The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs has finally arrived, and with it comes the best players the NFL has to offer. From crafty veterans to star rookies, the NFL rosters in the postseason are littered with the game’s best at each position.
Now is the time when legacies are built or broken, and only a few players will step up on the massive stage and carry their teams to a Super Bowl victory. Others will turn in amazing individual performances, but their teams will fizzle out against superior competition.
For any of these players who don’t bring a Lombardi Trophy home this year, their reputation will take a hit. The individual accolades are great, but the only reason these stars play the game is to win a championship.
What follows is a ranking of the greatest players that will step on the field next weekend in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Regular season stats are accounted for, as is the potential of each player to carry their team all the way to a championship.
Here are the 20 best players that will compete in the Divisional Round in pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy:
Justin Smith has been an elite defensive end for 11 seasons now, and the All-Pro selection is set to have a huge impact on the big stage of the NFL playoffs.
Smith had 58 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2011. He is a major reason the 49ers have had one of the best defenses in the NFL, especially against the run. He doesn’t have an obscene amount of tackles, but he doesn’t have to, because his presence alone is a disruptive force.
Besides, it’s hard to have amazing stats on a defensive unit that includes Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.
Smith’s veteran presence and leadership will be huge if the 49ers are to do the unthinkable and win a championship. It’s now or never for Smith, and he seems to be more than ready for the task at hand.
Jordy Nelson has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL. Obviously, playing with the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers doesn’t hurt, but Nelson is great at finding openings in the defense.
Nelson caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Nelson is part of one of the best receiving units in the league, and his ability to contribute huge numbers is impressive.
Nelson is a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL, and if he continues to play like one, the offense of the Green Bay Packers will be unstoppable. Nelson is a major part of another Super Bowl appearance.
Wes Welker yet again had an elite season with quarterback Tom Brady while leading the Patriots into the postseason. Welker continues to cause opposing defenses headaches with his ability to take advantage of them.
In 2011, Welker had his fourth 1,000-yard season with 122 receptions for 1,569 yards. He added nine touchdowns as well, a career high.
Welker has flashy stats and provides highlight-worthy plays on a regular basis. Brady and Welker lighting up defenses is nothing new, and it will have to continue as the Pats march toward another impressive postseason run.
Jimmy Graham is a talented tight end who has given quarterback Drew Brees a massive target all season long. The Graham-to-Brees connection will likely be the deciding factor in how far the Saints can go this offseason.
Graham caught 99 passes in 2011, along with 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is one of the main reasons the Saints had the top-ranked offense in the NFL and are a huge threat in the postseason.
Graham has had a breakout season and can help lead his team to a Super Bowl victory by continuing to create mismatches that defenses simply can’t defend.
Rob Gronkowski had what some would call a breakout season in 2011. He was far and away the main target for the New England offense and will be for years to come.
Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and an astonishing 17 touchdowns. Tom Brady and Gronkowski seemed to be on the same page on every down, and opposing defenses were unable to stop the duo.
Gronkowski combines with receiver Wes Welker to provide Brady with great targets, but it will be Gronkowski that will have to produce the most to win games.
He is a huge mismatch for every team in the playoffs, and if the Patriots utilize him properly as they have all season, the Pats will be well on their way to another championship.
Arian Foster is an elite running back who will have to carry his team completely if the Texans have any shot of winning a Super Bowl this season.
Foster carried the ball 278 times for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games. He effectively put to rest any doubt that his 1,616-yard season in 2010 was a fluke. He led the Texans to a 10-6 record and the first postseason appearance in franchise history.
Foster will have to continue his amazing season because he will have to make up for a third-string rookie quarterback throwing the ball.
Foster has a chip on his shoulder for being an undrafted free agent, and he will need to continue to use that to motivate him if the Texans have any shot at winning a championship.
Eli Manning is not close to being the best quarterback in the postseason, but he is a great player who will win games if surrounded by elite talent.
Eli passed for 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions with 4,933 yards. His 92.9 rating was solid as well.
Manning is a veteran with a Super Bowl victory already on his resume. He is the undisputed leader of the team and will utilize the elite talent around him effectively.
Manning, backed with a seriously underrated defense, has the ability to lead his team to another Super Bowl victory as the underdog. For Manning, that would just be business as usual.
Von Miller is a game-breaking rookie who took the league by storm this season. The NFL quickly learned to account for Miller on every single snap.
Miller posted an incredible 11.5 sacks along with 64 tackles. He joined another elite pass-rusher, Elvis Dumervil, and the duo terrorized the league. The pass rush easily made the Broncos defense formidable against any offense.
Miller will be an important part of another postseason victory for the Broncos. He has already established himself as elite at pressuring quarterbacks, and that ability will be vital to an even more impressive postseason run.
Victor Cruz had a breakout season in 2011, to say the least. Cruz easily moved into elite status in his second season, and there is no looking back.
Cruz had 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and a great 18.7 yards-per-catch average. He added nine touchdowns to his resume as well, and he won games with his big-play ability.
Cruz joins Hakeem Nicks to form one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Eli Manning has a lot of options, but Cruz needs to be the main target the majority of the time.
Cruz is the new elite receiver in the NFL, and he could add a Super Bowl victory to his amazing season with ease.
Jason Pierre-Paul didn’t see the field much in his rookie season last year. This season, the Giants unleashed Paul on the NFL and he quickly established himself as one of the best overall players in the league.
