Which NFL players will be the ultimate X-factors in conference championship games?

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What more can these four teams do for an encore?

After one of the most thrilling weekends of playoff action in NFL history, the league is down to its final four teams in the conference championship games. And while few would have predicted that the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals would join the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs as the last teams standing, each one is only a step away from Super Bowl 56. And the pressure is bound to ratchet up this weekend, with some matchups looking like they could determine the course of the season.

With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports' NFL reporters, columnist and editors:

Which player in the conference title games could be the ultimate X-factor in sending his team to the Super Bowl?

Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (87) and long snapper Clark Harris (46) celebrate a touchdown and field goal during an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (87) and long snapper Clark Harris (46) celebrate a touchdown and field goal during an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Cincinnati.

Their answers:

Jarrett Bell

Deebo Samuel. The “receiver-back” star for the 49ers is one of the players in the NFL I would actually pay to see. His versatility is off the hook. It’s been great for the 49ers that Kyle Shanahan and Co. created such a variety of plans for him as the season progressed. Yet that only scratches the surface of what he brings. Samuel fuels the 49ers with a ton of energy. And that energy is extracted from toughness. When last seen in action, Samuel was limping to the sideline (again) at Lambeau Field. They’ve got to hope he’s healed up enough this weekend — which would go so far towards the possibility of San Fran springing an upset.

Jori Epstein

NFL fans are emerging from a divisional-round weekend with exhilaratingly tight matchups. The Bengals, 49ers and Rams advanced to conference championships by way of 3-point victories. The Chiefs triumphed by 6 but tied the Bills at the end of regulation. The consistently competitive matchups remind us, at the risk of sounding cliché, that every point counts. So as entertaining as touchdowns will be, we can’t overlook the gravity of field goals and extra-point attempts. This brings me to San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould. Gould was heroic at snowy Lambeau Field last week as he drilled a 45-yard field goal to dethrone Aaron Rodgers’ Packers on a day in which the Packers’ special-team gaffes hurt them as badly as any deficiency. But the Niners stud’s playoff success dates back much further. He is an astounding 20-of-20 on playoff field-goal attempts and 32-of-32 kicking extra points. Gould has proved reliable in postseason contest while suiting up for the Bears, Giants and 49ers. The scenery, opponent or jersey do not matter – his fundamentals and mental agility transcend all. Knowing Gould will deliver is key for a 49ers team that has won two playoff games this month without a touchdown from injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. As 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan continues to play chess while opponents play checks, expect Gould to again be San Francisco’s knight in shining armor.

Mike Freeman

For the Rams it’s rookie linebacker Ernest Jones. He’s been healing from a high ankle sprain and has missed the past several weeks, but is expected to return for the title game. If Jones does, he’s an instant upgrade at the position. If the Rams can slow the 49ers’ rushing attack of Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell, they can make the offense more one-dimensional, and force quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to win the game. Whether he can or not is up for debate.

For the 49ers it’s defensive end Arik Armstead. Nick Bosa, understandably, gets most of the attention. Armstead is still one of the fiercest defenders in the sport. He could potentially massively disrupt the Rams’ offense.

Mike Jones

Patrick Mahomes. He faced a lot of scrutiny this season as defenses seemingly figured out how to take away his strengths. But as the season has progressed, and now that he is in the postseason, we’ve seen him revert to dominant form, and I’m expecting him to continue rolling just like he did late in that shootout with the Bills and carry his team past Cincinnati and back to the Super Bowl, reminding everyone why he was being heralded as the “baby GOAT” entering last year’s Super Bowl showdown with Tom Brady.

Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz

Make no mistake: After Ja'Marr Chase roasted Kansas City for 266 receiving yards and three scores on 11 catches in Week 17, Cincinnati will look for its star wide receiver as often as possible. The Chiefs, however, likely will refuse to be beaten in the same fashion, meaning that Joe Burrow could get plenty of looks at two-deep shells. While that doesn't necessarily wipe out the deep passing game, it certainly should open up more opportunities at the intermediate level. Enter Uzomah, who tied Tee Higgins for a team-high seven catches in the Bengals' divisional-round win over the Tenessee Titans. If Uzomah can repeatedly punish the Chiefs by hauling in drive-extending catches and racking up yards after the catch, he could force a difficult pick-your-poison for the defense.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL playoffs: Who will be top X-factors in conference title games?

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