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The 6 players who will define the NFL Divisional Round

Will Melvin Ingram be able to upset Tom Brady? Can Leighton Vander Esch shut down Todd Gurley? These guys will determine how the Divisional Round plays out.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

The NFL playoffs continue this weekend with the Divisional Round set to kick off Saturday. After what we saw go down on Wild Card weekend, I challenge any of you to accurately tell me what’s going to happen this weekend. Sure you may think the Saints will easily handle the Eagles, but that Nick Foles guy seems to only get better the higher the stakes get. Yes Sean McVay is an offensive wizard who knows the entire familial history of every player on the Cowboys’ defense, but don’t overlook the fact that this Dallas defense is legit and comes to play every game.

Basically, who knows how the weekend will play out and that’s exactly how I like my playoff games: complete and utter chaos. Who says no?

On a weekend with so much uncertainty, here are the six players that could determine exactly which teams make it to the Conference Championship.

Marlon Mack, Colts

While I would love to see just an all-out aerial attack Saturday and let Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes each throw 60 times and see who can string together the more impressive throws, but I think Frank Reich is too smart to get into a shooting match with arguably the best shooter in the NFL right now. No, the smart thing for Reich to do is to take the ball out Mahomes’ hands and put it in the hands of Marlon Mack.

Mack is coming off an extremely impressive Wild Card game in which he tallied 148 yards on the ground against the Texans’ number one ranked run defense (per DVOA). Mack’s ability to find the right hole, hit it and then make people miss in space was on full display last week and is what has made him such a productive back this season.

He’s about to face the opposite end of the spectrum this weekend as the Chiefs rank dead last in run defense DVOA. Putting the offense on Mack’s capable shoulders will eat up the clock and keep the Chiefs’ hyper-explosive offense off the field. I’m fully aboard the Colts train this weekend and Mack is going to be the main ingredient in an Indianapolis upset.

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

I tried my best to pick players other than quarterbacks but it’s impossible not to put Mahomes on a list of players who’ll define the Divisional Round. I mean, is there a player you’re more excited to watch this weekend than Patrick Mahomes? If you said yes, you’re just lying to yourself.

It’s not just because of the statistical season Mahomes put up that he’ll likely be this year’s MVP. Mahomes has shown time and again that no stage is too big and no lights are too bright for him. Shootout in Los Angeles? Bring it on! A dogfight against the best defense in the NFL? Let me just throw across my body on the run for an all important 4th down. Even if he makes crucial mistakes—can’t forget the pair of interceptions he threw against the Rams—you still can’t help but trust that with a minute left in the game, he and his offensive weapons will find a way to win the game.

Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys

I’ll be honest: I haven’t watched enough of the Cowboys to be able to speak eloquently about the Vander Esch experience but rest assured, I know the dude is really good. All season Vander Esch has made a name for himself with his ability to diagnose offenses, travel sideline to sideline and make the game changing play right when it needs to be made. Last week, he and the Cowboys’ run defense shutdown the best ground game in the NFL this season, holding the Seahawks to just 2.3 yards gained after close-in per carry.

With Todd Gurley next, Vander Esch and the Boys are going to need to replicate their excellent performance last week to pull off the upset in LA. The Rams are 1-3 in games which Gurley has less than 15 carries and are undefeated when he is 15 or more. The key is going to be forcing the Rams to put the ball in Jared Goff’s hands, rather than consistently giving it to Gurley.

Melvin Ingram (also Joey Bosa), Chargers

By now we should all know the number one ingredient to beat Tom Brady: pass rush. If you can get in Brady’s face and throw him off his game, your likelihood to beating the Patriots exponentially increases. However, you need to do this without blitzing. Blitzing Brady is signing your death warrant as an NFL defense.

Lucky of the Chargers, they have the perfect guys to get pressure on Brady without blitzing in Ingram and Bosa. Ingram especially was down right dominate last week against the Ravens. He had seven tackles, two for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble and recovery. He was constantly in the Ravens’ backfield, making plays and blowing up the Ravens’ offense.

With Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ offense not playing their best football recently, the pressure is going to fall on Ingram and the Chargers’ defense to keep them in the game. If Ingram can play like he did last week, LA has a great chance of making it to the Conference Championship.

Fletcher Cox, Eagles

I reeeeaaaaally wanted to put Nick Foles here but I also reeeeaaaallly want the Nick Foles narrative to die. (I think “die” is the wrong word, really I want people to recognize that maybe he is just a good quarterback—myself included—and for him to have is own NFL team. Enough with the Eagles having a starting caliber quarterback as their backup who for whatever reason plays like God’s chosen son for the last two months of the year.) Also putting Foles here would be unfair to the Eagles’ defense which has by far the biggest task this game.

The Saints offense is so potent because they can beat you in so many ways. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas are among the best at what they do while on the ground, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram can beat you up in a number of different ways. It’s going to be on Cox to control the trenches and not only consistently get pressure on Brees, but also limit their rushing attack and force New Orleans to become one dimensional. Not an easy task by any means.

Michael Thomas, Saints

The biggest reason Cox and the Eagles’ defensive line need to have a big game is because the Eagles’ secondary is far from good. I know they made a couple of big plays Sunday against the Bears, but that’s the Bears. This is Drew Brees and the Saints. The play Sunday that sticks out to me is Allen Robinson getting wide open against Avonte Maddox for a touchdown on a double move:

You know Thomas is watching this clip, licking his lips. Don’t be surprised if Thomas torches this Eagles’ secondary and goes for over 150 yards and a couple of touchdowns. His chemistry with Brees will allow them to throw all kinds of back shoulder, trust balls that the Eagles’ cornerbacks will have no way of making a play on. If the fantasy season ran through the NFL playoffs, I’d call Thomas a 100% must-start this week.


Which team pulls off the upset?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Colts over Chiefs
    (2 votes)
  • 45%
    Chargers over Patriots
    (11 votes)
  • 25%
    Cowboys over Rams
    (6 votes)
  • 20%
    Eagles over Saints
    (5 votes)
24 votes total Vote Now