SPORTS
01/18/2017 11:56 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

X Factors For The NFL's Championship Sunday

Four less-heralded players could come up huge for their respective teams in the clutch.

With NFL Championship Sunday approaching, the football world is blessed with two glorious matchups (Pittsburgh at New England and Green Bay at Atlanta), featuring a slew of MVP candidates and marquee names.

While Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will likely steal the headlines, history shows that having a dynamic X factor serves a team well in the playoffs.

Click here to watch my segment on NFL Network discussing the AFC X factors and here for NFC X factors.

Remember former unlikely heroes like Jacoby Jones, Deion Branch and Desmond Howard? They remind us that the X factor is sometimes just as important as the superstar in a one-and-done tournament format.

With that in mind, let’s examine each team’s potential game-changers heading into Sunday’s action:

  • Micah Hyde, CB, Green Bay Packers
    Hyde has been a revelation for a severely banged-up Packers secondary, turning into a valuable Swiss army knife for defensive
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images
    Hyde has been a revelation for a severely banged-up Packers secondary, turning into a valuable Swiss army knife for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. The former fifth-round pick out of the University of Iowa originally made the team because he was an effective nickel blitzer.

    Now, Hyde is Green Bay's most versatile cover man, as evidenced by his crucial third-quarter interception of Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott -- the lone defensive stop for Green Bay in six tries against a red-hot Cowboys offense. In fact, his four interceptions are the second-most on the team. 

    The 26-year-old Hyde, who normally plays in the slot, was forced into action at outside corner against Dallas, proving why he has morphed into the Pack's ultimate X factor.
  • Taylor Gabriel, WR, Atlanta Falcons
    Gabriel has been a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/atlanta-falcons-underrated_us_586fd247e4b02b5f8588925c?utm_hp
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
    Gabriel has been a playmaking dynamo for the league's premier offense. Undrafted out of Abilene Christian University in 2014, the 5-foot-8-inch speed demon was cut by 1-15 Cleveland -- yes, these Browns -- only to find a home with the Falcons.

    After amassing just eight catches in Atlanta's first eight games, Gabriel has now had 31 in the last nine, including seven touchdowns, tying First-Team All-Pro wideout Julio Jones for the team lead. His individual plays of 47, 26, 76, 35, 64, 31, 27 and 38 yards force opposing defenses to account for him on the field at all times. His 18 percent touchdown rate heading into the playoffs would have slotted him first in the league if he'd had at least 50 touches (he had 39 total offensive touches).
  • Chris Hogan, WR, New England Patriots
    The Patriots shrewdly acquired the 28-year-old Hogan as a free agent in a three-year deal last summer, and he hasn't disappoi
    Rob Carr/Getty Images
    The Patriots shrewdly acquired the 28-year-old Hogan as a free agent in a three-year deal last summer, and he hasn't disappointed. The former Buffalo Bill has developed into quarterback Tom Brady's most reliable deep threat.

    Just how good has Hogan been? With 17.9 yards per catch during the regular season, he was tied for first in the NFL with Washington's deep threat machine, DeSean Jackson.

    Plus, he's very reliable: Hogan has caught 42 of his 61 targets. In other words, his 69 percent catch rate ranks better than those of superstar wideouts like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas and Amari Cooper, per Football Outsiders, as well as DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall and Allen Robinson. It's also tied with Steelers great Antonio Brown.

    Clearly, Hogan isn't afraid of the big stage, either. In his first- ever playoff game, he led the Pats in receiving against Houston, hauling in all four of his targets for 95 yards.
  • Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
    Dupree has been nothing short of sensational down the stretch for Pittsburgh. Over the last five games, he&nbsp;has a stagger
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
    Dupree has been nothing short of sensational down the stretch for Pittsburgh. Over the last five games, he has a staggering five sacks and eight quarterback knockdowns.

    Blessed with tremendous speed and closing ability, the former first-rounder out of the University of Kentucky has been the necessary Robin to 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison's Batman.

    Much has been said about Pittsburgh's young corners' improvement, but part of that has been a result of the constant pressure Dupree provides. Not only did he deliver this questionable hit on Miami quarterback Matt Moore,
    but his mere presence on the field also helped Harrison draw the penalty on Kansas City offensive tackle Eric Fisher during the all-important two-point conversion that decided the game and helped propel the Steelers to the AFC Championship.

Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpost.com, ask me questions about anything sports-related on Twitter at @Schultz_Report, and follow me on Instagram at @Schultz_Report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bud Dupree caused the hold on Eric Fisher.

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