NFL

NFL Playoff X-Factors: Which Players Can Be Difference Makers?

Identifying an 'X-Factor' player for each playoff team that goes beyond the QB position.

January 9, 2024

To make a deep playoff run in the NFL, teams usually need their best players to play like it, as well as getting well-timed contributions from some secondary sources. Those latter contributors are often colloquially known as X-factors – players that could tip the balance of a game or playoff run in their team’s favor with a strong performance, or sink their team’s chances by folding under the bright lights of the postseason.

Below is one X-factor for every team, a list that includes numerous rookies ready for their taste of the postseason as well as veterans that have shown the ability to take over games.

AFC

Ravens — Zay Flowers

Lamar Jackson is just 1-3 in his playoff career, but this will be the first postseason run in which the dual-threat quarterback will be throwing to Flowers. The 22nd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft led the Ravens with 858 receiving yards as a rookie, while no teammate reached 600. Flowers got better as the season went on, scoring a touchdown in four of his last five appearances after finding paydirt only once in his first 11 games.

Second-year tight end Isaiah Likely has stepped up since Mark Andrews went down and he is also a potential X-factor, but Likely could see a substantial reduction in role if Andrews returns after Baltimore’s first-round bye.

Bills — Gabe Davis

Davis has earned the nickname “Big Game Gabe” with his previous postseason accolades, which include 201 yards and four touchdowns in the memorable overtime loss to Kansas City two postseasons ago, as well as 113 yards and a touchdown in a win over Miami last postseason. He went without a catch in four of the last seven regular-season games, but Davis had over 100 yards and a touchdown in two of those other three games, and he’s important to Buffalo’s offense even when he doesn’t get on the stat sheet — Davis is the best run blocker among Bills wide receivers.

A sprained PCL could threaten his status for the postseason opener, though the knee injury is viewed as relatively minor.

Chiefs – Rashee Rice

Kansas City’s shortcomings at wide receiver have been well-documented, but Rice has emerged as the team’s top option at the position during the stretch run of his rookie season. The 2023 second-round pick out of SMU posted 43 catches for 518 yards and three touchdowns over his last six games before sitting out the season finale.

This is arguably the best defense the Chiefs have had in the Patrick Mahomes era, Travis Kelce is still an elite tight end, and Isiah Pacheco has found success on the ground. The defending champs will be an awfully tough out if Rice can maintain his recent form or even continue his ascent in his first taste of the postseason.

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Texans — Dalton Schultz

Houston is banged up at wide receiver, so the Texans are going to need someone to step up behind Nico Collins and provide a secondary option for stud rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. Noah Brown (back) and Robert Woods (hip) both missed Houston’s pivotal regular-season finale, and Tank Dell (lower leg) is done for the year. If the injured receivers remain out, Collins (1,297) and Schultz (635) would be the only available players who had more than 219 receiving yards for the Texans in the regular season.

Schultz is also one of the few Texans with significant playoff experience; he has appeared in five postseason games with the Cowboys and scored three touchdowns across two playoff games last year.

Browns — Myles Garrett

Joe Flacco’s resurgence is a nice story, but the Browns will ultimately go as far as their defense takes them. Garrett is the leader of Cleveland’s vaunted unit and is among the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Pressuring the quarterback is essential for postseason success, and Garrett gets to the QB as well as anyone, having racked up 14 sacks in 2023 after consecutive 16-sack seasons.

Garrett had just three tackles across two games in Cleveland’s 2021 playoff run — though one was a sack — so Garrett still needs to prove himself under the bright lights of the postseason.

Dolphins — De’Von Achane

Speed is the name of the game for Miami, and while Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert and Jaylen Waddle would never admit it, Achane might just be the fastest guy on the team. The rookie third-round pick certainly has the least tread on his tires out of that group. Achane handled just 103 rushing attempts in the regular season but averaged a whopping 7.8 yards per carry en route to 800 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

Achane added three receiving TDs as well, showcasing good hands to go with his burst. Achane played a sizable role even when the Dolphins’ playmakers were healthy, but he could prove even more important with questions over the availability of both Mostert (knee/ankle) and Waddle (ankle).

Steelers — George Pickens

Pickens doesn’t need many touches to break a game open, as he proved by racking up 195 yards and two touchdowns on just four catches in Week 16. His 18.1 yards per catch led all qualified receivers in the regular season, and Pickens topped 100 yards five times, though he also failed to exceed 25 yards five times and had his effort called into question on numerous occasions.

