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Biggest X-factors for conference championship games

Sportsnaut logo Sportsnaut 1/15/2019 Michael Dixon, Sportsnaut
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Video by NFL

The star players will justifiably get a lot of hype in the buildup to the conference championship games. But they won’t be the sole determining factors on game day.

While Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, look for another New Orleans Saints quarterback to put his stamp on the NFC Championship Game. While the Saints will be geared on stopping the great Aaron Donald, the performance of another Los Angeles Rams pass rusher could tell us a lot about who will go to the Super Bowl.

Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce will get a lot of attention both before and during the AFC Championship Game. But another Kansas City Chiefs pass catcher will have a lot to say about whether the Chiefs or New England Patriots represent the AFC in Atlanta.

Here are the unsuspecting X-factors for the conference championships.

Taysom Hill, quarterback, New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton clearly likes having Hill on the field. In situations where a quarterback run would make sense, he sends Hill out in the Wildcat. Only, Hill’s background as a quarterback means that the defenses have to respect the pass.

Hill does a lot of other stuff, too. With the Saints trailing 14-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles and facing a 4th-and-1 from deep in their own territory, Payton called for a gutsy fake punt (watch here), entrusting Hill to pick up the yards. If that failed, the Eagles would have been in position to at least go up 17-0 and probably would have won the game. But it didn’t fail.

When the NFC Championship Game is over, Hill isn’t going to have overwhelming stats. But he could well be an integral part of some of the game’s biggest plays.

Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, New England Patriots

Cordarrelle Patterson wearing a football uniform © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Patterson’s overall receiving (21 catches for 247 yards) and rushing (228 yards on 42 attempts) stats may not seem overwhelming. But 11.8 yards per reception and especially 5.4 yards per carry would indicate that he’s quite dangerous with the ball in his hand. If he gets going early, the Chiefs will have to respect him. That would open the offense up for the likes of Sony Michel, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.

Additionally, Patterson also averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return during the regular season. That was the third-best total in the NFL. If he’s strong in the return game, that would go a long way toward offsetting Kansas City’s high-powered offense. He may not be the biggest name in the AFC Championship Game. But the kind of performance Patterson has as a receiver, runner and return man could tell us a lot about who will win.

Related video: Patriots-Chiefs preview (Provided by NFL)

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Eli Apple, cornerback, New Orleans Saints

a person wearing a helmet © Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The move to New Orleans has generally been good for Apple. In his regular season time with the Saints, he defended nine passes and intercepted two. The defended passes were second on the team, while the interceptions were tied for the team lead. Not bad for a guy who was only on the team for 10 games.

Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks each topped 1,200 yards during the regular season. Todd Gurley is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL. Apple is going to be tested on Sunday. If he continues to play as he has since joining New Orleans, the Saints are in great shape. But if he looks lost, as he was for so many weeks with the New York Giants, that will be a highly favorable matchup for Jared Goff and the Rams to exploit.

Marcus Cannon, right tackle, New England Patriots

a baseball player holding a bat on a field © Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

When the Chiefs took on the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round, Justin Houston played and played quite well. He sacked Andrew Luck twice and was in his face all day. The Kansas City defense, which was rightfully scrutinized all year, allowed only 13 points. It’s the job of Cannon to be sure that the Chiefs don’t have a repeat performance on Sunday.

Houston didn’t play in the Week 6 meeting between the two teams. The Pats won, scoring 43 points in the process. He’s clearly an important part of the defense. If Houston dominates the game, and New England is kept to 13 points (or really anything under 24), expect the Chiefs to cruise to victory. But if Cannon can keep him in check, it’ll put a lot of pressure on the rest of the defense. Against Tom Brady, we wouldn’t expect that to go well for the Arrowhead faithful.

Thomas Morstead vs. Johnny Hekker

a close up of a baseball player holding a bat © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans’ Morstead and Los Angeles’ Hekker were among two of the NFL’s best punters this season. Morstead ranked sixth in the league in average yards per punt, while Hekker was seventh. Meanwhile, Morstead and Hekker were first and second in net punting yards.

Given the high-scoring nature of these offenses, the punting game might feel irrelevant, even with the skills of the two punters. But if this is a close game, the difference could well be whether a team is able to steal (or prevent the other team from stealing) points late in either half. That puts a great deal of emphasis on the punters.

Allen Bailey, defensive end, Kansas City Chiefs

a group of baseball players standing on top of a mountain © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bailey is a formidable pass rusher. But it’s easy to imagine Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels seeing him as the lesser evil when compared to Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones. That will mean a lot of one-on-one assignments for Bailey. His task will be making the most of the favorable matchups he gets.

If Bailey can get in Brady’s face, he’ll obviously be a disruptive force in the passing game, but he can also make quite an impact for himself in the running game. At the very least, he can really limit where Sony Michel and the rest of the New England backs can go. Even if the defense does well, the Patriots will likely have to score 30 points or more to win in Kansas City. If Bailey is winning his battles in the trenches, that will be very hard to do.

Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker, Los Angeles Rams

a person wearing a costume © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints are going to put a lot of emphasis on containing the Rams pass rush from the middle — namely Aaron Donald. That’s going to leave edge rushers like Fowler one-on-one. How he handles that could well be the difference in this game.

Without pressure on the quarterback, the Los Angeles secondary simply can’t hang with the New Orleans receivers. We saw that when the two teams played earlier in the year. If Brees is given time, the Saints might as well start making their plans for Atlanta. But if Fowler can get to Brees from the edge, he could force fumbles. He could force early passes, which lead to interceptions. If nothing else, one or two sacks — or even hurried passes on third downs — could force a couple of punts. In a game that promises to be high scoring, that could be all the difference.

Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

a group of baseball players playing a football game © Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Watkins caught eight passes for 62 yards in the Divisional Round win over the Colts. He’ll have a lot to say about who wins the AFC Championship Game. While Hill and Kelce aren’t going to be shut down, we can expect that Belichick will do everything he can to at least limit what they do. That’s going to create favorable matchups for Kansas City elsewhere on the field. One of those will be Watkins.

If Watkins exploits the favorable matchup and has a big day on Sunday, it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs losing. But if the Patriots can find a way to keep him in check, it will rely on Hill and/or Kelce to break the New England game plan specifically designed to limit them. We won’t say that’s impossible. But in Belichick’s time as a head coach and even defensive coordinator, it hasn’t happened much.

Related slideshow: Best of the NFL playoffs (Provided by USA TODAY Sports)

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