Playoff games are often decided by players that don't dominate the headlines during the regular season. Here are four X-factors that could do the unexpected Championship Sunday.
Terrance Knighton, Denver Broncos nose tackle
If I had my way, I'd stick with the guy I dialed up last week: Broncos return man Trindon Holliday. He busted free for a long score against the Chargers, but it was called back. I wouldn't be stunned if he did it again, but the Shadowy League Figure over my shoulder insists I pick someone else for Sunday.
That won't be hard. Let's go with Denver nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, the anchor behind a defensive front playing much better against the run of late. After allowing teams to run for 100-plus yards in six consecutive games, only one opponent has done so since Week 13.
Knighton has been a core contributor down the stretch, earning three of his top run-stopping grades this season over the past four weeks, per Pro Football Focus. He also has a sack, two quarterback hits and six hurries over that span. It's hard to take our eyes off these quarterbacks, but spend some time watching Knighton's play against Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. That matchup could very well decide this game.
-- Marc Sessler
Danny Amendola, New England Patriots wide receiver
Should we expect more of the same against the Broncos on Sunday? Not so fast. The loss of cornerback Chris Harris has left Denver's secondary vulnerable, setting the stage for Bill Belichick to flip the script.
This is where Amendola comes in. The first-year Patriot could draw Harris' replacement in coverage, providing New England's offense with a substantial matchup advantage Sunday. Amendola has yet to live up to the evolutionary Wes Welker hype, but he's shown enough flashes to convince he's fully capable of going off at any time.
-- Dan Hanzus
Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers linebacker
The San Francisco 49ers are the proud owners of the NFL's best linebacker corps since Jim Mora's Saints defense featured Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson and Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson from 1987 to 1992. On the second thought, the 49ers' foursome might be even better.
Aldon Smith averaged more sacks per game (0.98) than any player since the statistic was created in 1982. Patrick Willis is one of just 15 players in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons. NaVorro Bowman is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate as the best inside linebacker in the league this season.
For all of that glory, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks continues to fly under the radar.
49ers fans will attest that Brooks held the defense together while Smith and Willis were sidelined in late September and early October. He was rewarded for his career year with a second team All-Pro selection.
If Sunday's game turns on a sack, forced fumble or interception, don't be surprised if Brooks is the instigator.
-- Chris Wesseling
Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks cornerback
The 49ers tried to pick on Maxwell the last time they met. Like most teams, they were disappointed at how well Maxwell held up. He picked off Colin Kaepernick on the goal line and battled in his matchups with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham on the outside.
It's no surprise that Richard Sherman led all cornerbacks by allowing only a 47.3 quarterback rating on passes thrown at him. It's a huge surprise that Maxwell finished second in the league. Maxwell has actually been an upgrade on former Pro Bowler Brandon Browner, who was suspended indefinitely. Maxwell, a sixth-round pick in 2011, has out-produced his draft slot like so many other Seahawks. Pete Carroll's staff is one of the best at developing players.
Maxwell figures to get plenty of action again Sunday. As well as he's played, he's not Sherman or Earl Thomas. Maxwell is coming off a rough game against New Orleans, and will have chances to make a life-changing interception.
-- Gregg Rosenthal