Come playoff time, all 53 players on every roster are going to be important and play some role. However, not all players are of equal importance. Some guys are going to do minor things to help a team win, while others are going to play major roles.
Here are the two players in the AFC Championship Game that are most vital to their team earning a victory and a spot in Super Bowl LI.
New England Patriots QB Tom Brady
Brady was bad in the divisional round against the Texans. In fact, he was so bad that if the Patriots had played a real playoff team they would have lost. Brady completed just 47.4 percent of his passes, his lowest in any playoff game in his career, and he threw a pair of interceptions after throwing two in the entire regular season. New England still scored 34 points thanks to three Texans turnovers and a return touchdown by Dion Lewis.
The Steelers aren't susceptible to the same mistakes the Texans made and in general have a much better offense (Pittsburgh ranked 10th in points scored this season; Houston was 28th). This means Brady is going to need to be, well, Tom Brady come Sunday.
It sounds strange saying that Brady needs to impose his will on this game since that's not typically an issue. But it was last week and could have led the Patriots' season directly down the proverbial drain.
On paper, New England is the better team. They should win. The key to earning the AFC Championship and a spot in Super Bowl LI is simply that the Patriots dominate the way we've come to expect, and that all starts under center.
If Brady struggles like he did in the divisional round, New England's road to the Super Bowl becomes much foggier.
If Brady is sharp, the Patriots win easily.
Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison
The Steelers dropped the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round despite not scoring a touchdown. While some of this is on the Chiefs offense not executing, an equal part falls on how well the Steelers defense played, and that was spearheaded by James Harrison.
Part of what makes the Chiefs offense tick is making everything perfect for Alex Smith. Smith is a capable passer but only when the conditions allow him to sit back and go through his progressions without having to move too much. Harrison was a big reason Smith was unable to do that consistently last week. The seemingly ageless linebacker led his team in tackles, notched Pittsburgh's only sack, had three tackles for loss and recorded a pair of QB hits.
Now Harrison and Co. travel to Foxborough where they'll have to make life difficult for Tom Brady. That's not an easy task, but the Texans pulled it off a week ago and held Brady to his second-lowest passer rating of the year. If Harrison's ability to step up and have another huge game for Pittsburgh is the key that starts the upset machine.
The Steelers offense is going to get theirs; it's just a matter of whether their defense can slow the Patriots down, and that starts with Harrison. If he impacts the game the way he did in the divisional round, the Steelers will be heading to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in Harrison's career.
Experiment 626. Coffee drinker and cat enthusiast. Pro-avocado. Anti-sac bunt. Habitual bat flipper. Alex Smith apologist. Yoenis Cespedes fanboy.