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NFL divisional playoffs roundtable: Which non-quarterback will make the biggest impact this weekend?

USA TODAY Sports

The spotlight of any NFL game almost always focuses on the quarterbacks. That becomes particularly true in the playoffs. With just eight of 32 teams left, this weekend's Divisional Round offers some compelling quarterback matches like future Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Tom Brady meeting in New Orleans and young stars Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson facing off in Buffalo.

Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes plays host to Baker Mayfield and likely season MVP Aaron Rodgers plays host to Jared Goff.

But this isn't tennis or match-play golf. Someone has to catch their passes, and someone has to try to stop them. 

So with that in mind, we ask our NFL staffers: Which non-quarterback will make the biggest impact in the divisional round games and how?

And here are their answers:

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill could make a huge difference against the Browns this weekend.

More:USA TODAY Sports' NFL divisional playoff picks: Do Tom Brady's Buccaneers or Drew Brees' Saints advance?

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Jarrett Bell

Tyreek Hill. The prolific Chiefs offense triggered by Patrick Mahomes can strike in so many ways, but no one reflects the versatility quite like Hill, who undoubtedly benefited from the bye in nursing the hamstring injury he’s been dealing with for a few weeks. That Hill is nicknamed “The Cheetah” states the case. He’s one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players in the NFL. That speed represents the fundamental issue the Browns will confront. He can strike at any time to burn you deep, forcing Cleveland to employ the deep safety help … or risk paying the consequences. Ask the Bucs, roasted for 13 catches, 269 yards and 3 TDs by Hill in late-November. Yet the Browns hardly possess the blitz-heavy schemes  Tampa Bay employs, which is why Kansas City’s creativity in using Hill to counter the expected deep coverage safety nets will be significant. Sure, the Chiefs can attack with tight end Travis Kelce down the seams (and elsewhere). They can pound away on the ground and work the flats with running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell. There are other capable wideouts. Plus, there’s the matter of Mahomes magic. He can just create stuff to break a defense. Yet Hill and his multi-layered threat have the tendency to open up the Chiefs offense that allows the other weapons to flourish. Andy Reid and O-coordinator Eric Bieniemy make it so tough to get predictable in defending Hill, using him on crossing patterns and along the boundaries, and out of the backfield on jet sweeps (and even fake end-arounds) that take further advantage of his speed. Two of Hill’s 17 TDs came on the ground. In short, he forces defenses to cover the width of the field in addition to the length of the surface. And maybe this will be the week when the Chiefs tap Hill for a spark as a punt returner. Hill has gone two seasons without netting a single yard as a punt returner, but If things get tight, add that to the list of myriad ways that the Cheetah can impact the divisional playoffs.

Nate Davis

Hard to find a more intriguing individual matchup this weekend than Los Angeles cornerback Jalen Ramsey locking (Rams) horns with fellow All-Pro Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers’ security blanket for the Packers. Adams’ seventh season was his best, but he’ll be challenged to release into his beautifully choreographed routes with the strong and savvy Ramsey mirroring (and obstructing) him. Adams averaged a league-best 98.1 receiving yards per game in 2020, but that figure dipped to 73.3 in Green Bay’s trio of losses. When the Pack won this season, Adams averaged 8.6 receptions but had roughly two fewer in defeat. Ramsey is the best player not named Aaron Donald on the Rams’ top-ranked defense and arguably the league’s preeminent lockdown man in coverage. So who will prove the most influential non-quarterback in the divisional round? I’m betting we’ll find out at Lambeau Field.

Jori Epstein

Bucs receiver Antonio Brown. It’s hardly breaking news Brown – seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro – is a special if volatile talent. In Tampa’s last five games (wildcard win included), Brown caught 27 of 36 targets for 264 yards and five touchdowns. But Brown’s import goes beyond mere production. He’s a reliable and efficient target for quarterback Tom Brady, whom the Bucs need to play a clean game to avenge two in-season losses against the Saints. During the regular-season matchups between New Orleans and Tampa, Brady’s offense ceded three turnovers in each game. In their last five games, all wins, they’ve turned the ball over twice total. Brown’s threat will give Brady more comfort to play a clean game. That comfort will enable Bruce Arians to beat the Saints for his first time in five tries as Tampa coach.

Mike Jones

Travis Kelce of the Chiefs. The Browns have some talented cornerbacks, but I really don’t know that they have anyone capable of neutralizing Patrick Mahomes’ dominating tight end. Kelce just wrapped up a career-best 1,416-yard, 11-touchdown-catch regular season, and seems primed for a big playoff opener. He has a touchdown catch in each of his last four games, and five of the last six. Look for Mahomes to go to him early and often as the Chiefs begin their march to what they hope is a second straight Super Bowl appearance.    

Lorenzo Reyes 

Stefon Diggs of the Bills. I’d argue he was the most impactful offseason addition of any team in the league, not counting quarterbacks. And even though the Bills struggled on third downs in their wild-card round victory against the Colts, it was Diggs’ big-play ability that helped clinch the game. Against the Colts, he led Buffalo in targets (nine), catches (six) and yards (128) and had a 35-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that gave the Bills a two-touchdown cushion that helped fend off a late Indy rally.

When I filled out my ballot for the AP all-pro team, Diggs was one of the easiest choices. He’s quick, a deep threat, has reliable hands, is a precise route runner and has the ultimate trust of quarterback Josh Allen. But what makes him such a valuable weapon is he constantly wins matchups against defensive backs when he’s in single coverage. That often forces defenses to commit more players to try to stop him, which helps open up the rest of the offense.