Elite players are a necessity to reach the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs. They are sometimes dominant ones who become essential to how their teams roll. Often these players are energy catalysts — not only do we fixate on them, but their teammates and coaches do, too. They boost the spirit and performance of others. They become a rock, a root.
These four players in this weekend’s matchups fit that bill. These four will be the most intriguing, mesmerizing players in these games. Watch these four incessantly.
Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker
Age 23, second NFL season, LSU
Jones made 108 tackles as a rookie last season and reached the Super Bowl, and followed that with 138 tackles this season to go with another playoff showing. He is smack in the middle of the Falcons defense. He runs less than 4.4 in the 40-yard sprint — receiver-like speed — and is just big enough (6’1, 222 pounds) to play smash mouth football.
His relentless speed and quickness separates him. His tireless hustle does, too.
The Falcons tossed him in instantly as a rookie and were amazed at how steadily he learned their defense and the pro game. Now he is playing with a natural edge. His ability to defend in pass coverage and adeptly run sideline to sideline to track ball carriers is superior.
When the Falcons play at the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday afternoon, Jones will face the only back to gain 100 rushing yards against his team (Jay Ajayi did it while with Miami before being traded to the Eagles). The Eagles also count on one of the most bruising backs in the league (LeGarrette Blount at 6’0, 250 pounds). This game requires Jones to be as stout as he is quick. Jones has shown he can do it.
Another Jones — receiver Julio — receives far more fanfare on the Falcons. But the fast, mobile, aggressive, and sweeping way that Deion Jones plays middle linebacker will color this matchup. He has a natural knack and nose for the ball. His play is the heart of the Falcons defense.
Adoree’ Jackson, Tennessee Titans cornerback
Age 22, first NFL season, USC
This rookie played the second-most snaps (1,260) in the NFL this season, with Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu playing only one more this season. Jackson drew the top-flight receiver in coverage each week, returned kicks, returned punts, and dabbled on offense. He is the only rookie cornerback this season who started all 16 games.
At 5’11, 185 pounds, his endurance is amazing and his skills extraordinary.
The Patriots know. In their playoff matchup on Saturday night in New England, they know they may be able to bait him, but also realize he has the make-up speed and tools to adjust on the fly and turn a play upside down.
Jackson will likely draw Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks. How Jackson handles that and how he literally handles gathering his kick returns is huge. He has muffed some kicks lately but his confidence is not shattered. He knows he is gifted.
Just watch him play, watch him run so effortlessly all game and compete. You will see it, too.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver
Age 29, eighth NFL season, Central Michigan
Torn calf muscle and wide receiver do not artfully mix. Receivers need legs like boats need water. They’ve got to have something to run on and Brown, for a startling stretch in this league, has been consistently zipping past defenses.
He missed the last three regular season games with that calf injury, yet still caught 101 balls for 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns. He earned his fourth straight All-Pro selection and his fifth straight Pro Bowl. He has a natural smile, a far-reaching aura, and a zig-zagging game that infuses Steelers’ performances. They are thrilled he is back, just in time for Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
How much is he back?
Is he 100 percent? Do lingering calf issues remain?
The Steelers need him in order to make the stalking Jaguars defense retreat. Every defense is concerned about passing bombs being tossed over their heads and, in Brown’s case, his catching the ball in space and darting for devastating yards after the catch. If Brown is in and healthy, the Jaguars will have to take a step back, first. If Brown is not a threat, that Jaguars first step will often be forward. As pesky as this Jacksonville defense is, that makes a critical difference.
Fun-loving, showman Antonio Brown always gains everyone’s attention.
After missing three weeks, with the impact he provides, in a game for such high reward, he must be tracked by all.
Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings cornerback
Age 27, fifth NFL season, Florida State
I saw each of the aforementioned players play at least once this season and visited with each and with their teammates and coaches about their impact.
None of them impressed me more than Xavier Rhodes.
This is the type of player every team needs. He is tough. He is talented. He is aggressive and confident. He loves the game. He communicates well. He cares. He makes winning plays.
He just earned his second straight Pro Bowl honor and his first All-Pro recognition. At 6’1, 218 pounds, he is lithe but physical and each week is assigned to the best opposing receiver. He held Antonio Brown to 62 receiving yards this season. He limited Julio Jones to 24 yards.
The Vikings own the league’s No. 1-ranked defense and often when you scrutinize, there is Xavier Rhodes getting his hands on the ball making a game-swinging play.
He draws the New Orleans Saints and artistic receiver Michael Thomas on Sunday in Minnesota. It’s another sterling matchup because Thomas is a beast (6’3, 212 pounds), a receiver with 22 catches of 20 or more yards.
But just watch the feisty attitude dispensed by Rhodes and how he goes about his craft and how it extends throughout the Minnesota defense. Rhodes is simply a baller.
His game, like the others on this list, should keep you gripped.