Eight in the Box: Possible sleepers on wild-card weekend
Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season and beyond …
The NFL playoffs are a star-studded affair. But it’s often unheralded players who delivers some of the biggest moments.
Such was the case last season’s playoffs, when Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones, a relative afterthought in the offense during the regular season, stunned Denver with a late TD and then broke San Francisco’s back in the Super Bowl.
Which under-the-radar guys might play key roles on wild-card weekend? One possibility per team:
8. Quinton Patton, WR, 49ers: Deep sleeper here. Patton’s lone reception of 2013 came in Week 17 — a huge grab to help San Francisco past Arizona late. He’s not going to be option A, B, C, D or E in the 49ers’ passing attack … which means he might slip under the radar just enough to scorch the Packers if he’s given a chance or two.
7. Zoltan Mesko, P, Bengals: Back to the beginning at punter for the Bengals, who lost Kevin Huber on that vicious hit vs. Pittsburgh a few weeks back and decided Shawn Powell wasn’t cutting it. Mesko averaged 42.5 yards per punt for Cincinnati in Weeks 1 through 7, before being ousted for Huber. With San Diego-Cincinnati shaping up as a tight battle where field position will be key, Mesko has to be solid — especially if the snow and rain are coming down.
6. James Casey, FB/TE, Eagles: Casey has stolen reps from rookie Zach Ertz over the last quarter of the season, with the Eagles leaning on LeSean McCoy. Casey’s more of an H-back than Ertz, and he’s certainly a better blocker. But he’s not just a blocker. Though he caught a mere three passes this season, Casey hauled in 31 grabs for the Texans in 2012. The playoffs have a way of making random players into offensive stars, and Casey fits the criteria.
5. Rafael Bush, S, Saints: Assuming Bush can play this weekend (he missed practice with an ankle injury), the Saints could use him as they did in Week 17, dropping him at safety when they want to use Malcolm Jenkins as a slot corner. With Kenny Vaccaro out for the season, the Saints do not have as much depth in the secondary as they’d like heading to the playoffs. Getting some production out of Bush would be helpful.
4. Griff Whalen, WR, Colts: After T.Y. Hilton, which Colts receiver does Andrew Luck trust most? Probably this guy right here. Whalen caught just 24 passes during the regular season, but he did so on 39 targets — a 61.5 completion percentage that ranked behind only Reggie Wayne and the sparsely-used Da’Rick Rogers at WR. He’s a player that the Chiefs may not game plan specifically for but could burn them should they forget to account for him.
3. Micah Hyde, CB, Packers: Should Hyde get on the field Sunday, it likely will mean he’s being asked to cover either Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin in the slot. So, no pressure. A fifth-round pick in last year’s draft, Hyde has been a pleasant surprise in the Green Bay secondary. Pro Football Focus actually rates him as the Packers’ third most-effective defender overall this season.
2. Ladarius Green, TE, Chargers: San Diego’s other tight end, outside of Antonio Gates. He averaged 22.1 yards on 17 receptions this season, while scoring three touchdowns. At 6-foot-6, Green creates matchup problems much in the same way Gates does. And when they’re both on the field, Cincinnati could have its hands full.
1. Donald Stephenson, OT, Chiefs: The second-year tackle out of Oklahoma will step in on the right side for an injured Eric Fisher this week — a move that many argue actually gives the Chiefs a better shot up front than if Fisher was playing. His likely assignment? Only Robert Mathis, who led the league in sacks this season. Stephenson will have to be on his game to keep Alex Smith upright.