As NFL reaches stretch run, here are five players who need to step up

As the NFL season marches into December and the final six weeks, it's clear that many teams will need a little extra juice for the playoff push.

No franchise has claimed a spot in the postseason field just yet, with the Philadelphia Eagles being the lone team with an opportunity to clinch in Week 13. With that level of fluidity, teams' outlooks can shift wildly week to week. For some organizations, a few key players could hold the key to their playoff fortunes.

With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports' NFL reporters and writers: Which NFL player needs to step up down the stretch of the season?

Their answers:

Kenny Pickett

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) throws the ball in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) throws the ball in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

Quite a buffet to choose from here. Are we asking a superstar to catch fire and improve his team’s position? An ordinary player – Tim Boyle? – to keep his sinking squad afloat? Or someone who needs to push the production closer to his perceived potential? Let’s take that one – and we’re looking at you, Kenny Pickett. Early returns are promising after the 2022 first-rounder threw for a season-best 278 yards in Sunday’s win at Cincinnati, his first game with newly elevated Pittsburgh Steelers play caller Mike Sullivan in his ear and interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner devising the game plan. The offense has held this team back all year – and, after a week, maybe it was in fact deposed OC Matt Canada restricting Pickett and Co. But while a defensive-led version of the Steelers is probably good enough to get Pittsburgh into the postseason – and that formula has worked many times before – if the six-time champions actually want to compete for a seventh, Pickett’s side of the ball will have to continue taking on more of the load. Nate Davis

It’s got to be Kenny Pickett. The Steelers had a renaissance performance last week, gaining more than 400 yards for the first time in 59 games. Now, that's not likely to continue. But it was also the first time Pittsburgh outgained its opponent this season. Pickett must elevate his play and help the Steelers offense out during this final stretch if Pittsburgh has any shot to hang onto its playoff spot this season. They're in good shape at 7-4 and in the fifth seed. But there's still plenty of season left for them to fall out of the playoff mix because of their inept offense. – Safid Deen 

Derek Carr

With a $150 million contract that averages $37.5M and guarantees $100M, the New Orleans Saints (5-6) paid for a lot more than they are getting from their veteran quarterback. The difference to secure a division title? Not quite … or at least not yet. Carr – whose pick-six at Atlanta on Sunday went for 92 yards as Jessie Bates III snagged an awful, telegraphed pass – has had back-to-back games without a touchdown pass and is on pace for a career-low 15 scoring strikes. It's no wonder that Rob Gronkowski was on the "Up & Adams" show this week suggesting that Dennis Allen should consider benching his hand-picked QB and roll with Jameis Winston. Carr has protected the football fairly well and the Saints, with a pass offense ranked 11th in the league, have moved the ball between the 20s. But in the red zone and on third downs – where NFL quarterbacks make their money – Carr has been so mediocre. The Saints are 29th in the NFL for red-zone TD rate (42.5%) and Carr is 25th in third-down passer rating (74.7). Bottom line, with an 88.5 efficiency mark that is 17th in the NFL, Carr is nobody's elite quarterback. Detroit is next on the schedule, and the first of three consecutive home games won't be easy. But here's the good news: The Saints close with three of their final five games against teams from the lowly NFC South, which means a division crown still isn't out of the question as none of the teams in that division have a winning record. And there are two other matchups against opponents who are currently sub-.500. So, if Carr can get on a hot streak that ignites his unit to finish drives, maybe the Saints can salvage the sense that they've developed something to build on. If not, it will be a long offseason in the Crescent City. – Jarrett Bell

Josh Allen

This answer feels like it could be no one other than Josh Allen. And by stepping up, really, what I mean is protecting the ball and being more efficient. It’s clear Allen is one of the most talented players in football. The problem for the Buffalo Bills and much of this isn’t Allen's fault, per se, but rather that of the front office for its roster construction is that the offense is often most dangerous when Allen can improvise and create plays off script. The issue is that when he feels the need to take on too much, he can press, which can lead to turnovers; Allen has at least one interception in Buffalo’s past eight games. His 13 picks are tied with Washington's Sam Howell for most in the NFL.

The Bills are 6-6 and enter Week 13 as the No. 10 seed in the AFC. They have games against the Chiefs (Week 14), Cowboys (Week 15) and Dolphins (Week 18). Their margin for error is so slim in a crowded AFC that they may actually need to win out in order to claim a wild-card spot. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to ask Allen, already one of players in the NFL with the most responsibility for offensive production, to be better. But if he can’t play cleaner, Buffalo will have no shot and will miss the postseason for the first time in five seasons. – Lorenzo Reyes

Jordan Love

Replacing a franchise legend was never going to be easy. But Love has made it harder for himself by stumbling in his first full season as a starter. Only the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson has a worse completion percentage among qualified quarterbacks. Green Bay started 2-5 but a 3-1 run in November has them near .500 and in contention for the NFC’s No. 7 seed. An improved Love has been a big reason behind the winning. He had eight touchdowns and two interceptions (both in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers) in November. His toughest test of the season is Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense, but four of the Packers’ final five after that are against NFC teams that are currently under .500. That includes a Week 17 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, who currently hold the final NFC playoff spot. Continued improved play from Love will give the Packers a chance at challenging them for a postseason berth. – Chris Bumbaca

Rashee Rice – and rest of Kansas City Chiefs' receivers

Last week, Rice became this first Chiefs wide receiver to go over 100 receiving yards since Week 7 of last season. Rice is a rookie so the onus to step up shouldn’t be all on the first-year wideout. Rice, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman all need to become more reliable threats on the outside. Their inability to create separation and drops have become a theme this season. However, Rice has been the one to show promising signs this year. If Kansas City wants to capture the AFC’s No. 1 seed and successfully defend its Super Bowl title, it has to become less dependent on Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Isiah Pacheco on offense. – Tyler Dragon

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kenny Pickett, Derek Carr among NFL players who need to step up