Which NFL players have the most to prove in their teams' playoff push?

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·6 min read
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The NFL's final two weeks of the regular season will be held in January, but December is when the league's playoff picture will start to be pieced together.

Entering Week 14, no team has sealed its place in the postseason. That all can change this weekend, however, as three teams – the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneerscould have the opportunity to join the field. And with only the Houston Texans officially eliminated from playoff contention, there's plenty of hope remaining for almost every team. Of course, some players will have to shoulder a heavier burden than others to push their teams over the top.

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With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports' NFL reporters, columnists and editors:

Which players have the most to prove in their teams' playoff push?

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis.

Their answers:

Jarrett Bell

Matthew Stafford -- and the other marquee additions for the LA Rams, Von Miller and Odell Beckham, Jr. Remember, the Rams went for broke to make another serious run at the crown and the jury is still out. Let's start here with Miller. He's positioned with the other studs on the Rams D to really have an impact as an edge rusher. If LA (8-4), currently claiming the fifth seed in the NFC playoff map, is going to get past Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Arizona and maybe even Dallas in the playoffs, they will need as much of a rush as possible on the array of star quarterbacks they'll face. And Miller, if he's healthy, needs to be the one to bring the heat to complement Aaron Donald's havoc on the inside. Beckham, meanwhile, has elevated from luxury to necessity as LA tries filling the void left with Robert Woods' season-ending knee injury. The past couple of weeks, OBJ has shown strides suggesting that he is still an elite receiver as he works to regain rhythm and flow following the torn ACL that ended his 2020 campaign.

Stafford, though, may have more to prove than any player in the league. When coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead pulled the trigger on the big offseason trade that brought Stafford from Detroit, he was envisioned as the missing piece -- maybe like Tom Brady was for the Bucs in 2020 -- to produce a championship. It looked like a major hit early in the season. During the months of September and October, Stafford threw 22 TDs and just 4 picks. Then came the November to remember as a disaster. The Rams went 0-for-November, with Stafford serving as the symbol of futility for the three losses -- which included 6 turnovers for the month and pick-sixes in three consecutive games.

Speculation has persisted that Stafford is suffering from injuries, which he denies. Yet there's no denying the lingering question that followed him from The Motor City: Can he beat the best competition? Surely, that was not the case in November when Tennessee, San Francisco and Green Bay handed it to Stafford and the Rams. It was one thing for Stafford to put up his big numbers against Houston, Detroit, the New York Giants and in the bounceback game last weekend, Jacksonville. But the type of teams that Stafford couldn't beat in November are the type that he'll see in January. No, missing piece or not, it's not all on Stafford. Yet like other quarterbacks in the playoff mix, including Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, Stafford is indeed pressed to raise his game as the stakes increase and to lift his team while in the process.

Jori Epstein

The outlook for one AFC North quarterback appeared to clarify recently, when reports swirled that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger plans to retire after this season. But across the division, playoff pushes for the Ravens and Browns hold high stakes for each team’s quarterback. No doubt Lamar Jackson’s potential is clear in Baltimore, but his inconsistency and turnovers amid instability around him could hurt his next contract if the Ravens can’t settle. In Cleveland, a playing-through-injuries Baker Mayfield similarly has his next contract—and, perhaps, his future with the Browns?—at stake. Each quarterback has demonstrated success (Jackson’s at a higher caliber with an MVP season, though Mayfield has also shown the energy and talent he can bring at times too) but their contracts with one year remaining will be impacted by playoff success. Another 2018 draft class selection with a high ceiling: Chargers safety Derwin James. Injuries wrecked James’ 2019 and 2020 seasons, and a cleaner health bill has enabled him to round back into for this season. Can he elevate Brandon Staley’s defense to a unit perennially ready to threaten Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the division?

MORE: What's wrong with Lamar Jackson, Ravens' offense?

Mike Freeman

It’s Matthew Stafford because he needs to prove that he can be a consistent quarterback. Not just a good one. He can be that. We know this. But consistency is the issue. He can play like Tom Brady as he did against the Bucs in Week 3 when he threw four touchdowns. Or he can play like Tom and Jerry as he did against the Titans and 49ers. If Stafford is consistently good the Rams can go far.

Mike Jones

I'm going with Baker Mayfield. The Browns have surrounded him with loads of talent and were counting on him further elevating his game, and the team as a whole this year. But thus far, Mayfield's fourth season has been filled with ups and downs. Injuries also have hampered his efforts, and at 6-6, the Browns have to fight hard to return to the playoffs. The season-ending slate features the Ravens, Raiders, Packers, Steelers and Bengals. Mayfield has to play the best football of his career right now so he can position his team for a second-straight playoff berth, and solidify his worth in the minds of his coaches and general manager Andrew Berry, who are trying to decide what kind of a contract extension the quarterback deserves.

Lorenzo Reyes

I’m going to go with Jimmy Garoppolo. His future with the 49ers was already perilous after the team traded up to the No. 3 slot to draft Trey Lance. So if his play remains unsteady and he has games with turnovers like he did in last week’s loss against the Seahawks, San Francisco could have more reason to move on from him and see what it has in Lance, whose athleticism and rushing ability could open up the team’s offense.

While Garoppolo has been solid (but unspectacular) in his time in San Francisco, he has not flashed the ability to take over games in the clutch like so many of his counterparts. Another knock against him is that he has often been injured. Sunday’s loss against Seattle was emblematic for some of Garoppolo’s issues: With star receiver Deebo Samuel out, Garoppolo latched onto tight end George Kittle and no one else; he could not develop a connection with the team’s other pass catchers, and the offense stagnated. That’s an indictment on his ability to spread the ball around. Yet, if Garoppolo can find consistency down the stretch, put the offense on his back in close games and carry the the team to the playoffs, the Niners might be forced to consider a future in which he is a key piece.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL standings: Which players have most to prove in playoff push?