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Fifty-one most important people left in NFL playoffs

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We're down to the final four teams left kicking and screaming.

With the rest of the league mired in a long winter's dirt nap, who still matters? Who still has the might to alter the course of this campaign?

Here's my list of the 51 most important people left in this NFL season:

51) Aaron Ripkowski, Packers fullback: This is the kind of player that used to get John Madden dangerously hot and bothered. More than just an easy fan favorite, Ripkowski -- the league's third-best fullback, per Pro Football Focus -- has turned John Kuhn into a memory.

50) Mike Mitchell, Steelers safety: No defense this season has done a better job against the deep ball than Pittsburgh. Mitchell and fellow safety Sean Davis have surged down the stretch, with Mitchell going out of his way to leave a lasting impression on anyone in his path.

49) Keanu Neal, Falcons safety: Atlanta's defense doesn't get (or deserve) much love, but it's much better with this hard-hitting rookie on the field. The Falcons allow a 61.6 QBR and 4.2 yards per carry with Neal in the lineup. Without him, those figures stretch to a 74.4 QBR and 5.0 yards per tote.

48) Carl Cheffers, NFL official: "Who in God's name is Carl Cheffers?" you ask. BREAKING NEWS: He's the man reportedly assigned to referee Super Bowl LI, marking his first appearance in the big game. Everyone is happy for Cheffers, save for Chiefs fans, who know him as the fellow who flagged tackle Eric Fisher for a game-crushing holding call against the Steelers.

47) Facebook Live: Every Championship Week needs an accessible/juicy controversy. Antonio Brown provided as much by live-taping his coach and quarterback talking like a pair of riled-up sailors in Pittsburgh's locker room. It's a scenario ripe for overly serious hot takes, but nobody will care what Brown zapped out to 1 million-plus viewers if he fries the Patriots on Sunday.

46) Deion Jones, Falcons linebacker: When I mentioned this assignment to my fellow Around the NFL writers, Gregg Rosenthal said only this: "No. 46: Deion Jones." Your wish is granted, sir.

45) Ernie Adams, Patriots secret weapon: Operating in the deep shadows, New England's special-projects maven serves as Bill Belichick's right-hand man and a mysterious season-to-season X-factor. He was also in Dallas the day Kennedy was shot and spent 14 untraceable years in Cuba, Nicaragua and the outer provinces of Beirut.

44) Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews, FOX broadcast crew: No announcing cadre has a bigger assignment in 2017. Handling Super Bowl LI, Buck and Aikman will appear in millions of households worldwide. Something tells me they're up to the task.

43) Todd Haley, Steelers offensive coordinator: With his revenge tilt against his former employer in Kansas City out of the way, Haley is busy preparing the most important game plan he'll author all season. Another workhorse day for Le'Veon Bell -- or does Haley unleash Big Ben in the biggest spot possible?

42) Dante Scarnecchia, Patriots offensive line coach: As we mentioned in the Patriots-Texans preview, Scarnecchia could "morph Kate Winslet, Adele, Scarlett Johansson and the Obama daughters into a functioning front five." With 350-pound behemoths at his disposal instead, Belichick's longtime aide knows what Sunday boils down to: protecting Tommy at all costs.

41) Dont'a Hightower, Patriots linebacker: The Patriots haven't exactly missed the dispatched Jamie Collins, but Hightower -- a second-team All-Pro -- finished with the third-highest pass-rushing grade among players at his position, per Pro Football Focus. He leads a stout Patriots run defense tasked with maintaining gap integrity against Le'Veon Bell on Sunday -- something no team has mastered since before Thanksgiving.

40) Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, Packers pass rushers: Yes, I know. Two people. Not one. Both had better wreak havoc in Atlanta, though, if this up-and-down defense plans to keep the Falcons from dropping a meaty 40-burger on the Pack.

39) Taylor Gabriel, Falcons wideout: He's not a guy you feed play after play. If you're Matt Ryan, you wait for the perfect moment to unfurl a golden deep streak to the lightning-quick Gabriel. When it works -- and that's often -- it usually doubles as a knife to the heart of Atlanta's doomed opponent.

38) Devin McCourty, Patriots safety: A quintessential Belichick player, McCourty goes about his business without much fanfare. Bringing unmatched consistency to the safety position after years at cornerback, the 29-year-old McCourty also understands how to answer questions the way his grumpy coach would. Asked this week what a loss to Pittsburgh would mean, McCourty told scribes: "If we don't win the game, the season's over." He's not wrong.

