The games may not have been as competitive from start-to-finish as viewers may have liked, but the divisional round of the playoffs still offered up a lot of great and memorable moments. It also provided some remarkable performances by players who either defied odds or tore up opposition with remarkable efficiency.
Here’s a look at 10 of the biggest standouts of the NFL’s divisional round.
Sean Payton, head coach, Saints
The Saints fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter of their game against the Philadelphia Eagles and didn’t appear to be getting any closer to making the breakthrough until, at Payton’s direction, they engineered two game-changing moments. Going for it on 4th and 1 from the New Orleans 30 was not an easy decision, and Payton called for a fake punt that caught Philadelphia flat-footed enough to succeed. That kept the second quarter drive moving all the way to the goal line, when the Saints went for it on 4th and goal from the two to score their first touchdown of the game. It’s anyone’s guess how the game proceeds if that drive ends scoreless, but Payton’s bold calls helped permanently shift momentum.
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The mood in the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room following the team’s win over Atlanta on Sunday was not what you would have expected.
Some sad news swept the locker room as a family member informed Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup that his brother had died. 247 Sports’ Mike Fisher, who reported the news, says the brother committed suicide.
Other reporters described the atmosphere as somber.
Cowboys locker room somber because of tragedy involving someone connected to one of the players, per owner Jerry Jones
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) November 18, 2018
Gallup, 21, is in his rookie season after being drafted in the third round out of Colorado State. He is from the Atlanta area and said he was expecting two brothers as well as friends and former coaches to attend the game. He is the youngest of eight children, six of whom were adopted.
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- Michael Gallup
Just because a rookie is selected highly in the NFL Draft doesn’t mean he will be an immediate impact player. Don’t be surprised, for instance, if none of the first-round quarterback selections are starting for their teams in Week 1. That’s not a blanket rule, though — many players will be expected to contribute early and often to their new teams.
There’s a big difference between contributing and excelling, though. Here are ten rookies who have a good chance to do the latter in their rookie seasons.
1) Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Barkley is walking into a rather envious position. He’s on a team that still has aspirations of contending. They have a veteran quarterback and an offense where he’ll be expected to have a big role. If you believe the scouting reports on him, he’s as NFL-ready as any draft pick, and he’ll get an immediate chance to show it. It’s an open question whether the Giants will be any good, but whatever they do, Barkley will be at the center of it.
2) Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Broncos
Chubb is another rookie who’s walking into a great situation. Widely considered the best defender in the draft, he’s headed to a Denver team that has prided itself on a strong defense during this recent era of success. He’ll get to learn directly from Von Miller and be part of a fearsome pass rush. A lot of rookies of this caliber go to teams that are otherwise bereft of talent, but that’s not so in Denver. Playing alongside top quality talent could help him develop more quickly.
3) Quenton Nelson, OG, Colts
You may not always notice the rookie guard’s contributions, but they’re going to be immense and immediate. Nelson is more or less assured a starting spot on a Colts offensive line that hasn’t been good. He’s about as NFL-ready as they come in any context. Nelson could be a Pro Bowler very early in his NFL career if things go well. He’s that good already and has that much potential to get even better, and will be afforded every opportunity to.
4) Derwin James, S, Chargers
As long as James is healthy, this could turn out to be the steal of the draft. He’s headed to a team whose defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, has a history of getting the best out of players like this. James is also a top ten talent who fell further than many expected in the first round. The Florida State product is a skilled and versatile defender who has a very good chance of making a big impact in the NFL from day one.
5) Roquan Smith, LB, Bears
The draft’s best pure linebacker, Smith will be handed a big role immediately in a moribund Chicago defense that is just looking for a spark. Expect him to provide it. The speedy linebacker had 137 total tackles in 2017 and will look to wreck opposing offensive gameplans very quickly as he starts his career. His immense physical tools alone should make him an impact player from day one, and he’s another guy that could contend for some awards early in his career.
