Trust goes a long way at this point in the NFL season.
This weekend is the Divisional Round, featuring the best of the best. Being able to rely on a rusher is critically important as we get deeper into the postseason, so which running backs do I trust most right now?
Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry would typically be the obvious choice, except for the fact that he hasn't played since Halloween due to a foot injury that required surgery. He has a chance to be back on the field with the Tennessee Titans this weekend, when they host the Cincinnati Bengals. He practiced Tuesday in pads, taking another step forward in his recovery. On Wednesday, reporters asked Henry for his status. "We'll see where I am on Saturday," the star said.
UPDATE: The Titans officially activated Henry on Friday, putting the running back in line to return to action against the Bengals in Saturday's Divisional Round bout.
Henry's raw production is undeniable. In eight games this season, he averaged 27.4 carries and 117.1 rush yards per outing (both highest in the NFL). Shoot, even though he missed the last nine games, "King Henry" still finished top 10 in rushing yards (937) and rushing touchdowns (10). He's carried the Titans in postseasons past, but this time around, he'll have to re-acclimate to the speed of the game. Plus, he is not allowed the luxury of easing his way back in with a leisurely tune-up. This is the Divisional Round, and the opposing Bengals are for real. There's hardly time to adjust.
I won't be surprised if Henry picks up where he left off, but there's always uncertainty when a player returns from a prolonged injury break.
So, who are the backs without questions, the ball carriers I'd ride with in the stretch run? Let's count down my top five among the eight remaining playoff teams.
Akers might be higher on this list if he hadn't just returned to action two weeks ago. In the regular-season finale, Akers' first game back since suffering an Achilles tear in July, he received eight touches and managed just 13 total yards. But in Monday night's big wild-card victory over Arizona, Akers looked as good as ever with 18 touches for 95 total yards. His play-making ability out of the backfield as a runner and receiver opens up Los Angeles' playbook so much more. Just look at the 40-yard trick play vs. Arizona in which Odell Beckham Jr. launched a pass downfield to Akers. The second-year back is the threat the Rams have been missing in this offense. He gives L.A. more balance and poses a tough matchup for defenses. We saw Monday just how much he can affect a game. I see that impact being just as great -- if not greater -- in the Divisional Round.
Mitchell has been incredibly consistent in Kyle Shanahan's offense -- so much so that you'd never guess he's a sixth-round rookie. He has risen to the occasion in Year 1, racking up 963 yards on 207 rushes (4.7 yards a pop) in his 11 regular-season games, and didn't shy away from the spotlight in last weekend's wild-card win over Dallas. He helped set the tone on the 49ers' first drive with 17 yards on two carries, including the game-opening, 4-yard touchdown. He finished the contest with 96 rushing yards on 27 carries. This is the type of impact the 49ers need from the rookie revelation, who hasn't fumbled once this year, to keep advancing.
Mixon finished third in rushing yards (1,205) during the best regular season of his NFL career. Though his production has been down over the last two games -- fewer than 50 rush yards in each with zero TDs -- his size and versatility make him a tough matchup for the Titans, whose defense ranks in the top five in rushing yards per game allowed (84.6), yards per carry yielded (3.9) and opponent runs of 20-plus yards (just three all season). While stout vs. the run, Tennessee hasn't been as good against the pass. Mixon will likely take advantage of the Titans having to pick their poison with the Bengals' balanced offense, as he has the ability to line up wide, catch the ball out of the backfield and run between the tackles. A number of Bengals stars will in the spotlight on Saturday, but Mixon is the one who can help sustain drives, wear out the defense and, most importantly, keep the ball from Tennessee's physical offense.
While Aaron Jones is the splashier Packers running back, Dillon provides a hard-nosed, physical element that is so important at this time of year. Checking in at an even 6 feet and 247 pounds, Dillon is a guy nobody wants to tackle when he gets going downhill in the middle of January in Green Bay. (Sounds miserable, right?!) Dillon actually led the Packers in rushing yards (803) and rushing touchdowns (five) during the regular season. And while he didn't do much during the Packers' win at San Francisco back in Week 3 (six carries for 18 yards; two catches for 8 yards), I could see him wear down the 49ers' banged-up defensive front on the "Frozen Tundra" of Lambeau Field this Saturday night.
I can hear it already: "But Deebo's not a running back!" You know what? I don't want to hear it. Nickelodeon's Young Dylan knows what's up, referring to Samuel as a wide receiver and running back in Sunday's epic postgame interview.
Deebo's production in the wild-card win over Dallas (10 carries, 72 rush yards, one rush TD; three catches, 38 yards) and down the stretch of the regular season further support this case, as he's had at least five rush attempts in nine straight games.
Weeks 1-9: Six carries for 22 yards (3.7 ypc) and one touchdown.
Weeks 10-WC: 63 carries for 415 yards (6.6 ypc) and eight touchdowns.
The way Shanahan uses the do-it-all playmaker is beyond perfect. Deebo is the most natural runner on this team and it shows every time he gets the rock. He is the ultimate X-factor, someone who's nearly impossible to account for because of his crazy ability to break tackles and score from anywhere on the field -- whether in the run or pass game. According to Pro Football Focus, Deebo leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns of 10-plus yards, with seven through Wild Card Weekend. With injury concerns surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder) and the defense, San Francisco should have one motto heading into Saturday night's game vs. the top-seeded Pack:
In Deebo we trust.