Clutch Performers

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Xavier Rhodes helps Vikings turn the tide in NFC North

The Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, Buffalo Bills' Leodis McKelvin, Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, Houston Texans' J.J. Watt and Minnesota Vikings' Xavier Rhodes each had the strength to come through during a key moment and contribute to wins during Week 17.

Thanks to those strong performances, each player is up for Castrol EDGE Clutch Performer of the Week honors. This is a deeper look at the significance of those conquests.

Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings

Strong stats to consider:
» With the 20-13 win over the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings earned their first division title since 2009, when the team's quarterback was Packers legend Brett Favre.

Power of the moment: The Packers' traditionally explosive offense has been phonus balonus this season, and that left the door open for an upstart outfit such as the Vikings to knock the four-time defending NFC North champs off their pedestal. For a brief interlude late in the de facto "NFC North championship game" at legendary Lambeau Field on Sunday night, Green Bay's offense showed some signs of life. The Packers presented themselves with a chance to tie up the score late in the fourth quarter after driving 64 yards to the Vikings' 13-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-goal from said spot on the field, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' heave into the end zone was picked off by Rhodes. Rhodes' interception highlighted what was a splendid performance by the Vikings defense, which helped Minnesota collect its first win at Lambeau Field since 2009.

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Strong stats to consider:
» Because Manning did not start against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos did not have a quarterback start for 10 or more games in a season for the first time since 1982, the year before the franchise acquired Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway. That snapped a streak of 32 consecutive seasons with a quarterback starting 10 or more games, the longest such streak since at least 1950. The Pittsburgh Steelers (24 seasons from 1992-2015) and New England Patriots (23 seasons from 1993-2015) are next on that list, followed by two surprise entries: Cincinnati Bengals (21 seasons from 1995-2015) and Jacksonville Jaguars (21 seasons from 1995-2015). Keep in mind that 1995 was the Jaguars' inaugural season.
» The Broncos and Patriots have been the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs and earned first-round byes in four consecutive seasons.

Power of the moment: It was the first time that Manning has ever come off the bench in the NFL, and it resulted in the Broncos toppling the San Diego Chargers 27-20, and earning home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos were down 13-7 when Manning entered the game in the third quarter, and the veteran quarterback provided the spark needed to get the team the necessary victory. Manning completed the only two passes he attempted on his initial drive, which culminated with a C.J. Anderson touchdown run.

Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo Bills

Strong stats to consider:
» The Bills have finished at .500 or better for the second consecutive season, which is the first time that the team has posted back-to-back .500-or-better seasons since 1999-2000. That 1999 season was the last time the Bills made the playoffs, that 16-year playoff drought is the longest active drought in the league and the second-longest of any team in the Super Bowl era (New Orleans Saints, 17 seasons from 1970-1986).
» By beating the New York Jets, 22-17, the Bills won both games against the Jets by the same score (22-17, too, in Week 10).

Power of the moment: If you can't make the playoffs, the next best thing to do to cap the season is to knock another team out of the postseason. McKelvin's interception of a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass in the end zone prevented the Jets' best chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter. That mistake by the Jets quarterback doomed his team's playoff hopes. This loss, coupled with the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Cleveland Browns, eliminated the Jets from playoff contention and extended the franchise's playoff drought to five seasons.

Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

Strong stats to consider:
» The Dolphins (6-10) finished the 2015 season with their worst record since finishing 6-10 in 2011. The Dolphins have not had a winning record or made the playoffs since finishing 11-5 in 2008.
» With six receptions against the Patriots, Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry set a record for most receptions in the first two seasons of an NFL career. Landry has 194 receptions, topping the 187 catches of his college teammate at LSU, Odell Beckham, Jr.

Power of the moment: The Dolphins didn't knock the Patriots out of the playoffs, but did make New England's path to a Super Bowl title repeat much more daunting. The Patriots' loss in Miami, coupled with the Denver Broncos' win over the San Diego Chargers, meant the road to Super Bowl 50 in the AFC will not go through Foxborough as many had expected for much of the 2015 campaign. Tannehill's 19-yard scramble with just over two minutes remaining helped deal the Patriots this devastating blow. Tannehill set up a field goal that put the Dolphins up by 10 at the two-minute warning. The Patriots' response was to let Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski watch from the bench as New England's season ended with a second consecutive defeat.

J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Strong stats to consider:
» The Texans allowed six or fewer points in five games this season, which was the most in the NFL this season and most in Texans franchise history (which dates back to 2002).
» The Texans allowed just 215 total yards of offense in Week 17, and this was the seventh game this season in which Houston allowed less than 300 total yards of offense. The Texans are 7-0 when allowing fewer than 300 yards of offense. It's important to note that the Texans' Wild Card Weekend opponent -- the Kansas City Chiefs -- ranked 27th in the NFL in yards per game with 331.2.

Power of the moment: The Texans earned the AFC South division crown in large part due to their defense, which is led by the defending Defensive Player of the Year. Watt registered three sacks, four quarterback hits, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble in the Texans' 30-6 dump trucking of the Jacksonville Jaguars that helped Houston clinch the division. Watt finished the season with 17.5 sacks -- the same total he registered in his Defensive POY season of 2014 -- and when combined with teammate Whitney Mercilus' 12 sacks, the 29.5 combine sacks are the most among any teammate duo in the NFL. Watt and Mercilus became the first duo in Texans history to each have 10-plus sacks in the same season. Moving forward, it's a safe bet that the Texans will rely heavily on these two defensive dynamos to disrupt opposing quarterbacks in order to advance in the playoffs.

Follow Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.

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