Originally posted on The Sports Daily  |  Last updated 1/9/15

A healthy Rob Gronkowski could mean the difference between victory and defeat for the Patriots this weekend. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

By Mike Batista

NFL teams need more than just elite players to win championships. Role players have to step up when called upon as well.

There will be opportunities for these types of players to make an impact in this weekend’s slate of games.

Some of these NFLers are instantly recognizable, but they’re certainly not the biggest stars on their respective teams. Some of them are cagey veterans. Others are rookies.

Let’s take a look at one X-factor on each NFL team heading into the Divisional Round.

Baltimore Ravens Elvis Dumervil, OLB

The Ravens are hoping for some Elvis sightings Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

Elvis Dumervil, third in the NFL with 17 sacks during the regular season, must get in Tom Brady’s face to prevent him from picking apart the Ravens’ shoddy secondary.

Dumervil had two sacks in the Ravens’ 30-17 wild-card win at Pittsburgh. Brady gets rid of the ball quicker than Ben Roethlisberger, but the Patriots aren’t invincible when he’s sacked multiple times in a game.

The Jets sacked Brady four times in the Patriots’ 17-16 win in Week 16. Brady also was sacked four times in the season opener, a 30-20 loss at Miami, and twice in a 41-14 loss at Kansas City in Week 4.

The Raiders sacked Brady twice at New England in Week 3 and stayed in the game until the final minute before losing, 16-9.

In four of the five games in which Brady has been sacked more than once during the team’s 2014 campaign, the Patriots have either lost or struggled to win. And Dumervil has seven multiple-sack games this season all by himself.

New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski, TE

The consensus is that the Baltimore Ravens are the Patriots’ worst possible playoff matchup.

Even Ben Affleck is nervous.

Who can blame him? Joe Flacco is 2-1 against the Patriots in the playoffs, and the Ravens’ pass rush can be tougher on Brady than Gisele when he doesn’t take out the trash.

But both of the Ravens’ postseason wins at Gillette Stadium have come when the Patriots were without Rob Gronkowski. The tight end was still at the University of Arizona when the Ravens beat the Patriots 33-14 in the 2009 wild-card game. Gronkowski was out with a forearm injury when the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the 2012 AFC Championship game.

This year, Gronkowski is healthy and leads the Patriots with 1,124 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. He can neutralize the Ravens’ pass rush by getting open on intermediate routes. The 6’7″, 265-pounder can counter the Ravens’ physicality by knocking a few defenders over for yards after the catch. He’s third among tight ends in the NFL in that category, and is also the league’s 10th-best pass-blocking tight end, according to Pro Football Focus.

Gronkowski will appear in a playoff game for the first time in almost two years. The last time he didn’t miss a game in the playoffs, the Patriots played in Super Bowl XLVI.

Indianapolis Colts Dan Herron, RB

Everyone is expecting a dizzying offensive display Sunday in Denver. But even if it turns out to be an air show, the Colts will need some ground delivery from Dan Herron.

The 5’10”, 212-pound rookie fumbled twice in the Colts’ 26-10 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Colts won’t be able to survive those gaffes against the second-seeded Broncos.

The Colts and Broncos are tied for ninth in the NFL with 41 sacks. So both teams will have to grind out at least a few yards on the ground to neutralize their opponent’s pass rush. Herron is no C.J. Anderson, but he needs to make the Broncos respect the run threat.

Four of the Colts’ five losses this season, including a 31-24 decision at Denver in the season opener, came before Herron was a significant part of the offense. Herron has carried the ball at least seven times and caught at least two passes in every game since Week 12, and the Colts have lost just once during that span.

Herron ran for 56 yards and a touchdown, and doubled his career high with 10 receptions last week against the Bengals. He needs to keep up that production and hang onto the ball in Denver.

Denver Broncos Bradley Roby, CB

If the Broncos can stop Dan Herron with their No. 2-ranked run defense, Andrew Luck will be forced to air it out.

Luck will look for T.Y. Hilton a lot, but Hilton likely will be covered by Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. So Luck will try to exploit the matchup between a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver and a rookie cornerback.

All Bradley Roby had to do in his first NFL game was cover Reggie Wayne. According to Pro Football Focus, Roby allowed Wayne to catch three balls for 51 yards on six passes into his coverage in the Broncos’ 31-24 win over the Colts in Week 1.

Roby intercepted two passes, including one thrown by Tom Brady, and broke up 13 passes in his rookie season. He also forced two fumbles.

Luck threw for 34 more yards this season than Peyton Manning (4,761-4,727) and one more touchdown pass (40-39). But Roby will play a big role in making sure that Luck has to wait at least one more year to match Manning with a Super Bowl ring.

Carolina Panthers Roman Harper, SS

Just like the Seahawks in 2010, the Panthers made the playoffs with a losing record and won the home wild-card game that comes with winning a division title.

