When the New Orleans Saints host the Detroit Lions in this weekend's playoff battle, the stars will certainly be shining brightly. Everybody will be fixated on the likes of Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but each team has 53 players, any of whom could have a very profound effect on this game.
It's difficult to predict exactly who those players will be, but it is pretty clear that some under-the-radar players will be put in positions to impact the contest. Here are three unheralded players that will ultimately decide who comes out on top.
RB Kevin Smith - Detroit Lions
When the Lions lost to the Saints, 31-17, about a month ago, Kevin Smith was dealing with an ankle injury. Despite that he racked up 80 total yards and a touchdown in about a quarter of play before he reaggravated the injury and was forced to sit. If Smith can last the entire game on Saturday, though, he could be a huge factor.
Injuries have always been an issue with Smith, but he has largely been productive when healthy.
The Saints' defense is solid against the run, but he had no problem picking up yardage the last time these two teams met. If Smith can once again average over five yards a pop, it will open up so much in the passing game for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions will beat you with their passing game, but Smith can make it much more potent.
CB Tracy Porter - New Orleans Saints
Saints cornerback is well known as the player who intercepted Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and returned it for a touchdown to ice the Super Bowl. Aside from that, though, he is a fairly anonymous player who doesn't get much publicity. That figures to change on Saturday, however, as he seems likely to draw the assignment of guarding freakish Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
There is no question that Porter will have plenty of safety help, but he will be the one charged with sticking to Johnson like crazy glue.
Porter can probably run with Johnson, but the real challenge is defending jump balls with his 5'10" frame against the 6'5", 236-pound Johnson. Provided Porter can at least contain him and maybe keep him out of the end zone, though, it will be a major win for New Orleans.
RB Christopher Ivory - New Orleans Saints
Saints running back Christopher Ivory may have begun the season No. 4 on the depth chart, but it stands to reason that he could be New Orleans' most important rusher against the Lions.
With Mark Ingram on injured reserve and Pierre Thomas perpetually injured, Ivory has ascended to the spot of top power runner for the Saints, while jitterbug Darren Sproles plays the scatback role.
Ivory has received at least 15 carries in three of his past five games, which is pretty telling considering the Saints are clearly a pass-first team. He also will enter the playoffs on a high note, rushing for 127 yards and a score against the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale. If the Saints have a late lead, they will need somebody to chew up the clock and Ivory will have to be that guy. If he's effective, the Saints will win.