The NFL’s playoff field has been reduced to four teams, this championship game weekend promising to feature tightly matched opponents with little margin for error. The penultimate playoff round can also be a time when depth makes all the difference.
Who can forget when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC championship game in Pittsburgh, the former-franchise-quarterback-turned-TB12-understudy leading New England to victory one week before the Patriots would win their first Super Bowl? Or how about Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille, who forced “The Fumble” from Cleveland’s Earnest Byner just shy of the goal line to preserve Denver’s 38-33 win in the 1987 AFC title game.
Just a year ago, 49ers backup tailback Raheem Mostert rushed for a San Francisco playoff record 220 yards to go along with four touchdowns as the Niners whacked the Packers to secure the NFC crown.
Who might come off the bench this Sunday to propel his team to Super Bowl 55? Here are 10 second-stringers who could have a first-rate impact:
Bills WR Cole Beasley
Buffalo’s slot receiver has been fighting a knee injury that left him in street clothes for the regular-season finale and kept him out of the starting lineup in the wild-card round. Beasley didn’t even manage a catch in the divisional matchup with Baltimore after amassing a career-high 82 in the regular season. But with fellow receiver Gabriel Davis managing an ankle injury entering a game against Kansas City that could devolve into a shootout, Beasley, who was Josh Allen’s most productive target this season not named Stefon Diggs, may need to have a big day.
Bills CB Josh Norman
The veteran has a penchant for being involved in dramatic plays, whether he’s making them or surrendering them. Norman’s role has expanded significantly over the past six weeks, a stretch where he’s typically played about half the defensive snaps. He had a pick-six in Week 17 and forced a fumble last weekend against Baltimore. Given the Chiefs’ tendency to air it out, don’t be surprised if Norman winds up being in the spotlight.
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Buccaneers TE Cameron Brate
He’s only started twice all season but has produced far more than more-acclaimed Rob Gronkowski in the playoffs. Brate has eight catches for 130 yards this postseason, including a team-leading 50 yards in New Orleans last Sunday. He and Gronk could be highly effective options against Green Bay’s suspect linebackers.
Buccaneers WR Scotty Miller
His playing time plummeted in the second half of the season, coinciding with Antonio Brown’s activation. However AB’s knee injury means he won’t even travel to Green Bay. Miller surpassed 70 receiving yards four times in 2020, each occurrence prior to Brown joining the lineup. But with the Pack likely to focus on wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Miller should certainly have the opportunity to make his presence felt anew.
Buccaneers DL Vita Vea
A first-rounder in 2018, he’s started for most of his NFL career. Vea hasn’t played since Oct. 8, when he broke his ankle, but was recalled from injured reserve Friday. He’s unlikely to play a full complement of snaps Sunday, but the 6-4, 347-pounder can certainly make his presence apparent – against the run and by pushing the pocket against Green Bay, the league’s highest-scoring team.
Chiefs QB Chad Henne
The 13-year vet made his playoff debut last week, stepping in to lock down the divisional round victory against Cleveland with a few key plays after Patrick Mahomes went into the concussion protocol. Henne showed moxie and surprising mobility for a 35-year-old and has quite a suite of weapons at his disposal if Mahomes, who cleared the protocol Friday, has a setback. Of course the ideal reason for Henne to take the field would be in the event of a blowout, where he could reliably take a few game-ending kneel-downs.
Chiefs RB Darrel Williams
The third-year player made his first NFL start last weekend and turned in a season-high 94 yards from scrimmage against the Browns. Williams – a capable runner, receiver and blocker – could again be called on with fellow RBs Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) and Le’Veon Bell (knee) questionable to play against Buffalo.
Packers RB AJ Dillon
Expect the rookie and fellow backup Jamaal Williams to get their touches behind starter Aaron Jones – assuming Dillon’s quadriceps and Williams’ ankle don’t flare up Sunday. But keep a close eye on Dillon, Boston College’s all-time leading rusher. The 247-pound bulldozer was especially devastating against Tennessee at a snowy Lambeau Field in Week 16, rushing for 124 yards and a pair of TDs. Yep, snow’s in Green Bay’s Sunday forecast.
Packers OLB Rashan Gary
After a quiet rookie season, one of Green Bay’s 2019 first-rounders seems to be finding his niche in sub packages on passing downs. Gary has four sacks – 1½ against Rams quarterback Jared Goff in the Pack’s divisional-round victory – seven QB hits and a fumble recovery over the past six games. Brady could be an inviting target given some of the Bucs’ late-developing pass routes, and Gary could get to him, given he’s not a guy likely to command double teams.
Packers TE Robert Tonyan
He hasn’t started since Week 10, not nearly the blocker first-string veteran Marcedes Lewis is. But Tonyan has earned quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ attention through the air, trailing only All-Pro teammate Davante Adams in terms of receptions (52) and receiving TDs (11) this season. Tonyan chipped in with four catches and 60 yards against the Rams and could easily exploit a so-so Tampa Bay pass defense. His responsibilities might even expand further considering Lewis missed a day of practice this week with a knee injury.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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