How three former Badgers helped lead their teams to the NFL Playoffs

Author: Zack Cherney

MADISON- The NFL has no shortage of former Badgers who dominate both on defense and offense for many teams across the league, but several have been lucky enough to play for well rounded and successful teams who are about to play in the playoffs. Even more special is that three teams have a former Badger as one of their most dominant players who has helped them get to the playoffs. Throughout this season Russell Wilson, T.J. Watt and Jonathan Taylor have been incredible.

Russell Wilson 

  • Team: Seattle Seahawks 
  • Record: 12-4
  • NFC West Champions (No. 3 Seed)

After transferring from NC State to Wisconsin for his final year of collegiate football, quarterback Russell Wilson made a name for himself as he led the Badgers to a win in the first-ever Big Ten Championship game and then to the Rose Bowl. Following that year he was selected 75th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks where he has developed into one of the faces of the NFL. It did not take long for Wilson to make a name for himself in the NFL with his incredible arm, but also his ability to scramble and make something out of nothing. He has so many tools that many quarterbacks are unable to demonstrate as he has. Wilson already has one Super Bowl win, but he is always hungry for more, and 2020 showed that. He emerged as an early MVP candidate after the Seahawks began the season 5-0. They then hit a rough patch as their struggling defense and no existent run game were exposed and suddenly the Seahawks were in a hole that looked hard to get out of, but with Russell Wilson at quarterback, their season was in good hands. Although his MVP hopes were lost in the latter half of the season, he was able to lead the Seahawks to a division title for the fourth time in his career. Wilson was able to dominate thanks to one of the best wide receiver duos in the entire NFL in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. By the end of the regular season, Wilson had 40 touchdowns, the highest of his career, 4,212 pass yards, second-most in his career (4,219 in 2016), and 4,725 total yards, the highest of his career. After a career year, he is headed back to the playoffs for the eighth time looking to take the Seahawks back to the Superbowl for the third time in his career. It is easy to see why the Seahawks continue to dominate, and it is because the quarterback they have relied on for years continues to deliver and has done so again this season. Before thinking about the Super Bowl, they first have to take on their division rival the Los Angeles Rams with whom they split the regular-season series. Wilson is looking to have another stellar performance this Saturday against a tough opponent.  

T.J. Watt

  • Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Record: 12-4
  • AFC North Champions (No. 3 Seed)

In 2016, linebacker T.J Watt, in his second year at Wisconsin, finally got some substantial playing time. In that one season, he showed that his brother and NFL star J.J. isn’t the only Watt brother who can dominate on defense. T.J. recorded 63 tackles, two forced fumbles, a pick-six, and 11.5 sacks, which was tied for 11th most in College Football. After proving his worth in that one season, he went into the NFL Draft where he was taken 30th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since his entrance into the NFL, he has only gotten better and has rivaled the success of his older brother J.J. Watt. In just four seasons he has recorded 230 tackles, 17 forced fumbles (including four fumble recoveries, all in 2019), 26 pass deflection and 49.5 sacks. This season he led the NFL with 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 41 QB hits. In just his fourth season, he is already leading the NFL in some of the strongest defensive categories which displays just how powerful he is at getting through an offensive line to an opposing quarterback. The most interesting of the historical moments of the season for him though is that with those league-leading 15 sacks, he and J.J. became the only brothers in history to lead the NFL in sacks (J.J. has done so twice in his career). He has become a scary presence for opposing offenses as he shows he can plow through offensive lineman and get to the quarterback in a flash. For a team to be as successful as the Steelers were this season, they needed an extremely strong presence on defense because T.J. was as strong as can be. He showed every single game why he deserves to be recognized as one of the best in the NFL currently. This is the Steelers’ second divisional title since T.J. has joined the team, and it is clear he has been a big reason for their success. Heading into the playoffs T.J. will have his sights set on star QB Baker Mayfield as they take on their division rival the Cleveland Browns this Sunday. 

Jonathan Taylor

  • Team: Indianapolis Colts
  • Record: 11-5
  • AFC South Runners-Up (No. 7 Seed)

After what Jonathan Taylor did during his time at Wisconsin, it is hard to come up with ways to describe how incredible of a player he is. In three years for the Badgers (2017-2019), he became one of the best running backs in the history of not only the Badgers but of College Football too. In 926 carries he racked up 6,174 rush yards with an average of 6.7 yards per carry meaning when he got the ball he usually gained good yardage. With all of those rush yards, he was able to total 50 touchdowns, which is third-most all-time in Wisconsin history (Ron Dayne: 63; Montee Ball: 77) and is tied for 20th most all-time in College Football history. To add to his versatility, he showed he is a dual-threat by being one of the leading Badgers receivers in 2019 with 26 receptions for 252 yards and five touchdowns. After three seasons, he decided to head into the NFL where he was drafted 41st overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Immediately following his arrival, he became the main asset for the Colts in the running game. In the second game of the season, he led the team with 101 rushing yards, and by the end of the season, he led the team in rushing in 11 of their 16 games. His most impressive performance came in the biggest game of the season. In Week 17 they took on the Jaguars (1-14 )with a playoff spot on the line. With a win and a Dolphins loss, they would clinch a spot in the playoffs. Jonathan Taylor showed he wanted to make the playoffs as he carried the team with 253 rush yards and two rushing touchdowns. The Colts got the win and the Dolphins lost which punched the playoff ticket for the Colts who relied so much on the legs of Jonathan Taylor. While just in his first season, he set the record for most rush yards in a single game with 253 as well as becoming just the third rookie Colts running back to ever rush for 1,000 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in a season, he finished with 1,169 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Coming back to his versatility, he added to his great season with 36 receptions for 299 yards and one receiving touchdown. Not too difficult to understand why the Colts are in the playoffs after looking at the incredible numbers posted by Taylor this season, who, did I mention, is only a rookie? Wisconsin has had many incredible running backs throughout the years and Jonathan Taylor is one of the best to ever do it and he has a chance to prove himself even more as the Colts take on the Buffalo Bills this Saturday.

These three former Wisconsin Badgers have made a name for themselves in their young NFL careers and are looking to either continue their success in the playoffs or make a lasting impression in an early performance. Will Taylor and Watt match up in the AFC Divisional round? Will Taylor or Watt matchup against Wilson in the Super Bowl? There is not long to wait to find out if any of those scenarios pan out. This weekend may be a defining moment for these three great athletes, but what is certain is that they will be ready to dominate and make their mark. The playoffs begin this weekend in what should be an exciting way to begin the new year.