Most of the attention going into games is on the stars, but lesser-known players often end up being the difference-makers. Here are a few players who could have a big impact in Week 17:
Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos, WR: With the Broncos' playoff hopes hinging on Tim Tebow's performance as a passer, Thomas could play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome. He is unquestionably the team's No. 1 option in the passing game, and his ability to supply big plays prevents opponents from loading up against the run. Against a Chiefs secondary that is emerging as one of the NFL's best, Thomas needs to bring his A-game to give the Broncos a chance to wrap up the division.
Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals, LB: The Ravens' Ray Rice presents a tremendous challenge for the Bengals with his explosive potential as a multi-purpose threat. He is not only capable of breaking off big runs anywhere on the field, but his ability to turn short passes into big gains makes him worthy of added attention. As the middle linebacker responsible for containing Rice between the tackles, Maualuga has to own his assigned gap and keep the diminutive playmaker from squirting into the secondary. If he is able to control the box, the Ravens will get away from the run and put the game on Joe Flacco's shoulders. Given his inconsistencies as a playmaker, that could be a winning strategy for the Bengals.
Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders, RB: Hue Jackson wants to protect Carson Palmer by relying on a potent ground game that keeps the Raiders in manageable situations. For that to happen, Bush must be effective grinding between the tackles on an assortment of power runs. If Bush is able to produce his third 100-yard day of the season as part of a game plan that calls for 20-plus carries, the Raiders' commitment to the run could make an unmotivated Chargers' defense tap out in the fourth quarter.
Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons, RB: Turner is putting the finishing touches on his third 1,000-yard season with the Falcons, but his production has fallen off dramatically since the middle of the season. He hasn't topped the 100-yard mark since Week 11, and Atlanta desperately needs him to reemerge as a difference-maker to sustain their aspirations for an extended post-season run. Although the Bucs shut him down in their first matchup (11 carries for 20 yards), Turner could be poised for a big game against a struggling Tampa Bay defense.
Terence Newman, Dallas Cowboys, CB: Rob Ryan will certainly want to come after Eli Manning with a host of exotic pressures to disrupt the rhythm of the Giants' passing game, but those tactics could be disastrous considering the struggles of the Cowboys' secondary. Newman, in particular, has been unable to hold up in isolated matchups against top receivers, which is a major concern with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz on tap. If Newman can win his fair share of one-on-one matchups against the Giants' talented tandem, the Cowboys' blitz-happy approach could produce a game-changing miscue that wraps up the NFC East crown.
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