Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Ben Roethlisberger, J.J. Watt and the other star players got their teams to the playoffs.
With the season on the line, a lesser-known player often makes the difference.
Remember Malcolm Butler?
The Green Bay Packers won three road games as a sixth-seed in 2010 before they beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. They wouldn’t have advanced if it weren’t for a surprise performance in the wild-card round, when rookie James Starks had 123 yards rushing in a 21-16 win at Philadelphia after only running for 101 yards in the regular season.
Jermaine Kearse had seven catches and two TDs in 2013. But he caught the go-ahead TD pass in Seattle’s 23-17 win over San Francisco in the NFC championship game. The Seahawks went on to beat Denver in the Super Bowl.
So don’t be surprised if the big play this weekend comes from someone other than A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Russell Wilson or DeAndre Hopkins.
Here are potential unsung heroes for each team this wild-card weekend:
CHIEFS: Running back Spencer Ware. Charcandrick West became the primary back after Jamaal Charles went down for the season, but Ware had a better average (5.6) and more TDs (six). He’ll probably get fewer touches against the Texans, but should make the most of them. Look for Ware to get the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
TEXANS: Offensive lineman Chris Clark. He fills in for two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown, who sustained a season-ending injury in Week 17. Clark has a tough task going against Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, who returns after missing five games with a knee injury. Clark is no ordinary backup. He started four games this season and 21 over the previous two with Denver. He’s familiar with Kansas City and a strong game from him cold help the Texans advance.
STEELERS: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton. He was the fourth-leading receiver on the team. While the defense focuses on Brown and Martavis Bryant, Roethlisberger could look to him for a clutch catch or two. The Steelers are missing DeAngelo Williams, so expect them to pass, pass, pass against the Bengals.
BENGALS: Quarterback AJ McCarron. He isn’t an unknown because of the position he plays and the fact he won two national titles at Alabama. But he has only three career starts and isn’t expected to do much. His big-game experience could help him take a 1-0 lead over Andy Dalton in playoff victories.
SEAHAWKS: Wide receiver Tyler Lockett. The rookie gets overlooked behind Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. But he had six TD catches and returned one punt and one kickoff for scores. He can change the game on one return.
VIKINGS: Peterson’s masseuse. Peterson missed practices to rest a back injury suffered in a victory in Green Bay last weekend. He needs to be at his best for the Vikings to beat Seattle so whoever is taking care of his back has an important job.
REDSKINS: Running back Pierre Thomas. The veteran only joined the team last month and is behind Alfred Morris and Matt Jones on the depth chart. But Thomas has turned into a key third-down back and one conversion in a critical spot could help the Redskins knock off the Packers.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.