New Orleans at Seattle, Saturday 4:30 PM ET
Saints X Factor: Drew Brees
With the loss of New Orleans' top two running backs in 2010, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, both of whom will miss Saturday's game due to injury, even more pressure will be put on defending Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees. If he can't get off to a quick start I don't see him having any trouble carving up Seattle's defense with quick, intermediate passes on the perimeter of the field. A couple of deep balls to Marques Colston could be a lethal weapon in the match-up with the league's 27th-ranked passing defense. On the road this season Brees has 16 TDs/10 INTs (6-2 record).
Seahawks X Factor: Lofa Tatupu
Without an active Ivory and Thomas available this Saturday, and Reggie Bush (150 rushing yards in eight games this season) making the start at running back, Seattle's defense has their work cut out for them. They know Brees will be throwing the football freely and that if they can force a couple of Brees turnovers they would give their offense a shot at putting points on the board. That's why its up to Seattle's defensive captain--and leader--Tatupu to keep his 'Hawks in the game and make sure they are focused on stopping the pass. Tatupu (58 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT this season) doesn't specialize is rushing the passer, but is a great coverage 'backer and is the backbone of Seattle's defense.
New York at Indianapolis, Saturday 8 PM ET
Jets X Factor: Brad Smith
The former quarterback out of Mizzou has had success against Indy before, in fact in last year's AFC Championship game he made a couple of big plays albeit in a losing effort. The Jets' defense as a whole will be a pretty big factor against the Hall of Fame-bound Peyton Manning, but the real x-factor I believe will be the elusive receiver/return man. He can be used with trick plays and formations such as the wildcat and pistol formation. Out of those two formations he has shown he can make an impact both running the ball and throwing it deep. Not only that, but he also has three career kick return touchdowns, two of which he ran back this season. Head coach Rex Ryan has several ways of using Smith, and he will most definitely incorporate him in to his game plan against Indy.
Colts X Factor: Dwight Freeney
We all know the Colts struggle stopping the run, and that the Jets will likely take advantage of that. It's so bad that the Colts may even just allow the Jets to run the ball and completely shut down Mark Sanchez's passing offense. Last year, when Indy knocked New York out of the playoffs in the Conference Championship game, then-rookie Mark Sanchez threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns (1 INT), yet the offense still only managed 17 points against Indy. With Freeney's nine sacks in 11 career playoff games, I don't expect him to lay off of Sanchez this week. Expect a couple of Freeney sacks, and a couple of New York turnovers at the expense of Sanchez, who still has a lot of maturing to do.
Baltimore at Kansas City, Sunday 1 PM ET
Ravens X Factor: Ed Reed
This past Sunday against the Bengals, Baltimore's free safety Ed Reed posted his 11th career two interception game. What's even more miraculous about this feat is that the Ravens are 11-0 when the seven-time Pro Bowler has at least two interceptions in a game. On the defensive side of the ball, it isn't nose tackle Haloti Ngata, veteran Terrell Suggs or even the seven-time first team All Pro linebacker Ray Lewis that KC's quarterback Matt Cassel needs to look out for. It's the roaming ball-hawk Ed Reed that needs to be contained.
Chiefs X Factor: Jamaal Charles
After reading what I wrote about Reed above, it's obvious that if Kansas City wants to win this game they will need to have success on the ground. With the league's top rushing attack, Charles' career-high 1,467 yards on the ground will surely be tested against Baltimore's fifth-best run defense, which allowed just 1,503 yards rushing all year. Despite topping the league in rushing yards, Kansas City struggled to get the ball in the end zone while running the ball. Kansas City will need to get the ball to Charles 25-30 times in order to have a shot at controlling the clock--and the game.
Green Bay at Philadelphia, Sunday 4:30 PM ET
Packers X Factor: Clay Matthews III
On defense, there's no doubt Matthews is the nucleus. After a solid rookie performance in '09 (36 tackles, 10 sacks, 7 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR TD), Matthews one-uped himself with an even better 2010 season, quickly making a name for himself. His 54 tackles, 13.5 sacks and interception landed him a second straight Pro Bowl selection. Not only have his numbers been solid, but he has also imposed fear in his opposition. Quarterbacks now need to know where No. 52 is at all times when they step on to the field. He's not all that large (6'3'', 246 pounds) in comparison to other linebackers, but his speed and strength is baffling. He is the Packers' key to containing Vick and keeping him inside the numbers. Once Vick bounces to the outside it is tough to stop him. Look for Matthews to be running sideline-to-sideline on Sunday.
Eagles X Factor: Michael Vick
Vick says he has recovered from his thigh injury and is "100 percent" ready to go on Sunday. But we should all still keep an eye on Vick's thigh. If Green Bay's defense is all over Vick he could re-injure his thigh at any moment. If he is ready to go like he says he is, though, Green Bay could be in for a long day. That's why, of course, Matthews is my X-Factor for Green Bay. The result of this game will vary depending on who shows up and is ready to play. If Vick can break out for a couple of big plays against Matthews' defense, Philly could take this one at home.
Lofa Tatupu and Jordan Babineaux: AP Photo/John Smierciak
Brad Smith: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Jamaal Charles: AP Photo/Ed Zurga
Clay Matthews: AP Photo/Morry Gash