The six-team NFC playoff field is loaded with veritable stars on both sides of the football, but it's often lesser-known players who climb into the spotlight and make a difference during the postseason. Here's one key individual on each team who could tip the scales – the "X-Factors" who promise to make their presence felt on the playoff stage.
To win in the NFL playoffs, you need two things. One, you need a quarterback. Two, you need the players to stop the quarterback. That's why the Falcons have a chance to make some noise in these playoffs after being one-and-done in their past two trips under coach Mike Smith. The Falcons have one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the game in Brent Grimes
, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2006 out of Division II Shippensburg. According to data kept by Pro Football Focus, Grimes ranks third in the NFL with an opposing completion percentage of 44.6 and he's first with just 79 yards allowed after the catch (on 25 receptions). Grimes has just one interception this season, but he had six in 2009 and five in 2010.
The Lions lost safety Louis Delmas
to a knee injury in the Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay, and that's a big reason why Detroit was torched for 342 yards and three touchdowns against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees
on Dec. 5 and 480 yards against Green Bay backup QB Matt Flynn
on Jan. 1. In fact, in the five full games without him, the Lions allowed 28.2 points per game and yielded 20 or fewer points just once. In the 10 full games with him, the Lions allowed 21.9 points per game and allowed 20 or fewer four times. Delmas isn't a playmaker — his only two career interceptions came as a rookie in 2009 — but he has the speed to erase mistakes and prevent manageable plays from becoming big plays.
Green Bay Packers
Besides the obvious offensive stars, which member of the Packers needs a strong postseason for the team to win another Super Bowl? The answer is Tramon Williams
, who hasn't been bad this season — Calvin Johnson
's domination last week notwithstanding — but hasn't picked up from where he left off last season. In 20 total games last season, Williams picked off nine passes. Three of those came in the playoffs, including a clinching interception in the final moments of the wild-card game at Philadelphia, his pivotal pick-six in the divisional game at Atlanta and his game-sealing breakup in the Super Bowl. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams allowed an opponent passer rating of just 43.8 in 20 games last season. Quarterbacks completed just 45.5 percent of their passes, and no quarterback completed more than 50.0 percent against Williams (when targeted more than once) over the final nine games. This year, he's allowed a rating of 79.8 on 56.6 percent accuracy. He has four interceptions — all coming in Weeks 9 through 11. This defense simply is not the air-tight unit it was last season. In lieu of that, the defense needs to steal possessions against a gauntlet of top quarterbacks.
New Orleans Saints
OK, maybe we're skirting our goal of naming the "not-so-obvious" players, but on a Saints offense defined by Brees and Graham, it's Darren Sproles who is going to cause some sleepless nights for defensive and special teams coordinators. Sproles set the NFL's single-season record with 2,695 total yards. Simply, he's a big-play machine: 87 carries for 603 yards (his league-high 6.9 yards per carry was a 1.33 yards ahead of second-place Cam Newton
); 86 catches for 724 yards (No. 2 in the NFL with 724 yards after the catch); 27.2 yards per kickoff return (No. 6); and 10.1 yards per punt return with a touchdown against Green Bay (No. 15 in average). Sproles' ability to provide great field position on kickoffs and turn 1-yard passes into 15-yard gains is what makes the Saints' offense so dangerous. For a defense like the top-seeded Packers, with inferior coverage ability from their linebackers, a matchup against Sproles would be a major headache.
New York Giants
The Giants' offense is loaded. You know the headliners: Quarterback Eli Manning
throwing passes to 2010 breakout star Hakeem Nicks
and 2011 breakout star Victor Cruz
, with electric Ahmad Bradshaw
and bruising Brandon Jacobs
in the backfield. Lost in the shuffle is tight end Jake Ballard
. Moreover, Ballard is an afterthought among the NFC playoff teams' tight ends, with the Saints' Jimmy Graham
(No. 1 among NFL tight ends with 99 catches), Lions' Brandon Pettigrew
(No. 3 with 83), Falcons' Tony Gonzalez
(No. 4 with 80), Niners' Vernon Davis
(No. 8 with 67) and Packers' Jermichael Finley
(No. 14 with 55 but No. 3 with eight TDs) all being big-time threats. In comparison, Ballard's contributions seem minor with 38 catches. But no tight end averaged more yards per catch than Ballard's 15.9. Nicks and Cruz put defenses in a bind, and Ballard is capable of making them pay.
San Francisco 49ers
Jr., a first-round bust with Miami in 2007, has salvaged his career with the Niners. Ginn, along with Green Bay's Randall Cobb
and Chicago's Devin Hester
, are the only players in the league with touchdowns on a punt return and a kickoff return. He's third in the NFL with a 27.6-yard average on kickoff returns and fourth with a 12.3-yard average on punt returns, and he's had a punt return of at least 18 yards in seven games. Because the Niners' defense is such a juggernaut, they are more than happy to play field-position football — with Ginn giving them a winning edge on a consistent basis. Ginn's deep speed hasn't been used much in the passing game (long of 26) but just his threat has opened up things underneath for receiver Michael Crabtree
and tight end Vernon Davis. After the 49ers dumped enigmatic receiver Braylon Edwards
in December, Ginn will likely start opposite Michael Crabtree at wide receiver and could become a key factor in San Francisco's passing game.