Paul racked up 86 tackles and a jaw-dropping 16.5 sacks while helping lead a vastly underrated defensive unit. Paul teams up with one of the best defensive lines in the league to make life a nightmare for any quarterback who dares to face the Giants.
Paul is one of those players who will get his no matter what. If opposing teams don’t do everything possible to limit him, he will have huge games that lead to Giants victories.
Haloti Ngata is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. His ability to absorb multiple blockers frees up other players to stop the run or rush the passer.
Ngata had another stellar season with 64 tackles and five sacks. His presence on the line heavily contributed to a defensive unit that only allowed 16 points per game. He helped the Ravens sweep the AFC North en route to a 12-4 record.
Ngata might not make a spectacular play, but he will be the main reason the people around him will be able to perform well. Any offense has to account for Ngata on every play, and his presence alone changes a game instantly.
Aldon Smith is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, and will be invaluable in a pass-heavy NFC. The rookie is easily the best in the league, and he will shine brightly in the postseason.
Smith had 37 tackles in the 2011 season, but more importantly had 14 sacks. He is part of the best linebacker corps in the NFL, and he is the primary pass rusher on the 49ers.
Smith is part of the elite overall defensive unit that only gives up 14 points a game. His pass-rushing ability will be imperative in a Super Bowl run.
If Smith can disrupt the timing of the opposing passing game, the 49ers will easily shut down the run.
Darren Sproles is a multi-threat player in a similar mold to Ray Rice. He is a threat in both the passing and running game. His ability to break a game wide open on special teams or offense make him one of the best players in the league.
Sproles rushed 87 times for 603 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, Sproles caught 86 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. He also accumulated 1,089 yards on kick returns and 294 yards on punt returns.
Sproles' production certainly is one of the main reasons the Saints are in the position they found themselves in. Sproles will easily give other playoff teams a headache, and if they aren’t careful, he will win a game in the blink of an eye.
Patrick Willis is the heart and soul of a San Francisco 49ers defense that only gives up 14 points a game. If Willis is healthy, the 49ers are a team none of the high-flying offenses in the NFC will want to encounter.
Willis had 97 tackles, two sacks and four forced fumbles in 13 games. He leads a linebacker corps that is far and away the best in the league.
Willis will single-handedly shut down any run offense the 49ers encounter, and will also heavily contribute to stopping the pass as well.
Defenses can still win championships, and Willis leads a scary defense that can win a Super Bowl easily.
Terrell Suggs is the best defensive player in the league. He easily had the best season of his career in 2011 and looks to take that momentum into the postseason.
Suggs finished 2011 with 70 tackles, seven forced fumbles, two interceptions and an impressive 14 sacks. He was a nightmare for opposing defenses and is easily the most feared defender in the game today.
Suggs won’t necessarily win a game on his own, but he will consistently pressure the quarterback into making mistakes. His play will directly result in turnovers that will contribute to the Ravens making a serious run at the Super Bowl.
Charles Woodson is one of the best defensive players in the league and has been for several years. Woodson is the type of player who can single-handedly win a game for his team with his knack for turnovers.
Woodson had another elite season recording 74 tackles, two sacks and seven interceptions. He is one of the bright spots on what has been a mediocre defense overall.
If Woodson has to, he can win a playoff game for the Packers. He is a rare talent that will change a game on any down. Woodson could easily be the difference-maker in a Super Bowl victory.
Ray Rice is the most dynamic player in the NFL, and accounts for the majority of the success the Baltimore Ravens have had offensively this season. He not only contributes in the running game, but in the passing game as well.
Rice had 291 carries for 1,346 yards with 12 touchdowns and an amazing 4.7 average. He also had an insane 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns.
The amazing thing about Rice is he does what a quarterback is supposed to do: make the players around him better. Rice is the main reason Joe Flacco had a successful season and took pressure off of the offensive line by catching so many passes.
The Ravens have an elite defense that has the potential to win games, but they will only win a championship if Rice carries the team the way he has all season.
Drew Brees is responsible for directing the best offense in the NFL. Brees is one of those special players who makes everyone around him better, and his playoff experience makes him that much more valuable.
Brees threw for a career-high 46 touchdowns and 5,476 yards. He hit over a 100 rating for the third time in his career with a rating of 110.6.
He had a solid rushing game to complement him, but running lanes were only open because defenses had to attempt to stop Brees.
Brees has a very solid team around him, but he will be the only reason the Saints advance past the stacked NFC Conference.
Tom Brady yet again had a jaw-dropping season while leading his team to a 13-3 record. Brady won’t win the MVP this year, but he is responsible for a top five offense covering up the second-to-last defense in the league.
Brady’s season was outstanding, throwing for 39 touchdowns and 5,235 yards with only 12 interceptions. His 105.6 rating is an elite number, and it marks his third season with a rating over 100.
Brady may not be the best quarterback in the league, but he is certainly in the conversation. He is also arguably the most important player in the playoffs. If he has one bad game, the Patriots will surely lose.
Aaron Rodgers is far and away the best player in the NFL. The reigning MVP is set to win another one easily after his incredible record-setting 2011 campaign.
Rodgers passed for 45 touchdowns and 4,643 yards with an incredible 122.5 rating on the season. Even more impressive is the fact that Rodgers only threw six interceptions in 502 attempts. His stellar play has covered up an average-at-best defense.
Rodgers is surrounded by talented play-makers like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley, all of whom have made Rodgers’ job even easier. Rodgers is the best in the league at exploiting mismatches that the players around him provide.
Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are looking to win a second consecutive Super Bowl, and if Rodgers continues on his streak, the Pack will do so easily.