By now, you know the big names. Patrick Mahomes. Joe Burrow. Nick Bosa. Jalen Hurts. Brock Purdy, and the countless other stars who the world will be watching this weekend.
But as we often see on during championship weekend, sometimes the unsung heroes change the course of football history. Last year, for example, a pair of sacks from Cincinnati Bengals pass rusher Sam Hubbard forced the Kansas City Chiefs to settle for a field goal at the end of regulation, setting the stage for Cincinnati’s overtime win.
Who are the unsung heroes that could deliver their team to a Super Bowl this weekend?
D.J. Reader, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
When D.J. Reader departed the Houston Texans to sign with the Bengals in free agency, two of those he left behind were crestfallen: then-Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, and then-Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt.
They knew how pivotal Reader was on the inside of their defense.
That continues now with Reader in Cincinnati. He might not put up huge numbers — he recorded 27 tackles over his 10 games in the regular season — but what he does is the engine that starts the Bengals’ defense. Plays like this one against Kansas City in Week 13, where he uses a two-gap technique, peeks into the backfield, and stops this running play before it can get going:
Or later in that game, where he rocks the left guard off the snap, resets the line of scrimmage, and scrapes off to make the tackle:
Reader is a huge part of what the Bengals do on offense, and if Mahomes’s mobility is limited, what he offers as an interior penetrator could be critical for Cincinnati. Take this play from last week against the Buffalo Bills, and watch as Reader wins almost instantly off the snap with a swim move against the left guard, flushing Josh Allen from the pocket early in the down:
If the Bengals are going to slow down the Chiefs’ offense, it will start with Reader.
Joe Thuney/Trey Smith/Creed Humphrey, Kansas City Chiefs
So ... let’s flip that around.
When the Chiefs have the football, your eyes might want to stay on the interior, where Reader will likely clash with Chiefs center Creed Humphrey. In just his second season in the NFL, Humphrey has established himself as one of the league’s premier centers, and he was named a Second-Team All-Pro selection earlier this month, his first All-Pro selection.
Depending on the concept or the protection call, Humphrey may often find some help in the form of left guard Joe Thuney, or right guard Trey Smith. The more that Humphrey can handle Reader on his own the better, which will free up Smith and Thuney to help elsewhere, but again, when the Chiefs have the football, you will want to keep your eyes on the battle in the interior.
Harrison Butker K, Kansas City Chiefs, and Evan McPherson, K, Cincinnati Bengals
Much has been made of the fact that the Bengals have won the three most-recent meetings between these two teams.
All three wins were by three points.
In Week 17 last year, McPherson converted from 20 yards out on the game’s final play to give the Bengals a 34-31 victory. He then sent Cincinnati to Super Bowl LVI with a 31-yard field goal early in overtime in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
Earlier this season, McPherson drilled a 41-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to cut a Chiefs’ lead to 24-20. Joe Burrow then connected with Chris Evans from eight yards out to give Cincinnati the win by a final score of 27-24.
Given the history between these two teams, and the expectations that this weekend will be another close game, both McPherson and Butker could play pivotal roles.
Mike McGlinchey, RT, San Francisco 49ers
We all saw it.
Near the end of the first half on Sunday, Dallas Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons burst into the backfield off the right edge, used a Reggie White-like hump move against San Francisco right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and tossed the right tackle aside on his way to 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
It became a near-instant meme:
Watch @MicahhParsons11— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2023
: #DALvsSF on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/WBXF8YHjXz pic.twitter.com/ZD9Q4mbWQd
The task ahead of McGlinchey, and the rest of the San Francisco offensive line, is handling another fearsome pass-rushing unit. The Eagles pressured quarterbacks on 25.5% of their plays this year, second only to Parsons and the Cowboys. Philadelphia’s pressure comes often with just four rushers, as their blitz rate of 22.1% ranks them 18th in the league. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, the Eagles pressured quarterbacks 203 times in the regular season with four rushers or fewer, the sixth-most in the league.
