There are few things in sports more entertaining or compelling than seeing a clutch player size up a seemingly impossible situation. Everyone knows something amazing is about to happen -- it's just a matter of waiting to see how the magic unfolds.
The 2019 NFL playoffs were jam-packed with clutch performances, headlined by Patrick Mahomes' show-stopping heroics in not one but three games, culminating in the Chiefs' comeback win in Super Bowl LIV. Inspired by Mahomes, I thought I'd compile a list of the 12 most clutch players in the NFL right now.
1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Nothing illustrates the fear that Mahomes strikes in the heart of opposing coaches better than the final 59 seconds of the first half of Super Bowl LIV. San Francisco had a first-and-10 on its own 20-yard line with all three timeouts left, and Kyle Shanahan still opted to call two run plays rather than use his timeouts to push for points with an aggressive approach -- because he didn't want to risk giving Mahomes an extra possession. Mahomes demonstrated exactly the kind of explosive ability Shanahan feared during Kansas City's fourth-quarter comeback, fueling a scoring spree of 21 unanswered points. No one can score as quickly as Mahomes, who combines the ability to make throws even other top-tier QBs can't with an innate feel for the passing game that continues to improve each season. He's the first quarterback under 25 to win a regular-season MVP award and a Super Bowl MVP. Just imagine how good he'll be as he continues to master the game under Andy Reid.
2) Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans
Comparisons between Watson and his fellow 2017 first-round picks Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky are inevitable. Mahomes' Super Bowl win bumps him to the front of the pack in terms of buzz, and obviously Watson lost a bit of luster when the Texans collapsed against Kansas City in the playoffs. But don't forget about the incredible ability of Watson, who has more comeback wins (eight) over the past two seasons than anyone else in the NFL, to will victories into existence in his own right. Whether he's shrugging off a kick to the eye to beat the Raiders or escaping certain doom to secure his first career playoff win, Watson has shown he should never be counted out.
3) Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Jackson deserved to be the unanimous MVP after one of the most prolific quarterbacking seasons in NFL history -- he's the only QB to ever generate at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. He posted impeccable passing numbers in the red zone (112.7 passer rating, best in the NFL among those with 60-plus red-zone attempts, with a 24:0 TD-to-INT ratio) and finished with 43 total touchdowns (36 passing, seven rushing). And good luck stopping him or the Ravens from getting a first down. Baltimore led the NFL in total first downs with 359, thanks in no small part to Jackson, who had 71 rushing first downs (40.3 percent of his 176 total carries resulted in a first down, most among those with 100-plus carries). No one in the NFL had more rushing firsts on third and fourth down than Jackson (27), who averaged 7.3 rushing yards per third/fourth-down carry and 11.82 rushing yards on carries from third/fourth-and-10 or more.
4) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey joined Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig in the exclusive 1,000/1,000 club, becoming the third player ever to produce more than 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. It will be interesting to see whether new Panthers coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady continue to use McCaffrey as a total workhorse. But one thing is certain: You cannot dispute the clutch bona fides of a player who averaged 149.5 scrimmage yards per game, most among those with 200-plus touches. McCaffrey finished with a league-high 403 touches and 2,392 scrimmage yards, third-most in a single season in NFL history.
5) Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
One of the highlights of the NFL's 100th season was seeing Henry become the first running back ever to generate 180-plus rushing yards in three consecutive games to help power the Titans to the AFC title match. It's even more impressive that he did so against incredibly stiff competition: the playoff-bound Texans in Week 17, the Patriots' sixth-ranked run defense in the Wild Card Round and the Ravens' fifth-ranked run defense in the Divisional Round. It's hard to imagine anything more clutch than putting your team on your back and nearly carrying it to the Super Bowl on your legs. Watching him, I had flashbacks of a Hall of Fame running back considered the greatest in Titans/Oilers history: Earl Campbell.
