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10 most important players remaining in the NFL playoffs

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 1/16/2019 Grey Papke, Larry Brown Sports
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One of the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints or Los Angeles Rams will be crowned Super Bowl champions in less than a month, and it’s fun to think of which players might end up getting each team there. Many are obvious, but all are of vital importance. If these ten players play their best, it’s hard to stop them, and it’s easy to see how they can win a game for their team at the most important time of the year.

Here are the ten most important players left in the NFL playoffs.

10) Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

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Thomas had a dominant game against the Philadelphia Eagles, going for 171 yards receiving against the reigning Super Bowl champions. That means that whomever the Los Angeles Rams have covering him is going to be facing a very tough task, and it wouldn’t be any easier for any potential AFC opponent in the Super Bowl. Thomas is a favorite of Brees and a threat in every way, and if the Saints win the Super Bowl, expect him to be a big reason why.

9) Chris Jones, DE, Chiefs

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Traditionally, the best way to beat Tom Brady in the playoffs has been to rush and harass him with a good defensive line. The Los Angeles Chargers couldn’t do that last weekend, but perhaps the Chiefs will have better luck in the AFC Championship Game. Jones had 15.5 sacks for Kansas City, and they’ll be relying on him to bring the heat against Brady and New England. He’d be important in a potential Super Bowl against another elite offense, too.

8) Sony Michel, RB, Patriots

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Michel faces a tantalizing matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, whose run defense has been deeply flawed all year. He’s coming off a career game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and the expectation is that the Patriots will lean hard on the run against Kansas City. Michel appears to be rounding into form at the best possible time, with a vulnerable opponent coming up and a quarterback who’s a big enough threat to ensure that teams can’t just stuff the box and bottle him up.

7) C.J. Anderson, RB, Rams

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Make no mistake: Todd Gurley is important to this Rams team, too. But if C.J. Anderson is matching him yard-for-yard while going for 100 himself, the Rams’ offense takes on a different dimension. Anderson shocked the Cowboys with his 123 rushing yards, helping carry the Rams to a 30-22 victory. He’ll probably be employed in a big way going forward as long as he keeps on producing. It’s too early to call it sustainable, but an Anderson-Gurley two-headed monster presents a problem for every team left in the playoffs. And if the Rams can figure out Saints' secrets the way they did with the Cowboys, they’ll be unstoppable.

6) Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs

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The New England Patriots know a thing or two about tight ends who are matchup nightmares, but usually they’re the ones inflicting it. On Sunday, they’ll have to find a way to defend Kelce, who will exploit zone coverage and is capable of beating man as well. One of the best tight ends in the sport, Kelce will look to punish New England, and they’ll have to have a gameplan for him. The Chiefs have many weapons, but their star tight end is a unique one.

5) Jared Goff, QB, Rams

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Sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of Goff. On the surface, his stats are good — 32 touchdowns and over 4,500 passing yards. However, he wasn’t sharp against Dallas and was largely reduced to a game management role. That won’t do against New Orleans or against either remaining AFC team. His home/road splits are worth watching as well. The bottom line: When Goff plays well, the Rams usually win. He’ll have to be at his best however long the Rams keep playing.

4) Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

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It’s fair to say that the Saints — and neither potential AFC foe — has seen anything like the Rams’ dominant defensive lineman. New Orleans held him in check during their regular season meeting, with Donald not really impacting the game. That can’t happen again if the Rams hope to escape New Orleans with a win. If Donald isn’t getting into the backfield, pressuring Drew Brees, and blowing up plays, it’s easy to see the quarterback sitting back and picking apart the Rams’ secondary. He faces a big challenge Sunday.

3) Drew Brees, QB, Saints

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Once an NFL MVP candidate, Brees was seemingly passed by Patrick Mahomes late in the season as the New Orleans offense stagnated a bit. That doesn’t reduce his threat, though. Brees is experienced and one of the game’s elite passers. If given time to work, it’s hard to see how the Los Angeles Rams’ secondary stops him. Like every other quarterback left in the playoffs, if he plays well, it’s tough to see his team losing. He wasn’t completely sharp against the Philadelphia Eagles, and with what he hopes are two games to go, he’ll want to be much better.

2) Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

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Brady feeds on doubters, as was made clear in a postgame interview. And while the Patriots haven’t been written off quite as much as the quarterback might have you believe, it’s fair to say some people have been skeptical of their staying power in these playoffs. A motivated Brady is a frightening Brady, and he gets even more frightening facing a vulnerable secondary like Kansas City’s. Brady may not have the weapons he once had, but he still has enough to beat anyone on his day. Nobody in these playoffs has more experience in these spots than he does.

1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs

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Mahomes is definitely the most exciting quarterback left in the playoffs. No disrespect to anyone else, but his array of sidearm slings and no-look passes are unmatched by his rivals. Those alone don’t win you games, though, and Mahomes is going to have to come up big after starring in something closer to a supporting role against Indianapolis. The Patriots can play defense — ask Philip Rivers — and Mahomes will be relied upon to ensure the Chiefs move the ball and score enough points to hang with Tom Brady. A Super Bowl wouldn’t be any easier. However this plays out, the next one-to-three weeks represent the biggest challenge yet in his young career.

Related slideshow: Best of NFL playoffs (provided by USA Today Sports)

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