That worked out to a pressure percentage of 34.6%, fourth-most in the league.
Diving into those pressure numbers a little deeper, the Eagles have pressured quarterbacks over the right side of the offense on 19.8% of their snaps, fourth-most in the league this season.
With Trent Williams locking down the left tackle spot and playing at a very high level, Philadelphia’s pressure might have to come from the other side of the field. How McGlinchey fares Sunday might be the biggest storyline of the game.
Kadarius Toney, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
At the end of October, the Chiefs acquired Toney from the New York Giants via trade. Toney, a former first-round pick, had fallen out of favor in New York, and the acquisition gave Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy another potential weapon for their offense.
In limited action this season, Toney caught 14 passes for 171 yards and a pair of touchdowns and added another score on the ground. There is an argument to be made that, more than anything else, Toney is a piece for the Chiefs’ future, not their present.
However, last week was his first NFL playoff game, and he saw a season-high seven targets, catching five of those for 36 yards. Toney also had one rushing attempt for 14 yards.
Those are not world-beating numbers, but given that Toney missed the Week 13 meeting between these teams with a hamstring injury, he could truly be an X Factor against the Bengals this weekend.
Quez Watkins, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
A good way to approach weekends like this is to put yourself in the shoes of the coaches involved. What do you want to accomplish on offense? What do you want to take away as a defensive coordinator?
Take 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Entering this weekend you have a lot on your to-do list. You need to find a way to limit Jalen Hurts, both in the passing game and in the running game. You have to contain A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. You’re worried about what Dallas Goedert can do as a weapon in the passing game.
That’s a lot.
If, however, Ryans has some success in those areas, that opens up an opportunity for the Eagles to have a counter-punch of their own. That could be Quez Watkins, the Eagles receiver who operates primarily out of the slot. If the 49ers are successful at taking away some of Hurts’ primary targets in the passing game, that could open up opportunities for Watkins to deliver on plays like this one against the Indianapolis Colts:
C.J. Gardner-Johnson, DB, Philadelphia Eagles
Earlier this year, the Eagles traded for Gardner-Johnson, right before the season began. Since entering the NFL, Gardner-Johnson has been used in a variety of roles, both as a cornerback, as a safety, and down in the slot.
This weekend could see another role for him: TE eraser.
How defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon defends the 49ers’ 21 personnel package, with matchup nightmares such as Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey in the fold, is a huge story to watch in this game. Of course, George Kittle is part of that personnel group, and finding a defender to handle Kittle, when the Eagles play man coverage, is part of Gannon’s task this week.
Gardner-Johnson might be the answer. Earlier this season, in games against Pat Freiermuth and the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as Logan Thomas and the Washington Commanders, Gardner-Johnson often drew the task of covering those tight ends in man coverage. On this play from Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys, you find Gardner-Johnson in man coverage against the tight end down in the end zone, locking him up in the slot:
If Gardner-Johnson indeed gets the Kittle assignment, how he fares will be a huge part of Sunday’s clash.
Deommodore Lenoir and Charvarius Ward, CBs, San Francisco 49ers
As noted above, DeMeco Ryans has a lot to worry about this weekend, starting with wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
But what if he did not have to worry about them as much ... ?
That leads us to the starting cornerbacks for the 49ers, Deommodore Lenoir and Charvarius Ward. San Francisco is primarily a zone-coverage team. Sports Info Solutions charted them with 384 passing attempts against them during the regular season while in zone coverage (defined by SIS as Cover 2/3/4 or 6), which was second-most in the league. Conversely, the 49ers faced just 104 attempts against them in Cover 0 or Cover 1, the fifth-fewest in the league.
Now, those categories simplify things a bit, and even in some of their zone coverage schemes, whether Cover 3 or Quarters, things can play out on the outside like man coverage in a hurry. How Lenoir and Ward fare against Brown and Smith is a huge storyline heading into Sunday’s meeting.