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Players to watch: Look out for the Chiefs, Patriots running backs in AFC Championship

Damien Williams growing into role of featured running back

Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams has stepped into the role of featured running back, after the release of Kareem Hunt. The Chiefs are preparing for Sunday's January 20, 2019 AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.
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Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams has stepped into the role of featured running back, after the release of Kareem Hunt. The Chiefs are preparing for Sunday's January 20, 2019 AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots.

Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady are headlining Sunday’s AFC Championship Game matchup, but there are a couple more players who will be just as important to each team’s success — including a pair of fifth-year running backs. Here’s who else you should be watching.

No. 28 James White, RB, Patriots

26 years old, 5-10, 205 pounds, 5th season

White is listed as a running back, but he does a little bit of everything for the Patriots’ offense — and that’s what makes him so dangerous. Against the Chiefs earlier this year, White had six carries for 39 yards and five catches for 53. In the regular season, White led the Patriots in receptions. He set the franchise record for catches (87) and receiving yards (751) by a running back and had seven receiving touchdowns. He ended up with more receiving yards than rushing yards (425). He’ll pose a major matchup problem for the Chiefs. Last week, tied a postseason record with 15 catches for 97 yards.

No. 27 J.C. Jackson, DB, Patriots

23 years old, 6-1, 198 pounds, 1st season

The rookie wasn’t active the first time these two teams played, but he could end up being a major factor in slowing down speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill on Sunday. Thought Stephon Gilmore might be the safe choice to guard Hill, Jackson’s been instrumental in shutting down other opposing top wide receivers. In Week 15, he was key in eliminating the threat of Steelers’ WR Juju Smith-Schuster. He has three interceptions this season and hasn’t given up a touchdown this year. The longest reception he’s given up was for 24 yards. He’ll obviously need help in facing Hill, but he could be a major factor in preventing him from making big-time plays.

No. 26 Damien Williams, RB, Chiefs

26 years old, 5-11, 224 pounds, 5th season

Williams had a grand total of one carry for one yard the last time the Chiefs played the Patriots. But he figures to have a much larger role this time. Since stepping into the starting job, Williams has continued to build on his performances week after week. Against the Colts, he had 25 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown. But he’ll have to do more than carry the ball against the Patriots. The last two times the Chiefs played New England, running back Kareem Hunt was a major factor catching balls out of the backfield. Williams can’t quite replicate that production, but he has shown an ability to get involved in the screen game. He finished the regular season with two receiving touchdowns and 160 yards on 23 catches.

No. 29 Eric Berry, S, Chiefs

30 years old, 6-0, 212 pounds, 9th season

The Chiefs didn’t have their Pro Bowl safety the first time they took on the Patriots this season. But there’s a good chance they’ll have him Sunday. Berry, who practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday, is poised to play in just his third game this season. But it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to play if he does go. He hasn’t played a complete game this season. Before his season-ending injury in last year’s season opener, Berry was responsible for defending Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He held him to two catches for 33 yards in that game. Gronkowski had only three catches in the earlier game this season, but he made them when they counted — including one in the Patriots’ game-winning drive while he was being defended by Josh Shaw, who’s no longer with the team. Having Berry back could be a difference-maker in keeping the tight end from having a breakout performance.

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.


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