There are always unexpected standouts who help the eventual champion get to the top of the mountain. So here is our list of potential breakout candidates — one on each side of the ball for every playoff team:
Ball has won back some trust from the coaching staff, and his opportunities have been increased down the stretch. Even with Knowshon Moreno’s breakout season, Ball could have a big postseason with a few touchdowns and short-yardage conversions. Knighton has stepped up his play, and with Von Miller out the Broncos have to summon all the pressure they can from other sources. He’s one big one inside.
Bill Belichick isn’t afraid to reinvent the Patriots — even during a season. He’s had to do so several times with the spate of injuries they have faced, and the Week 17 win over the Buffalo Bills showed just how important Blount’s power rushing could be. Collins has seen an increased role in the nickel defense and could be used more in the playoffs.
You might be surprised to find out that Jones’ 10 touchdowns were second on the Bengals only to A.J. Green’s 11. Although he has become an excellent Plan B in the passing game, Jones really hasn’t gotten his due (despite catches such as this) but could do so by continuing his fine play in front of more eyes. Burfict is the Bengals’ best defender right now, even if most of America has yet to take notice. Thirty-one other NFL teams look pretty silly for letting pass through seven rounds of the draft in 2012. He’s always around the ball.
You get the idea that Andrew Luck’s approach is similar to the man he replaced. Peyton Manning’s favorite target, they say, is the guy who is open. Well, at least for the past few weeks, Whalen has been the guy getting open for Luck. And even though Whalen was cut a few weeks prior to that, he stands as an important piece heading into the playoffs. Freeman’s missed tackles have gone down, his pass coverage has improved and he’s a threat to make plays in the backfield. His teammates and coaches thought he deserved Pro Bowl mention.
Cooper went from early-season hero to midseason goat, and he was torched repeatedly in the Chiefs’ Week 11 and 13 losses to the Broncos. So it would be a perfect redemption story for the rookie corner to come back and play the way he did early in the season with more confidence. McCluster has been heating up lately, and with Jamaal Charles likely to be the defensive focus, perhaps McCluster can rise up with a few bursts.
Eric Weddle is the Chargers’ defensive heartbeat, but Gilchrist quietly has had a nice season alongside him. He has missed only a handful of defensive snaps and has played some nice football in recent weeks. In a matchup against the run-dependent Bengals, Gilchrist could be a big factor. Green has been both a huge receiving factor and nearly invisible at times, but he could make a few splash plays to gain him notice.
Kearse quietly has had a nice second half of the season, stepping up his game with Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin out and the Seahawks needing playmakers. Opponents almost will dare Russell Wilson to beat them from the pocket, which could thrust Kearse into a pivotal role. McDaniel has a devout following among Seahawks fans, who recognize his weekly contributions, but the wave defender could make a name for himself with a few big disruptions in the postseason.
Tolbert is by no means an unknown, but his hard running and blocking could take on an even bigger significance in the postseason as the Panthers try to find creative ways to squeeze out as much offensive prowess as possible. Short has been overshadowed by fellow rookie tackle Star Lotulelei but has been a pass-rushing force from the inside. He could be a big factor against a passing team such as the Packers.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Quarterback Nick Foles and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox
If Foles gets hot, he could stand to gain the same kind of mention that Colin Kaepernick and Wilson did in last season’s playoffs. He’s set to face the Saints, whose defense has fallen off on the road, and, if the Eagles win, Foles would get to go after a Panthers secondary that has some holes. Cox has played at a high level all season, but few people nationally have taken notice. It’s his time to shine.
4. Green Bay Packers
Left tackle David Bakhtiari and linebacker Andy Mulumba
Bakhtiari was taken to school a few times during his rookie season, but overall he has impressed — and has not missed an offensive snap, which is more than you can say for most Packers this injury-maligned season. If he shuts down Aldon Smith and/or the Seahawks’ Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril, people will know Bakhtiari. Mulumba had a great Week 17 game against the Chicago Bears and could be counted on even more with Clay Matthews’ status in doubt.
Brock has an aggressive style that could lend to some big plays in the postseason. He has done a remarkable job this season at both left and right corner and again will be called upon heavily with Carlos Rogers banged up. Hunter’s workload could mirror that of LaMichael James in the playoffs last year, which increased over his regular-season duty, and Hunter could be summoned as a shot-in-the-arm offensive weapon.
6. New Orleans Saints
Wide receiver Kenny Stills and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks
Stills’ game is predicated on the big play, and though he had cooled off down the stretch, the rookie showed he still can deliver with a 76-yard touchdown catch. One or two of those in the postseason, and he can become a household name. Hicks has been strong the second half of the season, and the Saints need all the defensive firepower they can get away from home.
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