Quarterback is arguably the most important position in all of sports.
The NFL conference championship games on Sunday will be a proving ground of that supposition. But there are 10 other players on the field. All four teams left playing have stars on both sides of the ball. Any of the 53 players on the roster can be the reason their team advances to the Super Bowl or goes home.
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A handful, though, will play pivotal roles in their team’s pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy. These players aren’t necessarily stars. But each team has a (non-QB) X-factor that will have to step up for their team to make the Super Bowl.
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San Francisco 49ers: Fred Warner
The man in the middle for the San Francisco 49ers defense has a lot on his shoulder every game as the leader of the unit. But the first-team All-Pro will have to excel against the run and the pass for the 49ers to slow down one of the league’s top offenses.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and his mobility give the opposition plenty to worry about. But if Warner can effectively spy Hurts while helping out in coverage, as he did on Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb in the divisional round, the Niners have a chance at slowing Philadelphia down.
Philadelphia Eagles: C.J. Gardner-Johnson
Niners quarterback Brock Purdy has shown poise for a seventh-round pick turned playoff starter. His weapons on offense – receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle – have helped relieve the pressure on him.
Cornerbacks James Bradberry and Darius Slay will have their hands full. But safety C.J. Garnder-Johnson will have to step up, too, particularly if he draws Samuel and Aiyuk, both of whom could line up in the slot. Gardner-Johnson was tied for the league lead with six interceptions, and he missed time with a lacerated kidney.
Purdy has been careful in the postseason and hasn’t turned the ball. A big play from Gardner-Johnson could change that and flip the turnover margin toward Philadelphia.
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Cincinnati Bengals: Jackson Carman
A few weeks ago, Jackson Carman was buried on the depth chart. He’d played four snaps on offense all season. Then more than half of the Bengals’ starting offensive line went down, including left tackle Jonah Williams.
Carman, who blocked for Trevor Lawrence with the Clemson Tigers in college, took over against the Baltimore Ravens and started last week in Buffalo. In 2021, his first season as a pro, the second-round pick switched from tackle to guard and started six games. However, he did not live up to expectations, and the Bengals went to free agency to address offensive line issues in front of Joe Burrow.
Carman rose to the occasion against the Bills but the Chiefs have a better pass rush, with Frank Clark on the outside and Chris Jones on the interior. He’ll have to keep Burrow clean again for the Bengals to make their second straight Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jerick McKinnon
From Week 9 until last week’s divisional playoff win, Patrick Mahomes targeted McKinnon 54 times, and the two connected 43 times for eight touchdowns through the air. Not bad for a running back.
McKinnon’s emergence has added another element to Andy Reid’s offense, along with some highlight-reel plays. Isiah Pacheco is still the primary ball-carrier for Kansas City, but McKinnon gives defenses another element to account for in the passing game.
However, despite a season-high 11 rushes for McKinnon last week (25 yards), he did not receive a single target, the first time that’s happened all season. It also snapped his streak of seven straight games with a touchdown.
During the Chiefs’ Super Bowl 54 run, running back Damien Williams played a key role in the offense down the stretch. McKinnon could produce similarly during this stretch.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.