When it comes to National Football League playoffs, the only thing history’s proven is that nothing is a certainty. Just look at last weekend’s wild-card round — the Indianapolis Colts rallied from 28 points late in the game to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cincinnati Bengals continued a streak of playoff losses second to none, and some of the coldest football ever was played. The question isn’t what will happen next in this weekend’s divisional round, but what can happen next.
With eight teams left, there’s a plethora of talent that’ll be showcased on Saturday and Sunday. The usual suspects — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Frank Gore — are a given. But every year, there seems to be a small group of unheralded players who step up when it matters most. They might not be star quarterbacks, but it’s these players who turn a good team into a great one. Here are five lesser-known players to watch for this weekend. This list is not ranked in any order.
1. Keenan Allen (wide receiver, San Diego Chargers)
This 21-year-old rookie receiver has proved to be much more than expected this season. Drafted during the third round of last year’s NFL draft, Allen was considered a quality player but not an elite one. Coming into the season, San Diego was thin at receiver. It seemed inevitable that someone was going to fill the void left by the departure of Vincent Jackson, and Allen proved to be Philip Rivers’ new go-to guy.
Besides veteran tight end Antonio Gates, Allen had the most targets (105) and receptions (71) on the team, and his 1,046 receiving yards led even Gates. What he lacked in experience, he easily made up for with his ability to stretch the field and receive the deep ball from Rivers. The Denver Broncos secondary, the Chargers’ upcoming opponent, has been anything but impressive this season. In what could be a potential shootout, look for Rivers to air it out early and often with Allen on the receiving end.