37) Davante Adams, Packers wideout: With Jordy Nelson unlikely to play -- and certainly not at full power -- it goes without saying that Adams must eliminate the late-season drops, shake off last week's ankle tweak (easier said than done) and produce one of the better performances of his career against the high-flying Falcons.

36) Martellus Bennett, Patriots tight end: The Patriots hoped to pummel teams with the combo of Bennett and Rob Gronkowski, but now it's up to Bennett to cross the 40-yard barrier for just the second time since Week 10.

35) Ty Montgomery, Packers receiver-turned-running back: His transition to the backfield should be viewed as a success. When Montgomery is touched within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage, he averages 4.5 yards per carry, tops among all runners, per PFF. With Green Bay able to spread him out in motion all over the field, Montgomery has emerged as a versatile ingredient in the Green Bay offense.

34) LaDarius Gunter, Packers cornerback Expected to shadow Julio Jones for much of Sunday, Gunter must shake off last week's horrible outing against Dez Bryant of the Cowboys. Having given up either multiple touchdowns or 100-plus receiving yards (or both) in four games this season, Gunter is far from shutdown material.

33) David DeCastro, Steelers guard: It's pretty simple: He's an unsung hero anchoring one of the finest lines in football.

32) LeGarrette Blount, Patriots running back: The emergence of Dion Lewis takes some of the weight off Blount, but the workhorse totaled his second-highest carry total all year (24) against the Steelers in Week 7. Don't be stunned if the Patriots use him in volume to counter the Pittsburgh blitz.

31) Vic Beasley, Falcons pass rusher: Getting to Aaron Rodgers is akin to finding the Ark of the Covenant, but Beasley -- the NFL's regular-season sack leader with 15.5 -- must put Atlanta's front seven on his shoulders this weekend. Letting Rodgers roam free is a death sentence.

30) Lady Gaga, Super Bowl halftime diva: She absolutely crushed the national anthem in Super Bowl 50, but some remain suspicious about Gaga's ability to pull off this year's halftime show. I'll save the definitive pop-culture analysis for someone else, but me? I dig her. She's floating around dive bars, belting out tunes and basically not giving an F what anyone thinks. I like the cut of her jib.

29) The Falcons' backfield: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have combined for 171 scrimmage yards per game and 27 touchdowns on the year, both tops among running back duos. That means they're good.

28) Trey Flowers, Patriots pass rusher: Pure versatility. After missing most of his rookie season, New England's second-year quarterback-chaser leads the Patriots in sacks (seven) and quarterback hits (12) and gives the team a player who can line up both inside and out.

27) Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator: Nobody in the league does a better job of preparing game plans and seamlessly shapeshifting New England's attack from week to week. He'll be a head coach again before long -- and he'll be a good one.

26) Micah Hyde, Packers safety: He made the play of the week on defense against the Cowboys, jumping the route to pick off a Dak Prescott screen pass. Far from luck, it was a quick decision that came from deep film study of the Dallas offense. Turnovers WILL determine Sunday's Packers-Falcons showdown, turning Hyde into an obvious X-factor.

25) Stephon Tuitt, Steelers pass rusher: With four sacks and a team-high 14 quarterback hits this season, Tuitt is one big reason the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks since Week 11.

24) Alex Mack, Falcons center: Atlanta's offensive line was a disaster for years. In came Mack -- arguably the league's top free-agent signing last offseason -- to solidify the unit and help propel Matt Ryan to a likely MVP award. After so many years of toiling for the Browns, Mack finished the regular season as the league's third-best center, per PFF, while bolstering his reputation for being one of the toughest players around.

23) The Georgia Dome: No reason for phony, pumped-in crowd sounds this time around. The final game in the Georgia Dome is upon us, and Falcons fans are tasked with making life next to impossible for Aaron Rodgers. Big moment for an often-overlooked fan base.

22) Mike Daniels, Packers defensive tackle: Dominant against the Giants in the Wild Card Round, Daniels is PFF's highest-rated interior lineman from any of the four remaining teams -- and Green Bay's great hope for stopping Atlanta on the ground.

21) Julian Edelman, Patriots wideout: Antonio Brown gets all the attention, but the Steelers star is actually second in the NFL in receiving yards per game (92.4) to Edelman (98.3) since Week 9. Coming off a monster eight-catch, 137-yard outing against the Texans, Edelman has served as Tom Brady's unrivaled security blanket since that point.

