NFL Playoffs: Each Team's Most Dangerous Player in the Wild Card Round
As NFL Wild Card Weekend kicks off, each playoff team will be keying on dangerous athletes on both sides, looking for strong contributions from their own stars while scheming to stop their opponents' best players.
All of these players have established themselves during the regular season, but many are reaching the playoffs for the first time.
On the most important weekend of the NFL season so far, these players will play a huge role in which teams move on and which go home.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green
Even with a nagging shoulder injury, there's no Cincinnati Bengal more dangerous than A.J. Green. Green has exploded on to the scene as a rookie, leading the Bengals in just about every receiving category.
Former Bengal Jonathan Joseph did a nice job of containing Green in the first Houston-Cincinnati matchup, allowing a total of only 59 receiving yards. However, even in that game, Green was still able to get loose for a 36-yard catch. He's already established himself as one of the best deep threats in the league with 19 catches of 20 yards or more.
Nobody expected Cincinnati to reach the playoffs this season, but here the Bengals are, with a real opportunity to advance to the second round. They have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose.
Why not air it out?
In Saturday afternoon's matchup, expect Andy Dalton to give Green plenty of opportunities to go after the ball downfield.
Houston Texans: Ben Tate
Arian Foster will likely carry the majority of the load for the Houston Texans, but the Cincinnati Bengals had better be aware of his dangerous running mate, Ben Tate. Even sharing time with Foster, Tate averaged better than 10 carries per game.
During the regular season, Tate was the NFL's best combination of consistency and explosion, churning out 5.4 yards per carry on 175 totes. He was the only runner in the league to deliver more than five yards per rush on over 170 attempts.
In his first game against the Bengals, Tate rushed for 67 yards on eight carries, including a 44-yarder. Expect more of the same in Houston today.
Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson
Calvin Johnson didn't have his best game in the Detroit Lions' first contest against the New Orleans Saints, but don't expect that to happen twice.
Megatron is the best receiver in football. Even facing bracket coverage on nearly every play, he lead all wide receivers in yards and touchdowns. Johnson was the only player in the league to overage over 100 receiving yards per game.
Johnson is locked in for the start of the playoffs. He's racked up over 200 receiving yards in two of his last three games. Against the 30th-ranked pass defense of the Saints, expect Johnson to add to his league-leading total of 10 receptions of 40 yards or more.
New Orleans Saints: Darren Sproles
Though Darren Sproles is one of the smallest players in the league, he is unquestionably one of the most dangerous. The New Orleans Saints have found a multitude of ways to get him to ball, and he has the ability to go the distance every time he touches it.
During the regular season, Sproles averaged 7.6 yards per touch and picked up his play down the stretch, scoring in four of his last five games.
In the Saints' first meeting with the Detroit Lions, Sproles racked up 74 yards and a touchdown on just nine touches. Expect those totals to improve this time around, and don't be surprised if he finds the end zone in the return game against the weak Lions coverage units.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones
Over the Atlanta Falcons' last four games, Julio Jones has been unguardable. On 20 total receptions in those games, he's scored six touchdowns and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch.
Jones' elite combination of size and acceleration makes him a nightmare for secondaries. He has the height to jump over cornerbacks and the giddy up to leave safeties behind him.
Matt Ryan will absolutely be under pressure from the New York Giants front line, and Jones gives him a fantastic safety valve. Jones has the ability to take a quick slant all the way home but also gives Ryan the opportunity to just rear back and chuck it, knowing that Jones will chase it down.
New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul
Over the past few seasons, the New York Giants have earned a reputation for fielding one of the most dominant defensive lines in the NFL. This season, second-year stud Jason Pierre-Paul has stepped up as the most dangerous player on that unit.
Pierre-Paul finished fourth in the league in sacks, with a total of 16.5. He had at least two sacks in five games this season and brought down the quarterback six times in his last four games.
Pierre-Paul has elite speed for the position, but it's his shiftiness that makes him so difficult to block. He's incredibly nimble for his size and even at nearly 280 pounds, he's able to turn his shoulders and squeeze through the tiniest gaps in his opponent's protection.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LaMarr Woodley
LaMarr Woodley has battled injuries through the second half of the season, but when he's healthy, he's unstoppable. Before tweaking his hamstring in Week 8, the Pittsburgh Steeler stalwart had collected more than one sack in four consecutive games.
Woodley has played sparingly as he's recovered over the last few weeks, but as the playoffs get started, he'll be back in the lineup and ready to contribute.
He's always a focus for opposing offensive lines, but against the Denver Broncos, Woodley will be especially dangerous. Tim Tebow makes his living by using his size and strength to run through linebackers, but he'll have a hard time breaking away from the 265-pound Woodley.
Denver Broncos: Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow isn't a great player, and he may not even be a good player, but he is unquestionably a dangerous player. As we've seen over the last couple of weeks, the danger that Tebow creates works both ways.
When the Denver Broncos are in striking distance late in the game, Tebow as shown an uncanny ability to elevate his performance and find a way to win.
In games when the Broncos don't have a chance in the fourth quarter, their deficit is usually the result of catastrophic mistakes by Tebow.
With the top-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers defense coming to town, it looks like Tebow will be more of a danger to his own team than he'll be to his opponents.
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