After two great rounds of playoff football, the 2011 NFL season is now ready to identify who is going to emerge as AFC and NFC Conference Champions, with the right to advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Most of the big-name stars have been able to assert themselves in the playoffs to put up some strong statistics and performances. There are several players that are flying-under-the-radar that have the potential to turn in a big game this weekend.
We are going to highlight two players from each of the final four teams, the New York Giants, the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots that might be ready to have a key role this weekend.
Granted, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans had a quiet season. Almost an eerily quiet season. But Evans is finally over his injuries that plagued him throughout the year, and if you happened to watch the Ravens defeat the Houston Texans you saw Evans make a key one-handed grab along the sidelines for a big-30-yard gain.
The problem is that was the only pass that quarterback Joe Flacco threw Evans way for the entire game. Besides throwing the ball to Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice (the two favorite targets of Flacco), Flacco also targeted three other Ravens, who came up with a total of only four catches out of 12 targets. Those three receivers were Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
The game against the Texans was the first playoff game in the career of Lee Evans. He demonstrated that he is ready to contribute, so now all that we need to see is for Flacco to start throwing the ball in his direction more often. Seems like a good weekend to try it, since the Patriots have the No. 31 ranked pass defense in the NFL.
There is no doubt that the Baltimore Ravens rely heavily on Ray Rice, and rightfully so. He is the heart and soul of the offense. In the game last week against the Houston Texans, Rice got his 25 touches (21 rushes and four pass receptions), which kept him very involved in the flow of the game. The end results for his 25 touches probably wasn't as effective as what the Ravens were hoping to see.
For the game, Rice gained only 60 yards in his 21 rushes. That amounts to a below-average 2.9 yards per rush, which is the kind of results that will prevent the Ravens from advancing past the AFC Championship game. Enter Ricky Williams. If for some reason Rice is showing that he is having trouble picking up big yards, don't be surprised to see Ricky Williams getting more carries.
Last weekend, Williams spelled Rice and carried the ball three straight plays to generate a first down and keep the chains moving. For the game, Williams had six carries for 27 yards, which comes out to a healthy 4.5 yards per rush. That is the kind of production that the Ravens need from their running game, especially if they want to keep Tom Brady on the sidelines and their offense out on the field.
When you think about Tom Brady passing the ball to his favorite targets at New England you generally think of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Those are the three receivers that most teams have to worry about, and place special emphasis on trying to contain them, or at least to slow them down.
The one other receiver that has been flying-under-the-radar lately has been Deion Branch. Last weekend against the Denver Broncos, Branch had a very strong game by catching three of the four passes that Brady threw his way. Those receptions were good for 85 yards and one touchdown. His long catch on the day was a 61-yard play.
This is the right time of the year for Branch to be heating up. With the Ravens defense keyed up to stop the trio of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, Branch will be in position to have a day to remember, especially if he can help his team reach the Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots wanted to mix up their offense last weekend to include more runs, to slow down the Denver Broncos blitzers who were intent on trying to disrupt Tom Brady and get him off of his rhythm. The Patriots turned to Aaron Hernandez, who wound up being their leading rusher with five rushes for a whopping 61 yards. That average of 12.2 yards per rush is just amazing.
What may surprise you to read is that as effective as Hernandez was rushing, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was far from it. He managed to gain only 28 yards on 13 carries for a very meager average of just 2.2 yards per carry. As we demonstrated with Ray Rice earlier, those are the kind of performances that prevent your team from playing one more week. The guy that had an extremely effective game running the ball was Danny Woodhead, who gained 25 yards on just four rushes, for a strong average of 6.3 yards per rush.
Woodhead is small in stature, but he is big in playing with heart. He can be difficult to find behind the much bigger linemen, and with his quickness, he can easily burst through the initial wave and pick up five or six yards per carry before the defense even knew that he had the ball. Woodhead can be an effective receiver out of the backfield as well, using his quickness to get into the open field, and be effective in picking up yards after the catch.
Everyone that follow the New York Giants knows that quarterback Eli Manning will throw the ball to whoever is open. That keeps the defenses honest, and prevents teams from picking up on tendencies. The only problem with that philosophy is when somebody keeps dropping the passes or is not playing up to par.
Such was the case last weekend against the Green Bay Packers, when starting tight end Jake Ballard just had a huge clunker of a game. Manning targeted Ballard eight times during the game, and Ballard just managed to catch one pass of the eight. He either wasn't coming back to the ball or was simply dropping the passes. He dropped a touchdown pass and that might Manning thinking twice this coming weekend.
The tight end that stepped up his game was the other Giants tight end, Travis Beckum. Beckum was only targeted twice last weekend, but he caught both passes, good for 22 yards. Beckum had a 10-yard catch and a 12-yard reception. Beckum is not dealing with any injuries like Ballard is (knee injury), so with so much as stake for the Giants, don't be surprised to see Beckum take on a larger role in the passing game this weekend.
Eli Manning attempted 17 passes last weekend to his trio of wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Out of those 17, he completed 15 of them, which is an extremely high percentage. It should be noted that it came against the No. 32 pass defense in the NFL, so the Packers secondary lived down to their reputation. But as for Manning and the Giants, they have to feel good about what is going on in the passing game.
The running game is picking up steam, as both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are healthy and running the ball effectively, like the Giants used to do in years past. But the passing game is really where the Giants continue to come up with big plays that tend to break the backs of their opponents.
Mario Manningham has made a strong impression over the last three to four weeks. Once again, Manningham stepped up against Green Bay by catching all three passes thrown his way, and scoring another touchdown. Since coming back from his knee problems that limited him in the regular season, Manningham has scored a touchdown in both of the Giants playoff wins. If the 49ers focus on stopping Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Manningham should have a strong day.
As followers of the San Francisco 49ers know too well, the offense evolves around a core group of four players, for better or worse. The "Core Four" are quarterback Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Gore usually gets the majority of rushing attempts, and Alex Smith divides the vast majority of his targets up between the trio of Gore, Davis and Crabtree.
The rest of the offense is left to fend for itself and look for whatever crumbs may come their way in a given week. Sometime there is a wait of multiple weeks for the other guys to touch the ball or have a chance to contribute with some offense. Kendall Hunter heads up the next wave of offensive players that are under-the-radar.
Hunter gained 76 yards rushing the ball in Week 17, which followed up rushing for 73 yards in Week 16. In those games, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per carry. Hunter is heating up at the right time, but will the 49ers give him enough touches in the playoffs to make an impact? Against New Orleans last weekend, Hunter had six rushes and one pass reception for a total of 36 yards of offense. If Gore is getting worn out from carrying the bulk of the load, Hunter will be ready to step in.
As we just finished documenting, there are not many choices for other bit players on the San Francisco 49ers offense that would meet the qualification of "heating up". Tight end Delanie Walker has a broken jaw and might not play this weekend. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. hurt his knee last weekend and may not play this weekend either. Wide receiver Kyle Williams came in to relieve Ginn Jr., and promptly was called for two consecutive pass interference penalties, earning a home in the dog house.
We can't use Braylon Edwards since he has been released. So, with a narrowing window of options, we are going to go out on a limb and say that Ted Ginn Jr. will bounce back from his knee issues and play this weekend. If he plays, he can help the 49ers in a number of ways. He is effective in the return game. He can run the ball on end-arounds. He is a possession type receiver that can help to move the chains and serve as another target for Alex Smith.
Without a crystal ball, it will be interesting to see if any of the other options do step up this weekend. One thing is clear to me, and that is there is a definite need for the 49ers to add some more weapons to their overall offensive unit. The cupboard is rather bare.