20) Keith Butler, Steelers defensive coordinator: One of the league's most underrated coordinators, Butler has turned Pittsburgh's defense into a roaming terror. Taking over for the legendary Dick LeBeau was no small order, but Butler has won over Steelers fans everywhere with his handiwork in 2016.

19) Jared Cook, Packers tight end: It goes beyond his dazzling toe-dragging catch with the game on the line against Dallas. With Cook in the lineup, Aaron Rodgers is 10-2 with 31 touchdowns and just two picks. Without Cook, that ratio falls to 15:6 with a 2-4 win-loss record.

18) Dan Quinn, Falcons coach: Quinn is 1-0 with the Falcons against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers after going 3-0 against Green Bay as defensive coordinator of the Seahawks. If he pulls off another win, Quinn will become the first coach to reach the Super Bowl in his second season since Jim Harbaugh in 2012.

17) David Bakhtiari, Packers left tackle: It's no surprise that our four remaining teams sport ultra-sturdy offensive lines. Bakhtiari leads a front five that's as good as any at protecting the team's multimillion-dollar investment under center.

16) Ryan Shazier, Steelers linebacker: With incredible closing speed and agility, Shazier has notched a pick in four straight games, tied for the longest such streak since the 1970 merger.

15) Dion Lewis, Patriots running back: After Lewis made history last week with his three-touchdown explosion, Patriots fans want to see him do it again. Patriots fans, of course, have no tangible memory of human struggle.

14) Kyle Shanahan, Falcons offensive coordinator: Just like that, he's likely coaching his last game in Atlanta (and maybe his last with the Falcons). Expected to take the Niners' head-coaching job, Shanahan will depart after spinning pure magic this season. That won't be so easy to replicate with whomever San Francisco sticks under center.

13) Antonio Brown, Steelers wideout: As someone who definitely overshares photos of my two kids on Facebook, I'm giving Brown a free pass on the social-media slip-up. He can shut everyone up with a monster weekend on enemy soil.

12) Randall Cobb (by way of Jordy Nelson), Packers wideout: With Nelson looming as a long shot to play, Cobb must continue his January hot streak. Averaging more receiving yards per game in the playoffs than in the regular season by a margin of 40-plus, he's the key to Green Bay's air assault.

11) Malcolm Butler, Patriots cornerback: He could have gone down in history as a Super Bowl footnote, a la Timmy Smith and David Tyree. Instead, Butler has morphed into a top-10 cover man with a career-high four picks and 17 passes defensed this season.

10) James Harrison, Steelers pass rusher: I'm simply not convinced he's human.

9) Mike McCarthy, Packers coach: For a team that churns out winning seasons without interruption, it sure feels like McCarthy's been put through the ringer this season. Just once, I'd love to see him rip off his giant green coat and dance around the field like a giddy schoolgirl. Too much to ask with a win on Sunday?

8) Julio Jones, Falcons wideout: One reason to root for a Falcons-Steelers Super Bowl? The Julio vs. Antonio matchup alone would make for a fascinating ride into the bizarre.

7) Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers quarterback: With another Super Bowl win, Big Ben would join an elite group of signal-callers -- Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady and Troy Aikman -- to win three-plus world titles. If he stumbles, it's fair to wonder if and when the 34-year-old passer will make it back to the brink of another Super Bowl.

6) Mike Tomlin, Steelers coach: If he can squeeze two more victories out of this team, Tomlin has a chance to move into the exclusive club of coaches with two or more Super Bowl wins. I dig his style: He runs old-school, aggressive training camps, dials up two-point conversions left and right and has been known to drop into Pittsburgh-area dive bars and buy a round of drinks for the entire place. A man of the people!

5) Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: Brady should be higher on every list ever made. If he winds up winning his fifth Lombardi, he can print out this article, light it on fire and scatter it to the Massachusetts night.

4) Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back: Churning out perhaps the finest free-agency audition of any player ever, Bell is the NFL's most enjoyable player to watch right now. For me, it's not even close.

3) Matt Ryan, Falcons quarterback: Zooming toward an MVP nod, Ryan has a chance to completely re-engineer his legacy with a win in Super Bowl LI. With Shanahan on the move, it's fair to wonder if Ryan will ever reach these heights again.

2) Bill Belichick, Patriots coach: With a win over the Steelers, Belichick would pass Don Shula for the most Super Bowl appearances by any head coach in NFL history. Either way, this is the best coach we've ever seen. By a country mile.

1) Aaron Rodgers, Packers quarterback: Superman at his peak, operating at a level beyond Earthlings. There's no better football player heading into Sunday's slate of mad showdowns. Sit back and drink it in, humans.

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