6) Denzel Ward, CB, Browns
The Browns received a fair amount of criticism for taking Ward No. 4, which seemed like a reach to some critics. Perhaps it was, but the bottom line is the Browns badly needed help in the secondary and Ward will have the opportunity to prove his worth right away. That’s something that not even the first overall pick Baker Mayfield can bank on. Ward is also a talented young cornerback who can have a long NFL career as a starter, and he’ll be trusted to do the job early on.
7) Vita Vea, DL, Buccaneers
Vea is in a pretty nice situation himself. He’s still a work in progress, but the Washington Huskies product will likely be paired with Gerald McCoy up front. He’ll be told to use his physical gifts to stuff the run, and he’ll probably be good at it. He has room for improvement, but Vea should be an impact player on the defensive line from day one. Being paired with an accomplished veteran who can help cover some of his flaws and spotlight what he’s good at should make him look even better.
8) Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Dolphins
The rookie from Alabama is so versatile that it’s a question of where the Dolphins will utilize him, not when. Fitzpatrick can play pretty much anywhere within the secondary. He can cover in the slot, roam as a safety, and he can even get after the quarterback as a blitzer. He may not defend the top target on any other team, but Fitzpatrick is certainly good enough to walk into the NFL and cover slot receivers at worst.
9) Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills
Edmunds is another player whose combination of speed and versatility will ensure that he has a spot on the field somewhere. He finished last season with 109 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and it’s fair to say that the Bills will be looking for the linebacker to mature into something similar at the NFL level as well. He can play on the edge or on the inside, and the Bills will look to find a spot for him early so he can wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
10) Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys
Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Gallup was not a first-round pick, and he’s flying under the radar. However, the wide receiver is going to have opportunities that even he may not have envisioned when the Cowboys selected him in the third round. Dez Bryant was released, Jason Witten has retired, and Dak Prescott is going to need to find targets somewhere. That could be Gallup, a rookie with very good speed and size who could have a significant early role in the Dallas offense as it moves into a new era post-Bryant and Witten.
Late December and early January are heaven for college football fans. We’re set to watch 38 bowl games, plus the College Football Playoff, all in the span of three weeks. Many of these games are exciting matchups between quality teams, and one key player could make the difference in all of them.
Here’s a look at the most important player to watch in each of this season’s slate of bowl games.
Celebration Bowl — Lamar Raynard, QB, North Carolina A&T
Raynard is without a doubt one of the best players in the country you’ve probably never heard of. The junior quarterback led the Aggies to an undefeated season that they’ll be looking to cap off with a win over Grambling State. Raynard is the catalyst, having thrown for 2,707 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 games thus far this season. NC A&T just produced a dynamic NFL player in Tarik Cohen. Perhaps Raynard could follow in his footsteps.
New Orleans Bowl — Brandon Silvers, QB, Troy
A four-year starter at quarterback, Silvers will be playing the final game of his career at the Superdome. He’s statistically one of the nation’s most accomplished quarterbacks, having thrown for 67 touchdowns and over 10,000 yards in his career. He’ll surpass 3,000 yards passing in this game for the second consecutive season, and he’ll want his sendoff to be a fitting one as he closes out his career.
Cure Bowl — Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky
- Baker Mayfield, Bradley Chubb, Brandon Peters, Brandon Silvers, Brent Stockstill, Bryce Love, Christian Kirk, Courtland Sutton, David Sills, Derrius Guice, Devin Singletary, Drew Lock, Ed Oliver, Frank Nutile, Ito Smith, Jalen Davis, Josey Jewell, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Justin Herbert, Kelly Bryant, Kerryon Johnson, Khalil Tate, Lamar Jackson, Lamar Raynard, Luke Falk, Malik Rosier, Mason Rudolph, Micah Kiser, Michael Gallup, Mike White, Paddy Fisher, Quinton Flowers, Rashaad Penny, Riley Ferguson, Sam Darnold, Saquon Barkley, Spencer Brown, Sutton Smith, Taylor Lamb