The best part of playoff football isn’t always cheering on one particular team. Sometimes it’s all about the matchups.
You know what I’m talking about. When two teams square off, there are always those positional battles that will take center stage because of the sheer raw talent both players share.
These are the matchups that have the potential to make or break the game for each team as star defenders do their best to cover each team’s top offensive contributors.
What marquee battles are in store for us as the Divisional Round of the playoffs kicks off? Keep clicking to find out.
If the San Francisco 49ers are going to stand a chance against the New Orleans Saints, then Frank Gore needs to play the game of his life. It’s not outside the realm of possibility: Gore has had a monster 2012 season, posting some of the best numbers of his career across the board.
It is fortunate that Gore is having such a standout season because his offensive counterpart, Alex Smith, is a pretty pedestrian quarterback. Gore’s rushing attack has been the lynch pin that holds the 49ers offense together, while Smith’s passing game has been a satisfactory compliment.
Standing between Gore and the breakout rushing game the 49ers need will be Roman Harper and the rest of the New Orleans defense.
A team leader, Harper has been a big key to the Saints defense, contributing 95 tackles and seven defended passes in 2011. Although his contributions come all over the field, Harper will be tasked with keeping an eye on Gore to try to limit the Niners’ notoriously good ground game.
This matchup could be particularly crucial if Harper is unable to play at full strength on Saturday due to an ankle injury that he sustained during the matchup against the Lions.
Demaryius Thomas and Devin McCourty may both be relatively new to the NFL, but they will be two of the more exciting players on the field come Saturday.
With fellow wide receiver Eric Decker out of the game, it will fall upon Thomas to put the team on his back and step up for another big game. He’ll have a little bit of help from Eddie Royal, but New England is sure to cover Thomas with the best it has.
That’s where McCourty comes into the picture. He’s done a fine job downfield throughout the season, defending well against the pass. He’s also a decent interception threat.
One of the biggest battles of the Divisional Round of the playoffs will be played out on the ground in Baltimore. Ray Rice may be the better-known running back in that area, but the Ravens will have a lot to worry about whenever Arian Foster takes the field.
Once an undrafted free agent, Foster has carved out a place for himself in Houston. Through injury to two quarterbacks, Foster has remained the rock that runs the Houston offense.
The Ravens, particularly Ray Lewis, have taken notice.
If Foster wishes to find better success in Baltimore than he did during the regular season when he was held to just 49 yards on the ground, he will have to find a way to beat Lewis.
A seasoned veteran, Lewis is prepared to keep that from happening. He will use every scheme in his expansive arsenal to keep Texans from establishing a ground game, which has a good chance of ending that franchise’s first-ever playoff run.
It is pretty much a given that Eli Manning is going to feast on a Green Bay Packers defense that has been vulnerable to passing attacks all season. He will do it with the help of a standout wide receiver trio in Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Although all three are potentially dangerous, it is starting to look like veteran cornerback Charles Woodson will shoulder most of the burden when it comes to covering Nicks. The rest of the Packers coverage squad is okay, but Woodson is one of their true gems.
The battle between Nicks and Woodson will be a big factor in determining the outcome of the game.
If Woodson can keep up or even generate turnovers off of covering Nicks, the end result is pretty clear. On the other hand, if Nicks is able to manhandle Woodson (a definite possibility) and force him to give up big plays as he is wont to do when pressured, the game could be a big upset.
Darren Sproles may not be the most frequently called-upon running back for the New Orleans Saints, but he’s the guy who seems to make things happen on the ground more consistently than anyone else on the team.
A lot of that has to do with Sproles’ elusiveness and efficient movement with the ball. He’s hard to follow, quick to change course, and has no fear when it comes to putting himself on the line to make a play.
On the other side of the ball, Patrick Willis is itching to be the one to bring Sproles and the rest of the Saints running game back down to earth.
After missing three weeks during the regular season due to injury, Willis is ready to get back to doing his thing in the middle of the field. He is a hugely disruptive influence for the offense and will likely be a big factor when it comes to getting pressure on Drew Brees as well.
Wes Welker is arguably one of the best receivers in the league. It can be hard to remember that, though, given how much Welker has been overshadowed by teammate Rob Gronkowski.
After grinding out 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season, Welker will be eager to demonstrate during the playoffs that he, not Gronkowski, is the go-to receiver for the Patriots.
There’s just one problem: in order to get there, Welker will have to out-play veteran Pro Bowler Champ Bailey.
That’s no mean feat; Bailey may be starting to slow down a bit as his career enters its twilight, but he makes up for it in cunning. He’s great at breaking up passes, and if he’s feeling his age it’s difficult to see it as he keeps pace with the best and brightest receivers in the league.
The offensive line is tasked with protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the run. The defensive line is tasked with getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run. These are fundamentals of football.
They are also goals that are in direct conflict with one another.
There doesn't necessarily need to be names mentioned here, given the magnitude of the battle that will take place on Saturday.
Every player on the Saints' highly effective offensive line will have to do his part to protect Drew Brees while the excellent defensive line of the 49ers will give everything they have to show Brees the grass.
When Aaron Rodgers takes the field in Green Bay, all eyes will be on him for the excitement he brings to the field.
What few will notice will be the battle taking place right under Aaron’s nose between his offensive tackles and the Giants defensive ends—among others.
This will be a crucial part of the game. If Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are able to disrupt newly-returned Chad Cliffton and Bryan Bulaga, things will go south for the Packers. In fact, the entire front line (which has not played together as a single unit since Week 3) will have to step up in a big way.
Rodgers will need the pocket protection if the Giants intend to follow the game plan laid out by the Kansas City Chiefs, rushing just four and dropping seven or eight back into coverage. That formula—which is well suited to adaptation by the Giants—worked once against the Packers.
There’s no hard evidence that it will work again, but it’s still a thread of hope for New York: it was the only proven way to bring Rodgers back down to earth.