|Coming off strong performances, Felix Jones and Beanie Wells could again be difference-makers this weekend.|
The postseason is often where stars are born, and last week served as the coming-out party for a handful of unsung players.
With the pressure sure to rise in the divisional p[layoffs, more players will find themselves in key roles, and their production may determine if their teams advance to the AFC and NFC Championship games.
Let's take a look at the players who could emerge as X-factors this weekend:
Dallas at Minnesota,
Cowboys: RB Felix Jones
The Cowboys' offense doesn't have the pizzazz or sizzle of previous versions, but Jones is one of the rare weapons on the unit capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. The former first-round pick is an exceptional runner with outstanding speed and quickness. Facing a Vikings' defense that routinely snuffs out running games, the Cowboys will give Jones plenty of opportunities to spark their ground attack with a big run from their two-back sets. Additionally, Jones could see an increased role in the passing game to take advantage of his explosiveness in space. Utilizing the screen game will be a priority in Jason Garrett's game plan to offset the Vikings' fierce pass rush, and Jones is the wild card capable of making it flourish.
Vikings: WR Bernard Berrian
The Vikings' diverse offense has a host of weapons at the skill positions, and Brett Favre does an outstanding job of tapping into the talent. With the Cowboys sure to focus on limiting the big plays of Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, Berrian could emerge as a key component to the Vikings' game plan. The speedster excels at getting behind the defense, and his ability to run past coverage will give Favre an explosive downfield option against the Cowboys’ pressure. Although the Cowboys creatively double-teamed the Eagles last week to bottle up their offense, Peterson's presence will limit the double coverage, and create plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Berrian. Given Favre's affinity for the deep ball, that could lead to trouble for the Cowboys in Minnesota.
Arizona at New Orleans
Cardinals: RB Chris "Beanie" Wells
Lost amid the Cardinals' spectacular offensive display against the Packers was the surprising contribution of Wells on the ground. The rookie tallied 91 yards on only 14 carries, and his steady grinding between the tackles gave the team's offense exceptional balance. Against a Saints defense that has struggled to defend the run, Wells' role should increase this weekend. The rookie's ability to find success on the ground will give Ken Whisenhunt the option to play a modified ball control style to keep Drew Brees and Co. on the sideline. Additionally, it will make it increasingly difficult for Gregg Williams to focus extensively on slowing down Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' aerial attack. After watching the Cardinals use a balanced attack to dismantle one of the league's top defenses last week, the Saints could be in serious trouble if Wells gets rolling in their matchup.
Saints: RB Reggie Bush
The Saints' high-powered offense specializes in producing big plays, and Sean Payton loves tapping into Bush's multifaceted skills to make it happen. The fourth-year pro is a dynamic change-of-pace back with outstanding speed and explosiveness. Payton will attempt to get his all-purpose weapon on the edges with perimeter runs and a host of misdirection plays. Furthermore, the Saints will attempt to take advantage of Bush's superior receiving skills by varying his alignment in spread formations to create mismatches against linebackers or safeties in space. With Bush capable of creating a big play as a runner or receiver, expect Payton to maximize his touches to take advantage of a suspect Cardinals defense.
N.Y. Jets at San Diego
Jets: WR Braylon Edwards
The Jets will attempt to bludgeon the Chargers with their running game, but they must find a way to score points to defeat the league's hottest team. With their powerful running game forcing opponents to use eight-man fronts, Mark Sanchez will have plenty of chances to take advantage of single coverage on the outside. Edwards, who was acquired in a mid-season trade to serve as the team's No. 1 receiver, has the potential to take over the game. However, his penchant for drops makes him a risky proposition at times. If Edwards is able to hold on to the ball when given the opportunity, he could give Sanchez an explosive weapon to utilize against an aggressive Chargers' defense.
Chargers: WR Malcom Floyd
The Chargers have thrived using a "bombs away" approach with Philip Rivers routinely throwing the ball up to the athletic cast of pass catchers down the field. Slowing the Chargers’ top two weapons (Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates) will be the focal point for the Jets, meaning the onus could fall on Floyd to carry the team's aerial attack. The fourth-year pro excels at winning jump-ball situations in traffic, and Rivers will repeatedly give his 6-foot-5 playmaker opportunities to outmuscle the Jets' undersized defenders. Given his penchant for delivering big plays (Floyd has five receptions over 40 yards), Floyd could be the difference maker that pushes the Chargers past the pesky Jets.
Baltimore at Indianapolis
Ravens: SS Dawan Landry
The key to the Ravens' defense is built upon the talents of a few stars, but it is the play of their role players that will determine success against the Colts. With FS Ed Reed free to jump routes all over the field, the onus falls to Landry to keep balls from flying over the top of the defense. The fourth-year pro has picked off five passes this season, including one against the Patriots last week, and his ability to read the quarterback's eyes leads to numerous tips and breakups in the back end. If he is able to force Manning to settle for the underneath throws in the passing game, the Ravens will have a chance at keeping the explosive Colts offense in check.
Colts: WR Austin Collie
It's rare for a rookie to earn the respect of Peyton Manning, but Collie has become a key weapon in the Colts' passing game during his first season. The former BYU standout has emerged as a vital playmaker as a slot receiver, and his versatility gives the Colts an effective counter to the double-team tactics used to neutralize Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Given the Ravens' preference for mixing in pressure with two-deep coverage, Collie could spend most of the day as Manning's primary target. Throw in an impending matchup against Baltimore CB Chris Carr, and the rookie star is set to have a spectacular playoff debut.