The NFL playoffs are around the corner and a host of marquee names will be expected to elevate their games and rise to the occasion.
With the margins so small, particularly in a wide-open AFC, the stars can be the difference between progress and elimination.
Here we take a look at a dozen players — one for each team — who can make the difference in the postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes
The quarterback is likely to win the MVP award in his first season as the starter but the Chiefs also jettisoned Alex Smith because of their belief that Mahomes can win playoff games. Kansas City’s running game has struggled since Kareem Hunt was released so there is even more reliance on Mahomes’ magic now.
New England Patriots – James White
In White’s last four playoff appearances — two of which were Super Bowls — the running back has scored a staggering seven all-purpose touchdowns. With Tom Brady beginning to look like a 41-year-old quarterback and Rob Gronkowski seemingly at the end of his stellar career, New England will need to lean on the running game in the postseason.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 31, 2018
Houston Texans – DeAndre Hopkins
Without Will Fuller, Demaryius Thomas and a consistent rushing attack, Houston’s offense IS quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Hopkins. Only Julio Jones had more receiving yards than Hopkins in the regular season, and the Texans star ended the campaign with three straight 100-yard games.
Baltimore Ravens – Lamar Jackson
At 4-5 before their bye, the Ravens were not striking fear into anyone. Now, they are viewed as the team everyone wants to avoid after going 6-1 down the stretch since turning to rookie quarterback Jackson. Baltimore’s entire offense has changed around a dual-threat playmaker who has attempted at least 11 rushes in each of his starts.
Los Angeles Chargers – Joey Bosa
In his six starts since returning from injury, defensive end Bosa has managed 5.5 sacks. The Chargers are a different animal when Bosa and Melvin Ingram are getting after the quarterback from either side and pass rushers tend to be pivotal in postseason football. Bosa’s first assignment is finding a way to contain Jackson.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December 31, 2018
Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck
Luck missed 2017 and the Colts won just four games. He stayed healthy throughout 2018 and they won 10. The Colts have weaknesses but in Luck they have an elite quarterback who has already taken this team to one AFC championship game. Indianapolis look like the rank outsiders in these playoffs yet they do have a little Luck on their side.
New Orleans Saints – Alvin Kamara
Los Angeles Rams – Aqib Talib
Sean McVay’s team is stacked on both sides of the ball, though if they are to make a deep postseason run they need to be better on defense having given up 30-plus points to the Seahawks (twice), Saints, Chiefs and Eagles — all of whom are in the playoffs. Talib, a veteran presence and previous Super Bowl champion, should help having returned from an injury in Week 13.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) January 1, 2019
Chicago Bears – Khalil Mack
Chicago made a blockbuster trade for Mack prior to this season because they believe they are in their Super Bowl window. The best defensive player on the NFL’s best defensive team can wreak havoc — see his debut performance against the Packers — and offensive coordinators will fear what he can do to their game plans.
Dallas Cowboys – Amari Cooper
Mack and Cooper were teammates in Oakland a few months ago, now both are in the playoffs with different NFC teams. Like Mack, wideout Cooper has had an uplifting effect on his new franchise. With 725 receiving yards and six scores in nine games, he has provided a new dimension to Dallas’ offense which makes them a far more dangerous proposition.
Seattle Seahawks – Bobby Wagner
Seattle reached back-to-back Super Bowls earlier this decade on the back of a dominant defense. The Legion of Boom is no more yet linebackers Wagner and the fit-again K.J. Wright are the heartbeat of this team. Wagner was analytics website Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked linebacker in 2018 and he is the jack of all trades who will set the tone for this Seahawks D.
Philadelphia Eagles – Nick Foles
Foles has been an inconsistent middle-of-the-pack quarterback who is capable of going on hot streaks throughout his career. He had one of those last year, leading the underdog Eagles to Super Bowl glory in Minnesota. Now back as Philly’s starter, Foles needs to produce more heroics and there was evidence in Weeks 16 and 17 that he is firmly in the zone. He couldn’t do it again, could he?