The 8 X-Factors Who Will Determine NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend Winners

Image courtesy of @ChefWaites

In football, there is usually one player in every game that can wind up having the most significant impact on the outcome. Think about in Super Bowl XXX as the Dallas Cowboys put the Pittsburgh Steelers to bed as the two biggest X-Factors in that game ended up being Neil O'Donnell and Larry Brown. O'Donnell for consistently being able to throw the ball to the wrong people and Brown for being in the right place at the right time twice.

Every player who puts on the pads and chinstrap hopes that they can be the next Larry Brown, Timmy Smith, Ricky Proehl or Nick Collins that can help get their teams to glory. Today on The Journal, we took each of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs and tried to predict who the next Larry Brown will be. We'll probably be wrong though.

Saints vs. 49ers, Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern

The Saints X-Factor, Jonathan Vilma: Drew Brees? No. Mr. Sproles? Nah. Mr. Colston? Nope.

The key to a New Orleans Saints victory over the San Francisco 49ers this weekend in the NFC divisional playoff game will be linebacker, Jonathan Vilma. When the 49ers hand the ball off to Frank Gore some 20+ times, someone is going to have to meet that guy in the hole: insert Vilma.

Vilma led all Saints linebackers with five tackles in their wild-card weekend win over the Lions, but the Lions would not dare run the ball as much as the 49ers will this weekend.

Vilma will have to play the role of run-stopper, forcing the 49ers to put the ball in the hands of Alex Smith and taking their chances there. If Vilma can get going and keep that 49ers defense at bay, pun possibly intended, then the Saints will punch their ticket to the NFC title game. - @Tr3y__

The 49ers X-Factors, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith: Simply put, the two most important players on the field Saturday afternoon for the San Francisco 49ers will be Smith and Smith. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith might be the best 1-2 defensive line punch in the league and they've only been playing one year together.

24.5 sacks amongst the two of you will do that.

Justin, who leads all defensive tackles with 7.5, has successfully made the transition from end to tackle. With the Saints being their usual aerial attack selves, the Niners will have to hope that Justin can get pressure up the middle and make Drew Brees move around in the pocket.

That's where Aldon comes in.

The rookie out of Missouri was just one sack away from breaking Jevon Kearse's rookie record for sacks in a season with 14. If Justin can get pressure up the middle, then look for Aldon to be San Fran's heat-seeking missile. If Brees is on the ground too much, the Niners could be playing next week. - @theSFjournal

Broncos vs. Patriots, Saturday at 8:00 p.m Eastern

The Broncos X-Factor, Demariyus Thomas: With all the attention on Denver's offense centered around you know who, Demariyus Thomas could actually prove to be the most important player on the Broncos. Sure, the defense will have to make life hell for Brady (easier said than done), but Tebow seemed to find a comfort zone last week going deep to Thomas. His role becomes even more important this week, mainly because Denver will have to put points on the board to even hang with the Pats. And with Eric Decker sidelined, it's a no-brainer who becomes the focal point of the offense. Plus, New England's secondary has been average, at very best, this year and if John Fox and that coaching staff do not continue to let the pill fly (what up, Ed!) on Saturday, they're about as good as crucified.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. - @JustinTinsley

The Patriots X-Factor, The Offensive Line: You probably expect me to say the X-factor for the Pats this week is the defense finding a way to stop somebody (most notably, the prayer man, the kneeler, aka Timmy 3:16). Nope. Maybe you think I should point out Tom the God and make him the X-factor? Nah. How about Wes Welker, the white lightning bolt? Get out of here.

The X-factor for the Pats is the same X-factor for the Pats every year. THE OFFENSIVE LINE. If the protection can keep Tom the God off the grass, it’s over, and it’s not close.

Ever since the shootout loss against Indy in 2006, the Pats have been ousted by the Giants, Ravens and Jets. Those three teams had a pretty good pass rush. Keep Tom clean. Keep Tom mean. - @mtrible

Texans vs. Ravens, Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern

The Texans X-Factor, J.J. Watt: In last week’s wild-card game between the Bengals and the Texans, the X-factor was J.J. Watt. The young man played lights out all game long. Some people can say they expected it, but his performance certainly surprised me. At the same time, Watt was a high draft pick this season, played a full year and he’s proven to be more than capable of making an impact and leaving his mark on the game.

His performance can also be attributed to the fact that the Texans were at home. Even though there may not be exact numbers that state that rookies play better at home than on the road, all it takes is watching the game over the years to solidify the credo that players, especially young ones, perform better in front of a favorable crowd.

With all that said, I expect Joe Flacco, a man who can be considered to, at the least, be a playoff veteran, yet is still a young man, to be the X-factor this weekend against the Texans. The motivation is there, as evidenced by his recent comments about how he’s viewed when the Ravens win, with him alluding that the media doesn’t give him is props when they do win. Also, the Ravens are playing at home, where they haven’t lost a game all season.

With all due respect to what the Texans have accomplished this season, I just don’t see them going into M&T Bank and coming out of there with a dub. For one, they’re simply not better than the Ravens. Two, this is when I think the loss of Matt Schaub will truly be evident, and the most important: the Ravens have a man under center who has given the masses the impression that he has something to prove, and this is the time where he will begin to do so. - @soulonice6

The Ravens X-Factor, Vonta Leach: Ray Rice finished the 2011 season as the league's second leading rusher with 1,364 yards on a team that has tried to implement more passing schemes and run the ball slightly less. The key has been efficiency, as from a yards per carry perspective, this is Rice's second-best year with a 4.7 ypc mark. The reason?

That would be Vonta Leach.

The three-time Pro Bowler has greatly helped a Ravens offense that averaged 3.8 yards per carry, which was fifth-worst in the league. Leach helped Rice get 101 yards versus the Houston Texans in their first matchup back in October, and that team was at full strength. This Texans team is a shell of its former self, and although they're still good, Rice running behind Leach should be able to find themselves in the AFC Championship next weekend. - @edthesportsfan

Giants vs. Packers, Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern

The Giants X-Factor, Brandon Jacobs: When you think of the New York Giants, there can only be one X – Factor and that man is Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs is, by far, the biggest runner to ever grace the NFL. Yeah there may have been some 250-pound and 260-pound guys listed at 235 during their careers, but never has there been a back weighing in at nearly 280 pounds on anyone’s roster.

The only problem with Jacobs is that he decides when he wants to play hard. He appears to get motivated by contract years, lack of playing time, or disrespect of another team's coach. When Jacobs makes up his mind that he wants to play, he is like a runaway night train and no one on defense wants to hit him. If the Giants are to upset the Packers this week, the Giants are going to need big things from their runaway night train. - @joesimtre

The Packers X-Factors, Ryan Grant and James Starks: We all know Aaron Rodgers is the probable MVP who steers the Green Bay ship, and we all know Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson are the key catalysts for an up-and-down Green Bay defense. But the real X-factor for the Packers could very well be the tandem of Ryan Grant and James Starks.

When Starks was healthy this year, he gave the Packers a home run threat out of the backfield with superior receiving skills. His status is questionable for Sunday. If he can go, it will be a big spark for an already potent offense. And whether or not Starks suits up — but especially if he can't go — Ryan Grant will be key as well to help neutralize a ferocious pass New York Giants pass rush, led by Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul. The more Green Bay can get from its running game, the less Pierre-Paul and his cohorts can tee off on Rodgers. And an seldom-touched Aaron Rodgers spells disaster for the G-Men. - @revpaulrevere

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