbled twice. That either-or is what makes him a key figure in determining the AFC, because there will come a few third downs, where the pre-snap look already tells Kansas City they can’t go to either one of their top two options and it will come down to if Pringle can beat his man. And funnily enough his biggest game came against the Steelers in week 16, who they’ll face in the Wild Card Round (6 for 75 and two TDs).
Buffalo Bills – Dane Jackson
In a weird AFC field, a team that finished as the number one defense across almost all key categories combined with one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league could be highly dangerous and possibly go all the way. Yet, ever since the Tre’Davious White injury, we have seen this defensive unit regress to a certain point. It may not reflect in the numbers, but they got run all over by the Patriots in that snowstorm game, then Brady and the Bucs lit them for 33 points, before feasting on matchups against the Panthers, Falcons and Jets. While Levi Wallace has turned himself into a solid CB2, they rely a lot on their starting five DBs, who would all be at over 90 percent of snaps if Tre was healthy. Now they need another guy to step up on the left side and once again an unheralded second-year man is earning playing time for this group, because he has been out there for all but 16 snaps in the six games since. I was a big fan of his competitive spirit when I evaluated his tape at Pittsburgh. He had the chance to collect plenty of experience in press, showed an impressive ability to read the quarterback’s body language in zone and took pride in run-support duties. Unfortunately running in the high-4.5’s really hurt his draft stock and it coincided with his collegiate numbers, where he largely limited his receivers, but surrendered nine touchdowns compared to only one pick. For a team that finished top-three in takeaways, Jackson hasn’t recorded one yet, and you see him get turned around a few times on tape, but he’s held opponents to completing exactly half of the 40 targets his way, for 6.4 yards per target and a passer rating of 70.2, while only having missed 6.8 percent of his tackles. However, if Buffalo wants to win a title, Jackson will have to match up against the likes of Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown and maybe Ja’Marr Chase at times.
Cincinnati Bengals – C.J. Uzomah
I think as we look at this Bengals squad, there’s a lot of known commodities, in particular on offense – Joe Burrow has become one of the best young quarterbacks, with smarts beyond his years and incredible toughness, the offensive line has the size to create vertical movement in the run game but still glaring issues in protection and the skill-position group is loaded with play-makers. Looking at the right tackle position in particular, we just saw what the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby did to Storm Norton for the Chargers and Cincy will face a similar challenge with Isaiah Prince at that spot. However, I think the guy who is often forgotten, but has shown serious flashes in certain games is tight-end C.J. Uzomah. Coming into the year, we weren’t even sure who their TE1 would end up being, having invested a second-round pick in Drew Sample a couple of years ago, who has officially started eight games, with more 12 personnel early on in the season, but his snap share has seriously decreased since the start of December, as they went all-in on Burrow slinging it around and opening up the offense that way, while Uzomah at just under 500 yards on the year has about six times the production of Sample. And to me what makes C.J. such an X-factor is apparent in his game log – 49 percent of his receiving yards have come in three games, while not having surpassed 20 yards in eight of their contests. He’s been boom-or-bust all season long. And when we look at the Raiders D, they’ve excelled at limiting big plays through the air (sixth-fewest completions of 20+ yards) and been highly vulnerable to tight-ends (seventh-most yards allowed to the position), while Cincy’s most likely matchup in the Divisional Round would be at Tennessee, who love to disguise coverages and will likely use brackets against those wideouts. So having Uzomah’s big frame and strong hands, especially as they get into the red-zone, could be huge.
