AFC impact players during Wildcard weekend
Whitney Mercilus (59) of the Houston Texans played great against the Oakland Raiders, getting to Connor Cook often and effectively. He will have to do much of the same and more against Tom Brady to try throwing him off his game at least a little. Photo Cr

AFC impact players during Wildcard weekend

In the first round of the playoffs, several players from both the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers helped their respective teams move to the next round. With matchups against tougher opponents, these players have to step up much like they did during Wildcard weekend.

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Youssef Machkhas

Quick recap of the AFC Wildcard round: the Houston Texans defeated the quarterback-depleted Oakland Raiders 27-14 while the Pittsburgh Steelers used an early lead and several key turnovers on long Miami Dolphins' drives to beat them 30-12. Players on both the Texans and Steelers had major impacts to push their team to victory. 

Houston Texans

Whitney Mercilus

The outside linebacker kept Raiders' quarterback Connor Cook on his toes with his pass rush. Mercilus had a great game, getting seven tackles, of which 3.5 were for a loss, and two sacks. He was all over on defense, whether it was getting to the quarterback or stopping the run for short or negative gains. With J.J. Watt gone, Mercilus has stepped up to replace his defensive impact and keep the Texans a threat on that side of the ball.

When the Texans face the New England Patriots, Mercilus is going to have to have a good game and get to Tom Brady. The only way to make him not play out of his mind is to rush him, which will be hard against an offensive line allowing 1.5 sacks per game, good for fifth in the league. Mercilus, with the help of Jadevon Clowney, must find a way to pressure Brady to give the Texans a chance to pull one of the biggest football upsets ever.

Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, A.J. Bouye

The three cornerbacks did a great job shutting down both Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, limiting Cook's two primary options. As a trio, they got 16 tackles, seven pass deflections, and an interception. Because of their tight coverage Crabtree and Cooper only got four catches for 43 yards in total off 17 targets. As a rookie quarterback in his first start, Cook was looking at his star receivers to help him, but the Texans' corners did a great job shutting them down.

If the Texans try rushing Brady by blitzing, Joseph, Jackson, and Bouye have to lock up Julian Edelman and new signee Michael Floyd. They cannot allow any big plays, since that will demoralize the front seven trying to get to the quarterback and contain the run.

Jonathan Joseph (24) and A.J. Bouye (21) both had a great game covering Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, two of the best receivers in the league and Connor Cook's primary targets. They will need to play even better to not give Tom Brady any good looks next week. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Images.

DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins isn't getting nearly as many targets as he did last year. And when he does, a lot of the passes are thrown desperately in tight coverage or inaccurately. On Saturday, however, Hopkins made the most of his nine targets, with five catches, 67 yards and a touchdown. That's a nice average of 13.4 yards per catch. 

He's definitely the most reliable target for Brock Osweiler and the quarterback has to go to him often to produce some type of passing game against the Patriots. Look at him to have a big game this coming week.

Honorable Mentions

Clowney for his early interception and pass deflection, Osweiler for not being horrible, Ryan Griffin for helping Osweiler get in rhythm early.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Le'Veon Bell

The best running back in the league had a huge game against the Miami Dolphins. He ran 29 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He found holes in the defense when it looked like there weren't any and turned that into huge gains and scores. He was the team's main offensive option.

Next week against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back will face a similar poor run defense: the dolphins were 30th in rush yards allowed per game in the regular season, the Chiefs were 26th. The best aspect of the Chiefs' defense is causing mistakes in the passing game through pressure and interceptions, so Bell will have to run well, early, and often to free up a somewhat mistake-prone Ben Roethlisberger and give him more time. 

Le'Veon Bell (26) ran all around the Miami Dolphins' defense on Saturday. To help minimize Ben Roethlisberger's mistakes against a Kansas City Chiefs' defense that capitalizes on them, Bell will have to have another great game this coming week. Photo Credit: Bacarri Rambo/USA TODAY Images.

Antonio Brown

With Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton out due to injury, and Martavis Bryant out due to a season long suspension, Antonio Brown has become Roethlisberger's primary target. This would normally make it easy on defenses to focus on just one wide receiver and lock him up, but Brown has still managed to torch opponents, like he did against the Dolphins, getting five catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Those two touchdowns were short passes turned into long gains because of Brown's speed and talent.

Coates might be available against the Chiefs, but if he does play, he may still be hurt. Therefore, Roethlisberger will, once again, target Brown on most of his passes. If Bell is unable to open up the passing game by running circles around the Chiefs' defenders, Brown will have to get open.

James Harrison 

The 38 year old linebacker had a monster game against the Dolphins. He recorded ten tackles, three of which were for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and forced a fumble on a crucial Dolphins' drive that could have led to a score (check out the video below). 

Dolphins' quarterback Matt Moore had a great game minus a few major mistakes, especially as a second string that was getting knocked around throughout the game. However, Harrison helped stop him with his constant pressure.

The Chiefs' offense relies on minimizing mistakes, playing smartly and efficiently to get points. Harrison will have to introduce some chaos in order to easily stop their offense. As a veteran and leader, he can help by not only playing well but also pumping the rest of the defense up. Even if he doesn't have the greatest game on paper, Harrison will have a major impact on the next game. 

Honorable Mentions

Lawrence Timmons for getting to quarterback Moore often, as well as leading the team in tackles. Roethlisberger completed a high number of his passes, but had two interceptions, one being a very bad mistake.

If you would like to check out our recaps of the Texans-Raiders game and the Steelers-Dolphins game, click here and here, respectively.  

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