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#pounditTuesday, January 25, 2022

10 NFL players who can carry their teams to the postseason

Marcus Mariota Titans

The NFL season is already halfway complete, which means the margin for error is getting slimmer by the day for teams teetering on the cusp of playoff contention. Many of those teams will need one or more players to step up if they want to reach the postseason.

With the exception of the NFC West, where the Los Angeles Rams and their 9-1 record have a comfortable lead over the Seattle Seahawks, most divisions are up for grabs. Here are 10 players who can help carry their teams to a postseason berth over the second half of the season:

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans

Mariota played poorly for a stretch earlier this season, but it seems obvious that his struggles were a product of his elbow injury. Over Tennessee’s past two games, Mariota has a passer rating of 122.5 and has thrown for 468 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His accuracy has improved with his health, and the Titans won back-to-back games because of it. Sunday’s win over the Patriots was a statement victory, and it was one of Mariota’s best games of the season. Fans have been waiting patiently for the former No. 2 overall pick to make the leap, and we may finally be witnessing him doing just that.

James Conner, RB, Steelers

Le’Veon Bell is officially not going to play in 2018, and most players in Pittsburgh’s locker room are probably fine with that. Conner has taken on a workhorse role in Bell’s absence and already has over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. He’s been the exact type of dual threat out of the backfield that Bell has been for the past several years, and that should continue as long as the concussion he suffered last week is nothing too serious. Conner’s 10 rushing touchdowns rank third in the NFL behind only Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara. The Steelers are going to keep feeding their second-year back, and their offense will continue to be as dangerous as any in the AFC as long as Conner continues to deliver.

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears

The 2018 season has really been the “Tale of Two Trubiskys” in Chicago, and the better of the two looks like a guy who could carry his team to a division title. Trubisky has five games this season where he has thrown for 220-or-fewer yards. Four of his seven interceptions came in those games, and he failed to eclipse the 200-yard mark in two of them. In the other four games, Trubisky has thrown for 316 or more yards with 14 touchdowns compared to two interceptions. How’s that for inconsistency? Game script has had a lot to do with Trubisky’s up-and-down performance this year, but he has done enough to prove he is capable of throwing the Bears to victory. Chicago will be tougher to beat if the second-year QB does that with regularity.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers

The Panthers have finally taken the training wheels off of McCaffrey in recent weeks and allowed him to become a true workhorse back, and boy has he delivered. The former No. 8 overall pick is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, which is pretty impressive for someone who has had to defend his ability to run between the tackles. In addition to racking up nearly 300 total yards from scrimmage over the past two games, McCaffrey has scored seven touchdowns in three games. A Carolina team that has dealt with inconsistency on offense in recent years appears to have a new MVP, and his name isn’t Cam Newton. Riding McCaffrey may be the Panthers’ best chance of catching the Saints in the NFC South.

Julio Jones, WR, Falcons

Jones is having a career-year in Atlanta, and it seems like no one is really talking about it. A lot of that could have to do with the fact that he did not score his first touchdown of the year until Week 9, but Jones already has more than 1,000 yards receiving with seven games remaining. He’s capable of putting the Falcons on his back in any given week, especially if Matt Ryan continues to find ways to get him the ball in the red zone. Jones is arguably the most difficult receiver in football to cover when he’s on his game, and there are few bigger assets than him in the NFC.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings

Cook has battled hamstring injuries all season, but he was able to return before Minnesota’s bye last week and give fans a preview of the type of impact he can make. The former Florida State star rushed for 89 yards on just 10 carries and added another four catches for 20 yards. While Latavius Murray filled in admirably for Cook while he was out, the Vikings’ offense is much more dangerous with Cook healthy. The NFC North race is one of the tightest in football, and a fully healthy Cook gives Minnesota another playmaker in an offense that is loaded with them.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots

Gronkowski has been a shell of himself through the first half of the season, and injuries have clearly played a role in that. The star tight end missed New England’s two games leading up to the bye with back and ankle ailments, and the hope is that he will return fully healthy in Week 12. However, more than a few people feel that Gronkowski is simply breaking down and not fully focused after openly contemplating retirement during the offseason. For evidence of how important Gronk is to the Patriots’ offense, just watch the film from their blowout loss to the Titans last week. Even when he isn’t catching passes, Gronkowski demands double teams and opens things up all over the field. Tom Brady doesn’t need Gronk on the field to win games, but his presence would go a long way toward earning a first-round playoff bye.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans

If you want to know how the Texans have ripped off six consecutive victories after beginning the season 0-3, look no further than the way their quarterback has played. Watson got off to a bit of a slow start after returning from offseason ACL surgery rehab and had trouble protecting the football, but he has not thrown an interception in three games. He played some of his most efficient football in two recent wins over the Dolphins and Broncos, and the results have reflected that. We knew Watson could not sustain his remarkable pace from last season when he first became the starter in Houston, but it’s clear the Texans are going to go as far as he’ll take them.

Aaron Jones, RB, Packers

The Packers have been in desperate need of consistency in their backfield in recent years, and Jones looks ready to provide it. After being suspended for the first two games of the season and not having a huge role when he returned, Jones has seen his workload steadily increase over Green Bay’s past three games. He’s averaging a whopping 6.8 yards per carry and coming off a 145-yard effort against the Dolphins in which he scored two touchdowns. If Jones can turn into a workhorse down the stretch, it would take a ton of pressure off Aaron Rodgers. Some recent comments the two-time MVP made indicate he understands how important Jones can be for the Packers late in the year.

Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals

Mixon has shown no ill effects from the knee injury that forced him to miss time earlier in the year, and the 5-4 Bengals need him now more than ever. Star wide receiver A.J. Green is recovering from a foot injury and could be out until December, so Cincinnati’s passing game is almost certain to be less effective while he’s sidelined. That’s where Mixon, who is averaging 4.9 yards per carry in his second NFL season, can play a major role. He should receive plenty of touches over the next several games and could be leaned on more heavily in the passing game. Given how poorly the Bengals have played on defense, they’ll need Mixon to be at his best.

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