Ezekiel Elliott among the 10 people who matter most in Week 16


Win and you're in.

That's the glowing reality for no less than six teams with the power to secure a postseason berth off a victory in Week 16.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans have that chance in the AFC, while the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons can do the same in the NFC. The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, have already nabbed invites to the party.

Teams no longer house the luxury of finding themselves in late December. Rosters are banged up, quarterbacks league-wide are battling through quiet bumps and bruises and everyone's been through a fair amount of hell.

We're dealing with a laundry list of heroes, villains and colorful characters in today's NFL. Here's who matters most in Week 16:

1. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys running back

The playoffs are no sure thing for the Cowboys, but the return of their rough-and-tumble running back adds tangible spice to Sunday's elimination-bout showdown with a Seahawks squad on equally hazardous footing. Elliott gives Dallas an edge the team's lacked during his six-week stay in absentia. The ground game hasn't been a drastic problem -- quite the opposite -- but the box score doesn't tell the story. Elliott, who carved his body into stone along the golden shores of Cabo, forces defenses to respect the run, but also to account for him as a playmaking wonder in the passing game. The Cowboys are a flawed operation, but Elliott's return is on par with Green Bay getting Aaron Rodgers back a week ago. Ride Elliott to victory and Dallas remains alive, assuming either the Falcons or Panthers stumble. The road ahead is thorny, but Elliott's presence morphs the Cowboys into something new entirely.

2. Mike Zimmer, Vikings coach

Sean McVay feels like a rock-solid lock for Coach of the Year after turning a hyper-milquetoast Rams team into a streaming wonder on offense. Zimmer, though, deserves enormous credit for crafting and developing a Super Bowl-worthy defense that has kept opponents under 20 points in 10 of their 14 games. At 61, Zimmer toiled for years in hopes of a head-coaching gig. "Others get it at a younger age and they get a chance at a younger age," Bill Parcells told me last season of Zimmer. "But his time came now and it looks like he was pretty well-prepared for it."

Minnesota has consistently drubbed opponents all season -- while other NFC rosters nab all the press -- and plays Saturday night for a chance to seal up a first-round bye. The concept of Case Keenum authoring a Super Bowl start for the Vikings in their home stadium would have been viewed, in August, as the product of a self-induced hallucinogenic voyage of the mind. Today, it feels imbued with common sense.

3. Todd Gurley, Rams running back

With MVP candidates evaporating into dust on a weekly basis, Gurley's name is picking up steam after a season's worth of magic-spinning for the Rams. His 17 touchdowns are five more than any other player league-wide, with his MVP case only getting stronger last Sunday when he scattered the Seahawks for 209 total yards and four scores in a 42-7 beatdown that permanently altered the NFC West. If he's not a runaway lock for Comeback Player of the Year, the process is broken, with Gurley shaking off last season's stuck-in-the-mud, Jeff Fisher-led campaign to operate as the most fearsome, versatile, tackle-breaking threat west of Alvin Kamara.

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers receiver

Sunday's loss to New England still stings for the Steelers. The league's mind-boggling catch rule and a terrible last-second pick by Ben Roethlisberger combined to spoil an effort that nearly saw Smith-Schuster save the day with his wondrous 69-yard catch-and-run with under a minute to play, the longest reception against New England in the final two minutes of a fourth quarter in the Bill Belichick era. Making matters worse, Antonio Brown's partially torn calf puts tremendous pressure on JuJu to step up and lead this wideout core in his first NFL season. That feels possible with games remaining against the floating Texans and six-feet-under Browns -- and with Smith-Schuster operating as one of the game's most dangerous targets from the slot. That incredible 69-yard catch, by the way, saw JuJu dance for 109.4 yards of total distance, the most real estate covered on a reception this season, per Next Gen Stats.

5. Matt Nagy, Chiefs offensive play-caller

One of the hottest head-coaching candidates around, Nagy has helped reignite Kansas City's offense since taking over play-calling duties in Week 13. After watching the Chiefs flounder to 19 combined points in losses to the Giants and Bills, Nagy has dialed up outputs of 31, 26 and 30 points over the past three games:

This is Reid's playbook and he remains firmly entrenched in the game plan, but Nagy's handiwork deserves credit for waking Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt from slumber while generating three of the team's seven biggest yardage outputs all season. With the Chiefs zooming toward an AFC West title and set to face Miami on Sunday, you're looking at the final days of Nagy in Kansas City. He'll be a head coach the minute this Chiefs team is bumped from contention.

6. Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars cornerback

Allowing just three touchdowns all year, Ramsey is everything you can ask from a cornerback in today's NFL. Ruggedly tough, inviting contact, desperate to cover the best receiver on the field -- and backing it all up with a season worthy of Defensive Player of the Year honors. If he's overshadowed in that race, it's because Jacksonville houses multiple candidates for the award, but Ramsey has the tools to press pause on the growing hype surrounding promising Niners passer Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday. Take care of business and the Jags -- a team dismissed and giggled at for years by the league's elite -- walks out of Week 16 with the AFC South crown.

7. Jim Schwartz, Eagles defensive coordinator

A week ago, the smart money was on the Eagles' offense cratering without Carson Wentz while their stout defense carried this team into January. Today we're left pondering a Schwartz-led unit that gave up nearly 500 yards passing to a 36-year-old Eli Manning on a Giants roster devoid of Odell Beckham. Perhaps a meaningless and beguiling footnote in a week-to-week league, but Schwartz is under pressure to right the ship in a hurry. Here's the good news: The Eagles secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win against the utterly lifeless Raiders contingent or a Vikings loss. The timing is pristine.

8. Bobby Wagner, Seahawks linebacker

Mathematically alive, the Seahawks need loads of help to advance, beginning with two straight wins over Dallas and Arizona. Also needed: A Lions defeat over the next two weeks paired with back-to-back losses by the feisty Falcons. It's all possible, on paper, but this Seattle squad emits the depressing aura of a fading power. The loss of Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor has scattered the Legion of Boom, but Bobby Wagner -- battling a hamstring injury -- must play his finest game yet to keep the Seahawks afloat. Todd Gurley's massive performance in Week 15 was helped by Wagner's injury. With Ezekiel Elliott up next, are we staring at the end of an era for this marvelous team -- or do the 'Hawks have one more trick up their sleeve?

9. LeSean McCoy, Bills running back

Buffalo's mission is dire: Sneak into Foxborough and steal a win from the division-bully Patriots. For that to happen, a big-time performance is needed from McCoy, who plowed for 93 yards at 6.0 yards per tote in a Week 13 loss to Belichick and friends. His weekly box scores can look underwhelming, but Shady on tape remains a player who runs hard and plays a major role in the passing game. Buffalo's offense is a tough watch, but it looked good in Week 15 controlling the line of scrimmage against a Dolphins team that flattened the Pats two Mondays ago. With the Bills fighting to stay in the AFC playoff picture, McCoy is the man to keep them in the mix for one more week.

10. Myles Garrett, Browns rookie edge rusher:

Light years removed from the playoff picture, the Browns face the prospect of becoming just the second 0-16 team in NFL history. Sunday's tilt with the low-wattage Bears looms as Cleveland's final hope at victory before closing with a Steelers team still fighting for position in the AFC. Who better to save the day than Garrett, the first-overall pick on a roster searching for heroes? What better time to unleash his fury than now, with the franchise's eternal reputation on the line?



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