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NFL Playoffs: Which unsung hero will send his team to the Super Bowl?

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 16:18, 27 January 2022

No team makes it to this stage of the season exclusively on the efforts of its stars. When the NFL’s final four prepares to take the field with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, all eyes will be on the star, but there’s a good chance that the difference between victory and defeat will come down to work of some unsung heroes.

By the time the NFL’s conference championship games roll around, the headliners for each remaining team are household names. Heading list, of course, are the quarterbacks: Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo. Alongside them are the highest-impact skill position players – the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Deebo Samuel, Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, Odell Beckham Jr., and Travis Kelce. Then, of course, there are the defensive superstars: Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Bosa , Tyrann Mathieu.

However, every team in NFL history that’s ever contended for a title has gotten major contributions from players whose names don’t reside on the tip of every fan’s tongue. Sometimes, these players are stars in their own right, but are overshadowed by teammates, or are simply under-appreciated by pundits and observers. Nonetheless, when trophies are on the line, these guys have quite a bit to say. Ahead of this weekend’s AFC and NFC Championship games, we’re taking a look at potential unsung heroes for the four remaining teams.

C.J. Uzomah, TE, Bengals

The tight end position has changed dramatically over time. These days, NFL teams are keyed in on tight ends that are more hybrid wide receivers than de facto offensive lineman who can catch. Even so, genuine notoriety and a starring role at the position remains reserved for a select few. The prime example of the fame and fortune available to a tight end is Rob Gronkowski. A spectacular new arrival in the league, the Falcons’ Kyle Pitts, looks poised to enter the pantheon of superstar tight ends in fairly short order. Then, of course, there’s Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs,.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Kelce’s counterpart this weekend, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah. While Uzomah’s never found his way to the top of tight end pecking order, Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, he’ll have a genuine shot at a star turn. The seventh-year man out of Auburn has been a Bengal for the entirety of his entire career. Unfortunately, only two of Uzomah’s first six NFL seasons – 2018 and 2019 – were unmarred by injury. In those healthy seasons, however, Uzomah has proven himself a quality contributor, with 70 catches (on 104 targets), 681 yards (9.7 per catch) and five touchdowns.

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Limited to just two games in 2020, Uzomah returned for the 2021 season – now with an ascendant QB-wide receiver combo in Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in place – fully healthy, and turned in his best season as a pro. He started 16 games, catching a career-high 49 passes, at a career-high 77.8% catch rate, for a career-high 493 yards, and – you guessed it – a career-high five TDs.

That he’s the Bengals’ fourth-leading receiver (behind Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, with running back Joe Mixon in the, uh, mix as well) keeps Uzomah’s name out of the headlines. However, in addition to posting the best regular season catch rate among the Bengals’ top four receivers, Uzomah has delivered in the playoffs, with 13 catches on 14 targets, for 135 yards and a touchdown in Cincy’s wins over the Raiders and Titans.

In all likelihood, the bulk of the Chiefs’ defensive planning sessions have been focused on Burrow, Chase, Boyd, Higgins and Mixon. The door is open for an impact performance from Uzomah.

 

L’Jarious Sneed, CB, Chiefs

We spent the first half of the regular season fixated on the horrific struggles of the Chiefs’ defense. Certainly, analyses were done to determine what specifically was ailing – and potentially sinking – the defending AFC champs. At the same time, the consensus conclusion seemed to be that we were probably best served simply writing them off.

Of course, over the back half of the season, the Chiefs’ D has delivered as rather resounding message about the speed with which accountability, self-reflection, improved health and game-planning – in the presence of quality talent, of course – can turn a season around. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, this group rediscovered its groove – in a situation where, with Mahomes leading the attack, ‘not bad’ is pretty great – and has helped K.C. to a fourth consecutive AFC title game, one step away from a third straight Super Bowl appearance.

The lion’s share of credit in K.C. will (deservedly) always go to Mahomes & Friends. Defensively – to the extent that anyone really looks to credit the Chiefs’ D – credit tends to be directed toward Mathieu, Frank Clark and Chris Jones.

On Sunday, when faced with the task of shutting down arguably the best top three receiving combination in the NFL, second-year corner L’Jarious Sneed will be front and center. Whether straight up against Chase (or Boyd… or Higgins) or as part of a zone scheme, the Chiefs’ top corner will have a major impact. If Sneed can consistently win his individual matchup in man coverage and execute in zone, he’ll go a long way toward lessening the load on the Chiefs defense.

Arik Armstead, DE, 49ers

Had we done this exercise even a year ago, Arik Armstead would likely have been deemed overqualified to be a potential ‘unsung hero’. Armstead entered the 2020 season on the heels of a 10-sack, 11-tackles for loss Pro Bowl-worthy (though unrewarded) season. In the two season since, he’s missed neither a game nor a start for the 49ers. However, in that time, he’s managed a total of just 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and has been ushered out of the spotlight on the San Francisco defense.

Interestingly, however, according to Pro Football Reference’s ‘Approximate Value’ metric, which uses a formula to attach a single number value for the performance of each player, despite only ever topping six sacks and reaching double figures and tackles for loss the one time, Armstead has actually performed at a star level for each of the last four seasons. This season, Armstead got off to a rather slow start, recording just three sacks through the Niners’ first 15. However, he’s put a tally in the sack column (with six in total) in each of the last four games dating back to Week 16, highlighted by two and a half against the Rams, in Los Angeles, in a do-or-die scenario (sound familiar?) as the Niners battled to make the playoffs, and another two against Aaron Rodgers last week in Green Bay. 

Armstead possesses not only an incredible physique (he’s 6-foot-7, and 290 pounds), but the athleticism to make the task of blocking him a chore for any opposing offensive linemen.

Against a Rams offensive line that’s a bit banged up, with an inexplicably fumble-prone (last week in Tampa, at least) Cam Akers and a historically fumble-prone Matthew Stafford (74 in 182 career games), and Nick Bosa attracting more than his fair share of attention, Armstead should find ample opportunity to make a lot of noise on Sunday.

Tyler Higbee, TE, Rams

Tyler Higbee’s story is eerily similar to that of C.J. Azuma. The 6th-year man selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft is unquestionably one of the better tight ends in the NFL. However, given the proliferation of stars on the Rams roster – not only alongside him on offense, but also on defense, and even on the sideline, where his coach is a reputed offensive guru – Higbee has unjustly become something of ‘just a face in the crowd’.

Higbee is wonderfully consistent, having caught over 70% of the past is thrown his way over the past four years, for an average of 10.6 yards apiece, and 15 touchdowns. It is worth noting that this season Higbee’s average reception was only good for 9.2 yards (down from 11.8 a year ago), but given the composition of the roster, his role has been redefined somewhat. Nonetheless, this season Higbee enjoyed the second-best season of his career in terms of targets (85), receptions (61), receiving yards (560), and tied his career high in touchdown receptions (5).

Like Azumah, Higbee is a top-four receiver on the Rams (third, in fact). Howwever, with Cooper Kupp’s historic exploits, the irrepressible talent and stardom of Odell Beckham Jr., the consistent excellence of Van Jefferson, and the big-play ability of Robert Woods (who had 556 yards himself) and (to a lesser extent) DeSean Jackson, he’s not a guy whose name is going to appear in many headlines.

Like Azumah, Higbee has also quietly stepped up his game of late, with 29 catches, for 310 yards and two touchdowns over the last six (regular season and playoff) games. As the Niners scheme to try and shut down the Rams’ cavalcade of receiving threats, don’t be surprised if Tyler Higbee finds the space to make some huge plays.

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