6) George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
If you were trying to explain the concept of clutch to an extraterrestrial being who had just arrived on Earth, you could just play the clip of Kittle carrying multiple Saints defenders into field-goal range on the fourth-down catch-and-run that set up San Francisco's thrilling Week 14 win. Don't be fooled by Kittle's apparent lack of playoff production: The amount of attention he drew from opposing defenses almost certainly opened things up for the rest of San Francisco's offense en route to the Super Bowl. Kittle finished 2019 with 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games. He's on track to become the highest-paid tight end in the NFL, and he deserves it.
7) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
If Thomas is targeted, he will catch it, as reflected by his catch percentage of 82.5 over the past two seasons, best in the NFL in that span among receivers with 200-plus targets. Thomas also broke Marvin Harrison's single-season catch record of 143, which stood for 17 years, with one game to spare in 2019, finishing with 149 grabs. Basically, Thomas was an unstoppable asset in the passing game, even though he was also often the Saints' only legitimate receiving threat. The 33-catch gap between Thomas and the second-leading pass-catcher in the NFL, Christian McCaffrey (116), marks the biggest split between the Nos. 1 and 2 pass catchers since Don Hutson (74 catches) outpaced Pop Ivy (27) by 47 catches in 1942. Hutson is a Hall of Famer, and Thomas is on pace to join him some day.
8) Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts
Not since Leonard Davis went No. 2 overall to Arizona in 2001 has a guard been picked as early as Nelson, who went sixth overall in 2018 -- but he's proven worthy of that high pick and then some. This season, Nelson spearheaded a rushing attack that finished seventh in the NFL, and he also proved fantastic at pass-blocking. He's a dominating, strong, physical player who makes Indy's ground game go. When it's third-and-2, you can bet the Colts -- who finished with 131 rushing first downs, second-most in the league -- are running behind him.
9) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Donald will be 29 entering next season, but he's shown no signs of slowing down as a premier interior pass rusher. Per Next Gen Stats, in third- and fourth-down situations, no one in the NFL had more quarterback pressures than Donald (29) this season, and few got to the quarterback faster (4.05 seconds in average time to sack, sixth among those with five-plus sacks on third and fourth down). While his overall sack total dipped in 2019, he still led defensive tackles with 12.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, and he joined Reggie White, Derrick Thomas and DeMarcus Ware as the only players to record at least eight sacks in each of their first six seasons.
10) T.J. Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
There is now a legitimate competition as to who would qualify as the best pass rusher in the Watt family: J.J. or T.J. The younger Watt will not be denied when he wants to bring down the quarterback; no other linebacker has more total sacks than Watt (34.5) since he entered the NFL in 2017, and no one with 10-plus sacks in 2019 reached the quarterback faster than Watt (3.92 seconds in average time to sack, per Next Gen Stats). Watt should be pulling for the Steelers to keep Bud Dupree from leaving via free agency; Watt and Dupree combined for 26 sacks, the second-highest total for an NFL duo on the same team, behind only the Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
11) Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots
Gilmore was merciless on third and fourth downs, allowing a passer rating of 0.0 and a completion rate of 28.9 percent while picking off four passes, per Next Gen Stats -- all top marks among defensive players who were targeted 20-plus times in such situations. With an NFL-best 20 passes defensed and six picks (tied for most in the league), Gilmore was a deserving winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.
12) Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Already solid in coverage and against the run, Adams had another game-changing skill tapped into by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams: a knack for rushing the passer. Adams finished the season with 6.5 sacks -- a bit short of tying Adrian Wilson's record for sacks by a defensive back (eight) from 2005 -- and 17 QB pressures, both tops among safeties in 2019, per Next Gen Stats. When you combine Adams' leadership skills with his tenacious style of play, it's obvious he should become the highest-paid safety in NFL history this offseason.
Honorable mention:Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings; Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Pittsburgh Steelers; Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys; Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys; Tre'Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills; DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans; Tyrann Mathieu, S, Kansas City Chiefs; Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers; Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons.