NFL Playoff Predictions: Which Overlooked Stars Will Power Teams to Victory?

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 21:   Deion Branch #84 of the New England Patriots prepares for a game with the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on November 21, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Getting big performances from star players is always important for a team hoping to make a deep playoff run. Equally crucial, however, are the second-tier contributors that can help push a team over the top and keep the squad's Super Bowl dreams alive.

Here are three players that will fill that role in the divisional round.

 

Deion Branch

Branch continues to be a reliable option for Tom Brady. He's never surpassed 1,000 yards or caught more than five touchdowns in a single season, but he can be trusted to make a big play when the New England Patriots need it most.

Since the Denver Broncos were burned by Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in the first meeting, they are probably spending a lot of time in practice this week focusing on stopping the tight ends. That will allow Branch to fly under the radar, which is when he's the most effective.

Prediction: five catches, 76 yards and a TD

 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 26:   Chris Ivory #29 of the New Orleans Saints runs the ball against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints defeated the Falcons 45-16.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Chris Ivory

The New Orleans Saints needed somebody to emerge to provide some balance on offense and it appears Ivory is that guy. He's taken over as the main ball-carrier on early downs, which at least forces defenses to have some respect for the team's running game.

His effectiveness on Saturday will be vital. The San Francisco 49ers were the league's top run defense and allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season. They will attempt to completely shut down the running game to turn the Saints into a one-dimensional team.

Ivory needs to make sure that doesn't happen.

Prediction: 12 carries, 50 yards and a TD

 

James Starks

Green Bay Packers fans will remember that Starks was one of the breakout stars from last season's Super Bowl run. He'll hope to rekindle that magic after an injury-plagued campaign that seen him score just one touchdown.

Like the Saints, Green Bay needs some semblance of a rushing attack to succeed.

Starks will split time with Ryan Grant, but the Buffalo product has the potential to make more big plays assuming he's fully recovered from a nagging ankle issue. Look for him to get the first crack at stabilizing the Packers backfield and run with it, literally.

Prediction: 15 carries, 70 yards and two TDs