The AFC wild-card race is bonkers, and we still have four weeks of regular-season football remaining. I've never seen it this competitive this late in the season, have you? Normally by now, the top wild-card team is clearly better and light-years ahead of the four or five teams vying for one or two of the remaining spots.
In this frenzied wild-card race will be plenty of backup quarterbacks and a litany of young players growing in their importance to their respective clubs. Let's pick the most important young player from each of the seven AFC teams part of the wild-card race before Week 15's action.
Cleveland Browns (8-5): CB Martin Emerson
2022 third-round pick
Emerson was the best player on the field in the Browns' rather impressive home win over the Jaguars with two interceptions and a three pass breakups in the 31-27 victory. The former Mississippi State star has been incalculably vital to the Browns secondary as Pro Bowler -- and borderline All-Pro -- cornerback Denzel Ward has been out the past three contests with a shoulder injury. In his absence, Emerson has held down the fort reasonably well.
Now, Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua had big outings in the Rams win over the Browns in Week 13, but Sunday's win over the Jaguars was colossal for Cleveland's playoff hopes. Looking ahead, the Browns will see D.J. Moore and Darnell Mooney of the Bears, Nico Collins of the Texans, Jets dynamic wideout Garrett Wilson, and Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins of the Bengals. Emerson's immense length -- he's over 6-foot-1 and nearly 33-inch arms -- sticky coverage and natural play-making ability will be vital to the Browns' hopes to punch a playoff ticket.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6): EDGE Nick Herbig
2023 fourth-round pick
T.J. Watt can't do it all himself. And recently, he hasn't needed to, as recently paid bookend outside rusher Alex Highsmith has emerged as a quality No. 2 in Pittsburgh's defense with 51 pressures to Watt's 65 entering Week 14. But Highsmith could miss time with a neck injury/concussion, and Watt's in concussion protocol as well. The Steelers are dealing with key injuries in a key juncture of the season, and not that Kenny Pickett took the leap in Year 2, but clearly the offense has a much better chance to be efficient with him under center than Mitchell Trubisky, and Pickett isn't expected back anytime soon. That means, to win games, Pittsburgh needs enormous, contest-shifting plays from its defense, and that unit is capable of producing them. They usually stem from Watt or Highsmith.
While they're dinged up, the Steelers will likely need to turn to Herbig, a rotational rookie who's flashed when given an opportunity. He's registered five pressures on 49 pass-rush snaps, and a pressure rate over 10% is an encouraging start to his career. Pittsburgh may have been out of options beyond Herbig, and even if Watt and Highsmith return for Week 15's outing against the Colts, there's a possibility Herbig will be leaned on to provide an extra pass-rushing jolt.
Indianapolis Colts (7-6): WR Josh Downs
2023 third-round pick
Garner Minshew is at his best when he feels like he's back at Washington State. Spread looks, RPOs, getting the ball out of his hands in a hurry, mostly underneath, then the occasional deep shot after the defense has been lulled to sleep with all the quick passing.
Downs was born to be a sneaky electric short-pass game chain-mover. On his 54 catches this season, the former North Carolina wideout averages the most yards after the catch per reception (5.4) of any Colts receiver. He turns two-yard passes into seven-yard gains. Indianapolis' schedule isn't daunting down the stretch -- vs. Pittsburgh, at Atlanta, vs. Las Vegas, vs. Houston -- but it'll need more methodical, clock-eating drives to sustain drives on a consistent basis and stay alive in the playoff hunt. Downs needs to be an integral part of how the Colts attempt to attack defenses. He had only had three targets -- and caught two of them for 34 yards -- in the blowout loss in Cincinnati on Sunday. Downs needs way more looks than that.
Houston Texans (7-6): QB C.J. Stroud
2023 first-round pick
Well, obviously. Stroud's going to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Maybe unanimously. And he went on an almost unprecedented heater from Week 9 to Week 12 with an enormous 9.5 yards-per-attempt average, 10 touchdowns, only four picks and a 109.9 rating as Houston went 3-1 in that stretch to ascend into the wild-card race.
The last two weeks, Stroud's descended back into the Earth's atmosphere with a 52% completion rate, 7.3 yards per attempt, one touchdown, no picks and a rating of 82.5. Now, some things to consider with Stroud's recent regression -- Tank Dell's broken bone in his leg, the fact that Houston faced two stingy defenses -- Broncos and the Jets -- and it rained for the entirety of the Week 14 blowout loss to New York.
Either way, Stroud -- who's currently in concussion protocol -- will need to play much closer to his Week 9 through Week 13 span for Houston to maximize its chances to sneak into the postseason.
Denver Broncos (7-6): CB Ja'Quan McMillian
2022 undrafted free agent
This former East Carolina star led the Broncos in pressures with five in Week 14's monstrous win against the Chargers in Los Angeles. And he plays cornerback! That means, McMillian has become a blitzing weapon for Denver defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, and for as soundly as Russell Wilson has played after settling into Sean Payton's offense, make no mistake about it -- the Broncos defense has carried this team's streak of winning six of seven games to enter the thick of the wild-card race in the AFC.
Since Week 7 -- when the Denver turnaround began -- the Broncos defense is third in total EPA per play allowed and third in drop back EPA to play allowed, and McMillian has arguably been the unit's best overall player. He's covered reasonably well from the slot, been supremely efficient as a blitzer and made play after play against the run and against receiver screens on the perimeter.
His presence as a defensive back who aligns in a variety of places pre-snap and does so many things for Joseph will be vital down the stretch. Denver travels to Detroit before back-to-back home games against New England and the Chargers ahead of the season-finale in Las Vegas.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-6): S Jordan Battle
2023 third-round pick
For the longest time this season, the Bengals defense had felt the impact of losing safeties Jessie Bates III and Von Bell in free agency -- and do-everything defensive back Tre Flowers, too. They had allowed the most explosive plays in football. In Week 13's win over the Jaguars, Cincinnati surrendered one 20-plus-yard play. In the throttling of the Colts, no explosive plays allowed. They didn't allow any in the loss to the Steelers the week before and just one in the defeat at the hands of the Ravens in Week 12.
Now, this may be more correlation than causation, but Jordan Battle did start to assume a larger role defensively in Week 11. He's now played more than 50 snaps in four consecutive games for the first time as a pro.
Buffalo Bills (7-6): RB James Cook
2022 second-round pick
Let me start by being clear -- like almost every team in the NFL, the Bills move the ball more effectively when it's in the hands of their quarterback. And with Josh Allen as that quarterback, it's even more true with Buffalo than the vast majority of teams.
However, the Bills having a strong rushing attack. It's something we've rarely seen in the Allen era, but Cook has emerged as a dynamic dual-threat back -- he's quietly seventh in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,180 yards) among all offensive skill-position players -- and averages a robust 5.87 yards per touch. Of course, the Bills will rely on Allen to be Allen down the stretch. But Cook's ability not just as a fun pass catcher out of the backfield, but a legitimate between-the-tackles threat makes the Bills offense that much more difficult to stop. A Week 15 contest against the Cowboys looms, and all elements of Buffalo's offense are going to have to be on point for the Bills to win and keep their playoff hopes alive.