Pittsburgh’s offense was at its best down the stretch with Mason Rudolph under center, but with star defender T.J. Watt (knee) ruled out for the Wild Card round, Pickens and the offense will likely have to step up even more for the Steelers to make a run.

Check out our Super Wild Card Round Preview and Best Bets here.

NFC

49ers — Jake Moody

The 49ers have a rock-solid core of Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle on offense, as well as an elite defense, but there are more questions about their special teams units. Moody is a rookie, and he’s largely been untested under pressure given all of San Francisco’s lopsided victories this season.

The 24-year-old kicker out of Michigan has missed only four field-goal attempts as a pro, but one of those misses came on his most important kick of the season, pushing a go-ahead 41-yard attempt wide right in the final seconds of the 19-17 Week 6 loss to Cleveland. The margin for error in the playoffs is slim, and Moody’s leg could be the difference between the 49ers’ first title since Super Bowl XXIX or another disappointing postseason defeat.

Cowboys — Brandin Cooks

Defenses are going to do all they can to make someone other than CeeDee Lamb beat them through the air after he finished in the top three in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches in the regular season. All the attention on Lamb should lead to plenty of 1-on-1 opportunities for Cooks, who has six 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. T

he 30-year-old wideout had a modest 657 yards this season, but he scored eight touchdowns. This will be only the third trip to the playoffs for Cooks in his 10-year career, with both of his previous postseason runs resulting in Super Bowl losses.

Lions — Amon-Ra St. Brown

This will be the first foray into the playoffs for St. Brown, who topped 100 receiving yards nine times in the regular season and finished on a four-game touchdown streak. Standout rookie tight end Sam LaPorta injured his knee in Week 18 and could miss some or all of Detroit’s playoff run as a result, potentially leaving St. Brown as the only available Lion who averaged over 40 receiving yards or more per game this season.

For the Lions to pick up their first playoff win since the 1991 season, the third-year wideout will almost certainly have to lead the way in the passing game to complement the one-two punch of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs on the ground. 

Buccaneers — Chris Godwin

The switch from Tom Brady to Baker Mayfield under center was an upgrade for Mike Evans, who tied for the league lead with 13 receiving touchdowns while posting his highest reception (79) and yardage (1,255) totals since 2018. Godwin took much longer to get on the same page with Mayfield, as his two receiving scores in 2023 marked his lowest total since his rookie season in 2017. The duo finally seemed to click down the stretch, as Godwin’s 365 yards over the last four weeks helped him exceed the 1,000-yard threshold for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

For the 9-8 NFC South champions to prove their spot in the playoffs is more than just the product of playing in the NFL’s weakest division, Godwin will need to keep building on his recent momentum in the postseason.

Eagles — D’Andre Swift

During their 10-1 start to the season, the Eagles were running all over the opposition. Jalen Hurts often finished the job with goal-line tush pushes, but Swift was consistently helping Philadelphia get in scoring position. Swift had 79-plus scrimmage yards in six of the Eagles’ first 11 games, including 305 yards on the ground combined between Weeks 2 and 3. During the team’s 1-5 rut to close the season, Swift reached that 79-yard mark only once.

With wide receivers A.J. Brown (knee) and DeVonta Smith (ankle) banged up, establishing the run will be all the more important for the Eagles, as getting Swift going is the key to controlling the clock and keeping the team’s much-maligned defense off the field.

Rams — Kyren Williams

Standout rookie wideout Puka Nacua has deservedly gotten plenty of attention alongside the established star duo of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp in the passing game, but Williams’ rushing contributions have been arguably even more important to the Rams’ success. The Rams are 8-4 when Williams plays, and he racked up 1,144 rushing yards and 15 scrimmage touchdowns in those 12 games.

After a breakout sophomore regular season, Williams could ascend to mainstream NFL stardom with a big playoff run.

Packers — Jaire Alexander

Nobody on the Packers reached 800 rushing yards or 800 receiving yards, so Green Bay lacks the star power on offense to keep pace in an NFC playoff field in which every other team had a player top 1,250 receiving yards. Slowing down those star receivers will thus be pivotal for the Packers, and they luckily have a player capable of doing just that.

Alexander was limited to seven appearances by a shoulder injury this season, but the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had five interceptions in 2022 and has reached double digits in passes defensed four times in his six-year NFL career.

Sasha Yodashkin
Sasha Yodashkin has been contributing NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and Tennis content to RotoWire since 2015, with an emphasis on DFS. He is a huge New York sports fan who has been playing fantasy sports since middle school.
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