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52 key people, places and things left in NFL playoffs

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Four teams left. Soon to be two. Meeting in one final game to decide it all.

Super Bowl LII.

Little did we know a year ago that Patriots running back James White would wind up as one of the biggest names in Lombardi lore, or that an entire Falcons roster would crumble violently during a second half that left plenty to blame.

When I penned this exercise last January, White didn't even make my list. That should tell you something about the up-in-the-air nature of predicting pro football results -- or, at least, this author's inability to do so.

Either way, let's try this again. Here are the 52 most important people, places and things left in the NFL playoffs:

52) Grandma Millie, 99-year-old Vikings loyalist: Go ahead. Find me something cuter than the site of Millie Wall, a Minnesota fan since 1960, waving her towel in support of the Vikings at the tender age of 99. FOX's broadcast crew repeatedly cut to Millie, who never doubted Minnesota's fate against the Saints.

"The coolest part about it," her granddaughter, Ashley Wall, told ESPN.com, "was that, as all Vikings fans know, when we start to lose a lead, you lose hope, but she continued to have hope. She'd say, 'We're going to get this. We just need an interception. We're going to win this.' Hearing her be so hopeful, not a lot of Vikings fans can say that."

Her faithfulness was rewarded Sunday by The Commish, who stopped by to give Grandma Millie -- who turns 100 on the Fourth of July -- a birthday gift for the ages.

51) Alshon Jeffery, Eagles wideout: Philly will continue to emphasize the run, but Jeffery came up big against the Falcons with four receptions for 61 yards, including one heady catch-and-dash out of bounds to set up Jake Elliott's 53-yard field goal before the half. Jeffery is vastly critical to an offense that must make plays through the air, with or without Carson Wentz.

50) Deatrich Wise, Patriots defensive end: Remember that struggling New England pass rush? That so-called Achilles' heel? Eight sacks against the Titans put that narrative to bed. Wise's two takedowns versus Tennessee give him four over his past four games. The rookie's next mission: Make life hell for Blake Bortles.

49) Kai Forbath, Vikings kicker: Dan Hanzus and I were asking ourselves during the white-knuckle finish to Saints-Vikings: "Who on earth would want to be a kicker?" I get nervous just watching Forbath warm up. It's wildly stressful. Please just let the NFC title game boil down to something other than a game-deciding kick. Thank you.

48) Danny Amendola, Patriots wideout: Asked repeatedly to accept offseason pay cuts, Amendola has toiled selflessly for a team littered with stars. Leading the offense in catches against the Titans, this Foxborough-based jitterbug better be on Jacksonville's radar.

47) Pink, songstress: A solid pick to sing the National Anthem. My question: Can Pink possibly top Lady Gaga's masterwork from Super Bowl 50? We were on hand at The Big Bell Bottom when Gaga sent shockwaves of energy through the crowd as military jets streamed overhead. Earth-altering show, but now it's Pink's turn to flip the switch.

46) LaAdrian Waddle, Patriots right tackle: The news on Waddle's knee injury is encouraging, with the tackle suffering just a minor sprain in the win over Tennessee. If he can't go against the Jaguars, New England will be forced to plug in third-stringer Cameron Fleming against one of the most ferocious pass rushes league-wide. Not a guy expected to make any sort of top-52 list a month ago, Waddle is suddenly a major factor for Sunday.

45) Howie Roseman, Eagles executive VP of football operations: Shuffled into the abyss during Chip Kelly's untoward reign, Roseman deserves plenty of credit for building a deep and talented roster. By comparison, how did the Packers fare when they lost their quarterback?

44) Malik Jackson, Jaguars hog molly: A bit of history: Since 2001, the Patriots are 3-4 in playoff games when Tom Brady is sacked three-plus times. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue wrack up all the takedowns, but Jackson's ability to blow up an interior line is where it all begins. Remember, this is the guy who predicted a Super Bowl for the Jaguars -- "We're going all the way," Jackson said in July -- a guarantee that suddenly feels like Joe Namath times a trillion.

43) Everson Griffen, Vikings quarterback killer: After notching 13 sacks over his first 12 weeks of the season, Griffen was shut out for a month-plus before taking down Drew Brees on Sunday. The Vikings need him to shine this weekend in the biggest game of Griffen's career.

42) Al Riveron, Senior VP of officiating: The qualifications of what constitutes a catch make the great mystery of the ancient pyramids look like a child's puzzle. Riveron is tasked with pulling us through the final three games of the season minus any mind-numbing controversies. Godspeed.

41) Jerick McKinnon, Vikings running back: McKinnon isn't Alvin Kamara, but the tougher-than-advertised pass-catching back is an ideal yards-after-the-catch weapon for Case Keenum. Be on alert, Eagles operatives.