The Seahawks aren’t a Cinderella story anymore. They don’t have to take advantage of a weak division to get into the playoffs. They’re no longer  underdogs. In fact, they’re favored by 10.5 points in their upcoming matchup with the Panthers.

So how does a team that finished the regular season 7-8-1 beat the defending champs? By winning the turnover battle, and Roman Harper knows a little something about that.

The 32-year-old Harper was a member of the 2009 New Orleans Saints team that finished the regular season with a plus-11 turnover differential, then forced eight turnovers while turning the ball over just once in the playoffs on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIV.

Harper didn’t have any interceptions for the Saints in 2009, but he leads the Panthers this year with four picks. The Panthers haven’t lost a game in which Harper has had an interception.

The first came in their season-opening, 20-14 win at Tampa Bay. The second came in a 31-24 win at Chicago in Week 5. He had another one the following week when the Panthers tied the Bengals 37-37 at Cincinnati. Those were the only two games in October or November that the Panthers didn’t lose.

Carolina won its last four games and clinched the NFC South title. The Panthers forced nine of their 26 turnovers in December, and Harper returned an interception for a touchdown to help the team win the division with a 34-3 win at Atlanta in the regular-season finale.

The Panthers will need at least one game-changing play on defense to pull off the upset and silence the “12th Man”.

Seattle Seahawks Paul Richardson, WR

Of the 29 passes Paul Richardson caught in his rookie season, 19 have come in the last six games.

The second-round draft pick will have to continue to contribute Saturday night. While no team runs the ball better than the Seahawks, the Panthers have allowed 100 or more rushing yards only once in the last eight games, including their 27-16 wild-card win over Arizona. The Panthers held LeSean McCoy to 19 yards at Philadelphia in Week 10.

That stout run defense helped the Panthers win their last four games after a 3-8-1 start.

The Seahawks defeated the Panthers 13-9 at Carolina in Week 8, rushing for 119 yards. Marshawn Lynch ran for 62 yards in that game and Russell Wilson rushed for 35 yards, both well below their averages.

The Panthers will be without defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who is out with a broken foot. But he also missed two games during the regular season and the Panthers allowed 86 rushing yards against Atlanta and 92 rushing yards at Minnesota. The Panthers will focus on stopping the heavily-favored Seahawks from running the ball and will test their 27th-ranked passing offense. Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse were the Seahawks’ two leading receivers this season with 66 and 38 catches.

If Carolina loads up the box to stop Lynch, keeps Wilson contained in the pocket and concentrates on covering Baldwin and Kearse, there will be opportunities for Richardson to get open.

Dallas Cowboys Tyrone Crawford, DT

Tyrone Crawford almost didn’t play in the Cowboys’ NFC wild-card game against the Lions because of an allergic reaction after eating lobster, according to ESPN.com.

The Cowboys had better hope he’s not allergic to bratwurst.

Dallas hasn’t lost on the road this season, but Green Bay hasn’t lost at home. Making the task even more challenging for Crawford and the Cowboys is the fact that Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since Week 13 of the 2012 season.

Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter is tied for third in the league with five interceptions, but to get the ball in his hands the Cowboys will have to pressure Rodgers. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey is the Cowboys’ co-leader with six sacks and leads the team with 37 quarterback hurries according to Pro Football Focus. But he’s questionable with a head injury.

If Mincey can’t go, Crawford needs to fill the void. The 6’4″, 285-pounder had three sacks during the regular season and batted down a Matthew Stafford pass Sunday on the Lions’ final drive. Crawford has hurried quarterbacks 27 times this season and will need to show why PFF ranks him as the Cowboys’ best overall pass rusher.

Green Bay Packers Morgan Burnett, SS

DeMarco Murray set a Cowboys single-season record with 1,845 rushing yards this season. If he can help grind out long drives, Aaron Rodgers will get awfully cold on the Lambeau Field sidelines. And the Cowboys would have a shot at their first NFC Championship game appearance since 1995.

The Packers defense ranks 23rd against the run, allowing just under 120 rushing yards per game. Morgan Burnett is not only the Packers’ leading tackler, but also the league’s top defensive back with 94 solo tackles. He’s fifth overall in that category. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is next on the team with 66 solo tackles, but he doesn’t even rank in the top 50 league-wide.

It’ll be up to Burnett to make sure Murray doesn’t move the chains.

Murray has been taking better care of the ball after losing five fumbles in the first eight weeks of the season. The Packers, however, lead the NFL with a plus-14 turnover differential, including nine forced fumbles. If they can remove the ball from Murray’s hands, they’ll give Rodgers a chance to pick apart the Cowboys’ defense.

This article first appeared on The Sports Daily and was syndicated with permission.


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