Playoffs  

 

Advancing to Super Bowl could come down to X-factors

 

Since I started playing football at 7, I've heard that big-time players make an impact in big games.

While that sentiment continues to ring true as the postseason unfolds, it has been the surprising emergence of several unheralded players that has led each of the final four participants into the conference championship round.

With the pressure bound to rise with a Super Bowl berth on the line, it could be an unsung hero that decides which teams move on to Miami.

Here's look at players in position to emerge as a difference-makers for each of the four remaining teams.

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis

Jets: Shonn Greene, RB
The Jets' throwback offense revolves around their punishing running game, which features a formidable combination in Thomas Jones and Greene. While Jones carried the offense throughout the regular season, it has been the emergence of Greene that has boosted the Jets' offense in the playoffs.

The rookie has topped the 100-yard mark in back-to-back playoff games, and his hard-nosed running style has worn down opponents in the fourth quarter. Against Indy's undersized front seven, Greene could find plenty of running room between the tackles once the game reaches its late stages. If the Jets are able to keep the score close, Greene's power running could make the difference down the stretch.

Colts: Joseph Addai, RB
The fourth-year pro had consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career, but has been an afterthought in the offense the past two years. However, Peyton Manning needs his featured back to have a significant impact to keep Rex Ryan's troops from teeing off on the Colts' passing game.

Addai, who averaged only 55.2 rushing yards per game in the regular season, is at his best when hitting it off-tackle on the Colts' patented stretch or outside zone run. As a decisive runner with good vision and burst, he has a knack for finding the crease against fast-flowing defenses. While Addai has yet to register a 100-yard game this season, he has carried the ball 20 or more times in three games, and that is the kind of workload that would provide enough balance to keep the Jets from unveiling their exotic blitz schemes on early downs. If Addai can have moderate success on the ground, the Colts will be able to use a balanced offensive approach that could lead to big plays later in the game.

Minnesota at New Orleans

Minnesota: Ray Edwards, DE
The Vikings led the league in sacks this season, and most of the praise has been heaped on the team's trio of Pro Bowl-caliber (Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams) defensive linemen. However, Ray Edwards has quietly been a key contributor to the unit by tallying 8.5 sacks as a complementary rusher opposite Allen.

Edwards is a high-motor player with outstanding quickness, and his relentless pursuit off the edge overwhelms heavy-legged blockers. His impressive showing against the Cowboys (three sacks and forced fumble) showcased his immense potential. While Edwards suffered a knee injury in the win last week, the Vikings will need a similar effort from him to keep Drew Brees from picking apart their seemingly vulnerable secondary.

Saints: Reggie Bush, RB/KR
The dynamic playmaker dominated in the win over the Cardinals, and his versatility could be on display again in the NFC title game. Most expect Bush to make his primary contributions as a runner or receiver, but it is his ability to impact the kicking game that makes him the potential difference-maker.

Bush has returned five career punts for touchdowns, including the playoffs, and his gift for flipping the field is a tremendous advantage. The Vikings are well aware of his game-changing potential, as Bush returned two punts for scores in their 2008 regular-season matchup and averaged a whopping 35 yards per attempt. Given the fact that the Vikings still struggle on punt coverage, Bush's speed and elusiveness gives him a chance to take one to the house at anytime, and that could prove to be the deciding factor in a close matchup.

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