40) Mother Nature's Treatment of Foxborough: The Jaguars toiled in 18-degree weather in Pittsburgh and put up 45 points. Not your typical Florida team folding in the elements. But what's in store this weekend in Foxborough? Will Mother Nature -- or the clandestine, black-ops government program that controls our weather -- unfurl snow, freezing rain or maybe a tornado off the coast? Just another excuse to slowly get bombed on white wine in front of the Weather Channel.

39) Harrison Smith, Vikings safety: He's a top-five defensive player among the four teams left, yet criminally ignored by the uber-dullards casting Pro Bowl votes. Forget the all-star game: Smith feels destined to become a household name if Minnesota takes care of business.

38) Todd Wash, Jaguars defensive coordinator: No big thing, he's just the guy being asked to dream up a game plan to shut down the greatest quarterback of our lifetime.

37) U.S. Bank Stadium: Vikings fans have been through hell and back. What says justice more than watching your team win a Super Bowl in your home stadium? This place sways with noise, home to one of the most raucous contingents on Earth. Let's do this thing.

36) Matt Patricia, Patriots defensive coordinator and soon-to-be Lions coach: The Titans were no test, but Patricia and his glorious, flowing-forest beard must find a way to do what the Steelers could not: Keep a lid on the Jaguars.

35) Justin Timberlake, pop-culture fireball: NFL Media's Erica Tamposi is a talented videographer and filmmaker, an occasional producer of The Around the NFL Podcast, and a dangerously obsessed JT SUPERFAN. Her words: "He's the best. He has incredible standards. You never see him in the news for anything bad. He's a great example. He's a revolutionary in the music world. Always adapting."

34) Jim Schwartz, Eagles defensive coordinator: Is there a better-coached unit league-wide? Schwartz was run out of town in Detroit, but deserves head-coaching consideration for the work he's done in Philly.

33) Alexa's Pick: Me: "Alexa: Who will win the Super Bowl?"

Alexa: "It's a little early to say, but as we were all reminded last year, you can never count out the Patriots."

32) Adam Thielen, Vikings wideout: Thielen's almost psychic connection with Keenum is the stuff of wonder. Another reminder that draft origins often mean less than zero.

31) Calais Campbell's predictive magic: The Jaguars' star defender verbally called a 45-42 win over the Steelers, putting NFL analysts everywhere on blast. This week, I'm listening to Campbell's every word.

30) Nordic aliens watching from the Pleiadian star cluster: At what stage do these humanoid E.T.s intervene in our planetary narrative, descending from above to either (a) teach us spiritual lessons that put pro sports in proper perspective or (b) drop a hammer made of fire on all seven continents?

29) Pat Shurmur, Vikings offensive play-caller: My vote for Assistant Coach of the Year. The Giants agree, planning to make Shurmur their next head coach. After flaming out with the Browns, only to recreate himself, Shurmur's voyage back to the top is one of the league's better redemption stories.

28) Jay Ajayi, Eagles running back: The box score doesn't show it, but Ajayi and his fellow backs unfurled a litter of game-changing runs during a pair of clock-chewing field goal drives against Atlanta. This time around, the Eagles need Ajayi to play his finest game yet.

27) Vikings' O-line: For Minnesota, we need to see a little less of Keenum running for his life. The Vikings have just one lineman with a 70.0-plus grade from Pro Football Focus -- with three clocking in under the 50.0 mark! Expect the Eagles to pounce.

26) Tony Romo, quarterback-turned-commentator wonder boy: Romo's stellar rookie season in the booth wraps Sunday with the AFC Championship Game. Displaying preternatural gifts for predicting plays before the snap, Romo is the rare analyst who teaches with almost every word. His quarterbacking career was enduring, but this later-life venture feels like his true calling.

25) Telvin Smith, Jaguars linebacker: His 50-yard fumble return to the house put the Steelers in a super-dark place on Sunday. Constantly around the ball, Smith is a reminder of how this Jaguars defense can change the game in a flash.

24) Brandin Cooks, Patriots deep threat: From another angle, Jacksonville gave up a swath of big passing plays to Pittsburgh. Look for Tom Brady to take his chances with Cooks scorching downfield.

23) February in Minnesota: Some Super Bowl Weeks take place in balmy Miami. This year's big game takes place in lovely-and-icy Minnesota, where recent temperatures have clocked in COLDER THAN THE PLANET MARS. This is a real thing.

22) Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Eagles left tackle: Not many teams survive the loss of an All-Pro left tackle, but Vaitai has performed adequately in place of Jason Peters. His biggest test of the year comes against a Vikings front out to evaporate Nick Foles.

21) Tom Coughlin, Jaguars football czar: Are we overrating Coughlin's presence in Foxborough this Sunday? The one guy who blew up Belichick and Brady not once, but twice, in the Super Bowl? OK, maybe.

20) Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator: The end is near for McDaniels and the Pats. After years cuddled up next to Tom Brady, he's set to join the enemy in Indianapolis. That's for another day, though, as McDaniels has plenty more work to do in hopes of landing one more precious ring.

19) A.J. Bouye, Jaguars cornerback: If it weren't for Calais Campbell, his own teammate, Bouye would loom as my pick for free-agent signing of the year.

18) Fletcher Cox, Eagles pass rusher: One of the finest defenders around. An artist who spins chaos and disruption -- and the heart of this Eagles defense.

17) Out-of-nowhere, hand-crafted attempt to distract the Patriots organization: We know it's coming. Some sort of esoteric controversy involving the most successful franchise in pro sports. What form it will take is anyone's guess, but don't expect it to have much effect on the Patriots.

16) Cris, Al and Michele, NBC's power trio: They'll call Super Bowl LII, and they'll do it well. The ageless Al Michaels will drop subtle hints about the point spread; Cris Collinsworth will spin his folksy yet informed on-field takes; and Michele Tafoya will efficiently chase down sideline-related drama. You know what you're getting here, and it's top-shelf.

15) Doug Pederson, Eagles coach: Bottom line: He called a brilliant second half against the Falcons. An underrated coach who brought immediate stability to Philly following the rocky reign of Chip Kelly.

14) Blake Bortles, Jaguars quarterback: Bortles against the world. Total rebellion. Mass uprising. Nobody knows anything. Let's watch the world burn.

13) Patriots Star Running Back of the Week: Dion Lewis. Rex Burkhead. James White. While half the league struggles to find a functional runner, the Patriots unleash a new name weekly to insane results. Lewis is the finest back of the bunch, but White is a massive factor through the air while Burkhead can line up anywhere and do everything. I've beaten this dying mare before, but I'm convinced Belichick could field a three-person backfield of Jennifer Lawrence, Gal Gadot and Young Sheldon and get 3,000 combined yards out of them. It's beyond ridiculous.

12) Mike Zimmer, Vikings coach: Of all the remaining coaches, what better potential storyline than Zimmer -- at age 61 -- winning his first Lombardi in his home stadium with a quarterback nobody believed in?

11) Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end: Obviously.

10) Fill-in-the-blank Jaguars playmaker: Ben Koyack. James O'Shaughnessy. The glorious Tommy Bohanon. Just some of the largely anonymous cast of weapons Bortles has employed in recent weeks to stun the world. The use of tight ends, fullbacks and random dudes almost reminds us of ... the Patriots.

9) The Football Gods: They probably want to be higher on this list, being gods and all. You're top-10. Deal with it. Besides, I don't entirely trust this pack of elitist, omniscient football lords. They're bound to break hearts in Minnesota, giving us yet another Super Bowl evening capped by confetti showering down on Robert Kraft, Bill and Tommy Boy. Or perhaps -- as a Browns fan -- I'm just excessively jaded, damaged and hopeless, feeling around in the dark.

8) Stefon Diggs, Vikings wideout: If anyone can stick it to the Football Gods, though, it's this hero of heroes. Diggs is a special force of nature who, incidentally, will never pay for another drink in the state of Minnesota.

7) Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars cornerback: He didn't play his best game against the Steelers, but here's the thing about Ramsey: Name a better cornerback to face Brady all season? I'll wait.

6) Nick Foles, Eagles quarterback: Imagine the entire country spending the week referring to you as the glaring weak spot in your workplace. "That's right, Ted, ATG Micro-Tech has all the tools to become a publicly traded company, but I'm really worried about [YOUR NAME] killing their chances with another sloppy performance this week. Huge liability." It almost makes me root for Foles to do something special and shut everyone up for a change.

5) Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: Obviously, Part II.

4) Doug Marrone, Jaguars coach: He might not be the most popular fellow in the NFL, but the rapid results speak for themselves. After serving for years as a pushover in the AFC, Jacksonville is playing with rare confidence and toughness. Along the way, Marrone has jump-started a career that seemed lost.

3) Leonard Fournette, Jaguars workhorse back: Jacksonville's winning method, when it works, is simple: Beat you up on the ground and let the defense do the rest. It all starts with Fournette, who was in top form before tweaking his ankle against the Steelers. The Jags need him healthy and they need him to play like a man set on fire from start to finish.

2) Bill Belichick, Patriots coach: Obviously, Part III.

1) Case Keenum, Vikings quarterback: A Super Bowl showdown between Brady and Brees sounded fun, but I'd welcome Keenum playing David to Brady's Goliath. Laughed off for years, Keenum has morphed into a magic-spinner. His rise is a reminder that anything is possible in sports. If you've ever been counted out, there's always hope you'll someday shine -- the way Keenum has done all season long. He's not done yet.

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