Las Vegas Raiders – Quinton Jefferson
You could probably right a book about that Sunday Night game to wrap up the 2021/22 regular season, about the heroics of Justin Herbert to keep the Chargers in that game, Josh Jacobs’ tough running and how it felt like everything was culminating in a tie, until Brandon Staley decided to call that timeout. However, I think probably the biggest story in that contest was how phenomenal the defensive line of the Raiders was. Maxx Crosby has obviously been a game-wrecker all season long, Yannick Ngakoue complements him well as more of a speed-ball off the opposite edge and their rotation is much deeper than I anticipated coming into the season. When Las Vegas decided to get rid of their top two interior pass-rushers this offseason, I was scratching my head, but they were able to find some excellent replacement for those guys and Rod Marinelli has them playing with their hair on fire. One of those guys who has been overlooked for years I feel like as a “role player” to some degree is Quinton Jefferson. Originally drafted in 2016 by Seattle, it took until his third season to earn major time on the field, before playing 50+ percent of snaps and recording 3+ sacks in each of the last three years, even though his pressure numbers went way down in Buffalo, before getting released. This season he has reached a career-high 25 and he’s only missed one tackle. He can knive into backfield and create some disruption against the run, but it’s his ability to get around guards in the pass game, with a good combination of wiggle, power and smarts to realize where they leave themselves susceptible. He beat a very underrated guard in Matt Feiler pretty badly on a few occasions just now. And with Darius Philon knocked out for the playoffs – who also had a strong showing – his impact will be even more important.
New England Patriots – Rhamondre Stevenson
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has certainly made a difference for this team, stabilizing the play under center with excellent decision-making pre- and post-snap, an efficient passing game, but also more big plays through the air than most people would think (11th in 20+ yard completions). However, his play has certainly fallen off lately, as defenses have put the game more on his shoulder, and if there’s a path for New England going all the way, it will be based on a great defense under Bill Belichick and pounding teams in the run game. The Patriots finished the season with the eight-most rushing yards and attempts, led by their physical duo of Damien Harris and another rookie in Rhamondre Stevenson. Those two combined for 1790 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns, with almost all of it on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry respectively, since Brandon Bolden was more of their designated pass-catcher. Harris touched the ball 73 times more often than Stevenson, actually missing only two contests altogether compared to the rookie’s five, but the veteran has been banged up on multiple occasions and we’ve seen Rhamondre explode when given the chance to starr. Coming out of Oklahoma, I had this guy as a fringe top-ten prospect at the position, because while he doesn’t have game-breaking speed (his longest run this season went for just 21 yards), he has pretty good feet to sort through traffic and becomes a bull-dozer once he hits the second level. While Bolden should remain the top option on passing downs, I think Stevenson can also bring more as a receiver than Harris and he was already a surprisingly good pass-protector as a college prospect, having the sturdiness to stun blitzing linebackers. With the nicks and bruises we have seen Harris get bothered by and the formula for this team offensively, he could play a major role for the Pats’ success.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Robert Spillane
I still can’t believe this team is actually here and I would be shocked if they were to advance against the Chiefs, who just absolutely blew their doors off three weeks ago, but if there’s one thing we can all admit to about the Steelers under Mike Tomlin, it’s the fact that they simply won’t refuse to quit. So while drafting a running back (as much as I liked Najee Harris coming out) and making minimal investments in an offensive line after the departure of four starters, along with Big Ben probably being the least exciting quarterback in professional football, had me set up properly for what to expect offensively, their run defense has been shockingly putrid, finishing the season dead-last in rushing yards (2483), per-carry average (5.0) and 20+ yard runs (24). Missing Stephon Tuitt and lacking depth on the D-line have certainly been a factor, but linebackers not staying true to their run fits and filling accordingly has been even more apparent. And while the Chiefs in particular aren’t known for their punishing ground game, with their transformation into more of an efficient quick-passing attack against all the tie-high shells they tend to face, if they have success in both areas, I don’t see how the Steelers have a chance in this one. Fourth-year undrafted player Robert Spillane filled in nicely for Pittsburgh last season and he’s been on the field for an average of 83 percent of snaps over their past three games, in large part due to the major struggles of Devin Bush in the middle. While he hasn’t made any game-changing plays, I like the way he can strike blockers climbing up to him with his punch and how he’s held up when asked to sink underneath benders and deep crossers in Tampa-2, while having missed just four of his 60 tackling attempts. Kansas City will try to put those second-level defenders in conflict, their play-makers are most dangerous working those seam areas and with those underneath completions come key tackling situations. Plus, Spillane will try to avenge the touchdown he allowed Clyde Edwards-Helaire to score, after their huge collision in the backfield.