NFL X-Factors: WRs primed to be Divisional Round difference-makers

Follow The Money's Matt Youmans and Pauly Howard handicap and preview the big matchup this upcoming weekend, where the Chiefs host the Bills, where they think the winner will be in the Super Bowl.

Wild Card Weekend is officially in the books, which not only means we have a whole new slate of Divisional Round action to look forward to, but we can also do a quick accounting of what went on last weekend.

Looking back to the six wild-card games, only two contained any sort of drama. The Bengals scraped by the Raiders, the 49ers and Cowboys wrapped things up in bizarrely entertaining fashion, and every other game was a blowout from the first whistle.

One good piece of news: our six x-factors from last week performed quite well. They combined for 272 total yards from scrimmage split across 17 carries and 27 catches, along with six total touchdowns. Not too shabby – although, yes, both I and Cowboys fans everywhere wouldn’t have minded a Dalton Schultz touchdown. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

With the No. 1 seeded Packers and Titans now back in the thick of things, let’s dive right back in and examine some more x-factors whose play will largely determine which teams will be playing in the Conference Championship games.

Julio Jones, WR, Titans (vs. Bengals)
When it comes to the Titans, we know who the usual suspects are AJ Brown and Derrick Henry, the latter of whom has been out with a fractured foot since Week 8. If Henry can play on Saturday – he has now has a steel plate in his right foot – then the Titans offence will look mightily different compared to what we’ve been seeing over the second half of the regular season.

When it comes to Julio Jones, we don’t have to look back very far to see the incredible feats he’s capable of. Remember that insane sideline catch in Super Bowl 51? OK, I acknowledge that was almost five years ago, but even a slightly diminished Jones is still a threat. According to PFF, in eight games where both Jones and Brown play together, the former Atlanta Falcons star was second on the team in routes (206), targets (40), receptions (27), and receiving yards (401).

The Titans offence is still heavily skewed towards the run game, and with a few Bengals defensive linemen hurting (Larry Ogunjobi was put on injured reserve, while Mike Daniels suffered a strained groin and is likely out), it would track that Mike Vrabel and company will continue to pound the rock. After an injury-plagued regular season, keep your eyes open for a healthy Jones to prove himself in his first playoff game in Nashville.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 49ers (@ Packers)
Out in San Francisco, we have one of the more unique offences still remaining in the playoffs. Most offences will pass, pass, and then pass some more, Kyle Shanahan’s offence is in love with running the ball…even with his wide receivers! Deebo Samuel is far too prolific to be labelled an x-factor, but you can be sure he’ll be heavily involved in whatever the 49ers draw up for Saturday evening.

After both Samuel and matchup nightmare George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk presents an intriguing matchup for the Green Bay defence. In 17 games played in both regular season and playoffs, Aiyuk has seen five or more targets 11 times. Even better, he also sees quite a few targets down in the red zone, leading the team (10) inside the 20-yard line.

Eli Mitchell and the rest of the talented running backs will be active as well, but if the 49ers want to upset the Packers at Lambeau in January they’re going to need Aiyuk to be at his best – especially if Green Bay defensive coordinator Joe Barry pays Samuel extra attention.

Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Rams (@ Buccaneers)
Based on how the regular season started for Beckham Jr., I never would have guessed in a hundred years I’d be slotting him in here as a potential x-factor. He looked slower than he ever had, and it really seemed like the best years of his career had passed him by as he wasted away in Cleveland.

Well, it turns out playing with Matthew Stafford over Baker Mayfield is a pretty good cure-all. After Monday night’s thrashing of the Cardinals, OBJ has now caught six touchdowns in nine games as a Ram compared to seven touchdowns in two-plus seasons as a Brown. Pretty impressive stuff.

He really showed off his athleticism on Monday too. He burst off the line, outfoxed a Cardinals cornerback and used his expansive catch radius (as pointed out by future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald on the ManningCast) to reel in his first career post-season touchdown catch. For good measure, he also added a very accurate 40-yard throw downfield to returning teammate Cam Akers. Not too bad for a player who had been released mid-season.

While this version of Beckham may not be the exact one we all got to know back with the 2014 New York Giants, he’ll still be a good second receiving option for Stafford against the Buccaneers, a team that at times has struggled with their pass defence. With Cooper Kupp taking up the majority of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ attention, OBJ should be able to find some space to operate down in Tampa.

Gabriel Davis, WR, Bills (@ Chiefs)
I won’t lie to you, I was sorely tempted to pick Devin Singletary again. Not only is he a real Swiss army knife, but the offensive line is playing much better (especially along the interior) and they’ve incorporated a fullback into their blocking schemes on most run plays. Just check out where No. 41 is on Singletary’s second touchdown run of the game.

However, because we like to spice things up, let’s take a look at the receiving corps. We all know what the addition of Stefon Diggs has done for Josh Allen and this offence as a whole, but when we look at the secondary options, none stands out more than Gabriel Davis. Against the Patriots, Davis actually led all Bills receivers in total snaps (40) and ran the second-most routes on the team behind Diggs himself. Since the start of December, he’s caught five touchdown passes, and averages 6.5 targets per game, which clearly shows he has the implicit trust of Allen.

Even with Isaiah McKenzie plus veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley still out there, Davis's target share is enough to put him squarely in x-factor territory in what is sure to be a high-scoring affair at Arrowhead Stadium.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.