NFL Playoff Predictions: 5 Stars Due for Monster Postseasons
All teams in the Divisional Playoffs have stars. But not all stars will shine in the postseason. So which stars will carry their teams and which stars will struggle?
The most oft-used methodology is to look back at recent performances to see who's hot, or to review past head-to-head performances to find trends. Unfortunately, these are flawed methodologies because circumstances are different in every game, so the past is not a reliable predictor of the future.
How then do we mine the star-studded gridiron to find the true gems?
Let's look at each game and investigate our options.
1. TE Rob Gronkowski
Denver vs. New England will showcase two intriguing quarterback-wide receiver tandems: the Broncos' young passing combo of Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas, and the Patriots' veteran combo of Tom Brady and Wes Welker.
But the star that will rise above them all will be Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Broncos pass defense is solid, and expect cornerback Champ Bailey to hold up his end of the bargain against Welker.
However, the Broncos pass defense will have problems covering the Patriots' athletic pass-catching tight end.
In their Week 15 matchup against the Patriots, the Broncos allowed a staggering five times the production to tight ends that the Denver defense normally gives up to that position.
That game was Aaron Hernandez's day to shine; this week, and the rest of the playoffs, will belong to Gronkowski.
2. QB Drew Brees
While the San Francisco pass defense is a fairly strong unit (fifth in the NFC), they haven't faced an offense like the Saints this season.
And while the Saints receivers individually aren't superstars, it's the superstar quarterback that makes this such a dangerous offense.
Drew Brees leads a passing attack that makes vertical threats of almost all its offensive weapons, from versatile running back Darren Sproles, to the four-deep receiver group led by Marques Colston, to tight end Jimmy Graham.
For the 49ers, their star—running back Frank Gore—will be a non-factor once New Orleans puts San Francisco in an early scoring deficit that will require the 49ers to abandon the run in order to keep pace.
Looking beyond the 49ers, the Saints would likely face the Green Bay Packers for the NFC Championship. The Packers passing defense, last in the NFL in yards per game, will also allow Brees to put up monster numbers.
Drew Brees is primed for a monster postseason indeed.
3. RB Arian Foster
Yes, I realize Foster is facing the second-ranked Baltimore rushing defense and their fast linebacker corps.
Yes, I realize Foster only got 49 rushing yards in 15 carries in their regular-season matchup.
Yes, I realize the Texans will again be on the road at Baltimore, where they lost the aforementioned regular-season matchup.
And I still say Foster is in line for a big game and—if his team can pull off the upset—postseason.
In their regular season game, the Texans were without wideout Andre Johnson. The Ravens knew that the only offensive weapon they had to worry about was Arian Foster. So they focused on Foster and kept him in check.
This time, Andre Johnson will be playing. Sure, the quarterback throwing the ball to Johnson is rookie T.J. Yates instead of veteran Matt Schaub.
But Yates is a pretty solid rookie quarterback. He shows good poise and good foot movement, and the Texans are not afraid to take shots downfield with Yates.
Even in his postseason debut against a very good Cincinnati pass defense (ninth in the NFL), Yates did not show butterflies or rookie rattling. He was an efficient 11-for-20 for 159 yards. That's an average 14.5 yards per completion. He also threw a touchdown to Andre Johnson and did not throw any picks.
Having Johnson on the field will keep the Ravens defense honest and give Foster more room to run than in their regular-season tilt.
Baltimore's star RB Ray Rice will likely do well also. But expect Foster to surprisingly be the more impactful star in this one.
4. QB Aaron Rodgers
It will be cold in Green Bay on Sunday but star quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be hot.
With wide receiver Greg Jennings back along with left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Packers offense will be at full strength.
The Packers will need it against an improved Giants pass defense and a stiff pass rush that shut out the Falcons offense last week.
Although teams tend to run the ball more in cold conditions in the playoffs, the Packers aren't likely to let Ryan Grant or James Starks decide their fate.
In a game featuring many stars on both sides of the ball for both teams, Rodgers will stand out above the rest.
5. QB Eli Manning
While all the hype in this matchup will be on Rodgers—and rightfully so—Giants quarterback Eli Manning is primed for a monster game as well.
The Giants, much like the Packers, are not a run-oriented team. However, unlike the Packers, the Giants are a little more effective at running the ball. This helps keep defenses honest and helps sell play-fakes—which in turn helps Manning.
What's more, with three star wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham, Manning runs a passing offense that's difficult to cover.
You can put your best cornerback on one of those Giant receivers, but what about the other two?
And as a bonus, Manning faces the worst passing defense in the NFL.
As an additional consideration: with the Packers offense likely putting up some points, the Giants are more likely to throw the ball to keep up.
Looks like the stars are lining up for Manning to have a big game. There might even be an upset in the making here.
Honorable Mention: RB Ray Rice
Ray Rice had a big game the last time the Ravens faced the Texans.
And while I'm not convinced Rice will have as big a game this time around, he should still have a pretty productive game.
So why, then, didn't Rice make the list?
The biggest reason is that if the Ravens beat the Texans, the Ravens will presumably face high-octane offenses the rest of the postseason in the Patriots and either the Packers or Saints.
And if that holds true, the Ravens might have to play catch up and abandon the run sooner than they would like.
Rice is a very competent receiver out of the backfield. However, being Mr. Checkdown doesn't exactly set him up to have a monster postseason.
The other reason Rice didn't make the list is that I'm feeling a Texans upset.
There's a decent chance the Texans—as the fourth-best rushing defense in the NFL—can bottle up Rice this time around. And if that happens, it's not like Joe Flacco is a sure bet to bail out the offense. Rice's postseason could end Saturday.
Still, there's a chance Rice's numbers can be good enough to include him as an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention: RB Darren Sproles
Sproles is not a big-name star. But in looking at the remainder of the postseason, the one player who has the best chance to make the biggest impact outside of the aforementioned five stars (and Ray Rice) is Sproles.
That qualifies him as an honorable mention.
The 49ers, as will any other postseason defense, have to contend with the Saints' various vertical threats. That leaves Darren Sproles with open field to maneuver.
Sproles plus open field equals problems for defenses.
San Francisco has not faced a player—multi-dimensional and difficult to track, elusive yet tough and physical—like Sproles this season.
While Sproles won't have 100-yard rushing games due to the way the Saints like to use him, he will make his presence known more consistently throughout the entire postseason than anyone else not on this list.