NFL Playoffs 2012: 5 Most Intriguing Players in Conference Championships

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IJanuary 21, 2012

NFL Playoffs 2012: 5 Most Intriguing Players in Conference Championships

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    With a Super Bowl appearance on the line, teams competing for an NFL Conference Championship can expect their stars to come to play. Yet, below those celestial heights, there is at least one player on each team that will influence the outcome more than you might think.

    The NFL playoffs always seem to create a couple of new stars every season. It's impossible to know already who those players will be, but there are a few under-the-radar contributors that stick out heading into Sunday's games.

Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers QB

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    Alex Smith has delivered a historically great season in 2011, but not in the way that you might expect. He's not setting any records for passing yards, touchdowns or quarterback rating, but he did finish the year as one of the most careful quarterbacks in NFL history.

    Only 1.1 percent of Smith's passes were picked off this season, the best in the NFL this year and the fifth-best single-season mark of all time. He hasn't thrown an interception since Week 11, a span of six games and nearly 200 pass attempts.

    The New York Giants won in Green Bay because their defense held down Aaron Rodgers. New York's divisional round win was the only game this year in which Rodgers threw for fewer than 280 yards and also tossed an interception.

    Smith will have certainly have to be mistake-free on Sunday, but against a Giants offense that is more than capable to putting up points, he'll have to make some plays as well. He proved that he could do it against New Orleans, but it'll be interesting to see if a player in his first playoff run can duplicate that performance.

Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens WR

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    The Baltimore Ravens defense is very good, but at Foxborough against the New England Patriots, the Ravens offense must know that 20 points isn't going to be enough to get a win.

    The New England defense is vulnerable, especially against the deep pass. For the Ravens to book a trip to Indianapolis, their young speedster pull out of his rut.

    Torrey Smith proved that he can exploit a weak secondary when exploded on to the scene in Week 3, torching the St. Louis Rams for 152 yards and three touchdowns. That game showed Smith's ability to dominate, but in recent weeks, he hasn't been able to get loose.

    Smith has just two receptions for more than 30 yards in his last seven games, and caught just one ball for nine yards against the Houston Texans in the divisional round.

    The Patriots don't have a corner whose skills are even close those of Jonathan Joseph, who covered Smith for much of the game last week. Smith needs to take advantage and get deep as much as possible, popping the top off of a defense that is already one of the worst in football.

Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants RB

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    Brandon Jacobs performed well in the New York Giants' first trip to San Francisco, rushing for 55 yards on 18 carries. It doesn't seem like much, but that's actually the second-highest total that the 49ers allowed to any opposing rusher at home.

    Facing the best rushing defense in the NFL once again, Jacobs will be counted on to move the chains, something the Giants have struggled with this year. New York converted first downs on just 25 percent of its up-the-middle runs in short yardage situations.

    He's carried the ball 10 or more times just once in his last five games, but when those situations come up on Sunday, and they will, I'd be surprised if the Giants don't look to Jacobs. If New York is going to make it back to the Super Bowl, Jacobs will need to use his considerable bulk to push a few piles.

Patrick Chung, New England Patriots S

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    The New England Patriots defense has held its opponent to fewer than 20 points only five times this season. Patrick Chung has played in three of those games, a significant number given the fact that Chung has played in only nine total games this season.

    Chung is still a little dinged up heading into Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, but he'll absolutely be on the field, and he'll be challenged.

    The Ravens' offense will stretch Chung in every direction. He'll have to react to run plays as well as play action, cover Baltimore's two athletic tight ends in the seams and step up to prevent Anquan Boldin for getting loose after the catch, all while guarding against the deep pass to Torrey Smith.

    Chung is capable of doing all of these things, but his performance slips, Baltimore will walk out of Gillette Stadium with a win.

Delanie Walker, San Francisco 49ers TE

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    When healthy, Delanie Walker formed an underratedly explosive tight end duo with Vernon Davis. Jim Harbuagh loves to use formations that employ multiple tight ends, and Walker gives him plenty of flexibility.

    He's not the field-stretcher that Davis is, but Walker is very effective as a second option. He caught more than half of the passes thrown his way and scored three touchdowns during his injury-shortened regular season.

    Against a team that will certainly pressure Alex Smith, Walker can be a valuable safety valve. He proved as much during the regular season when he led the Niners in receiver against the New York Giants, catching six passes for 69 yards.

    It's unknown whether Walker will be able to play on Sunday, but ESPN is reporting that team doctors have told him that his broken jaw has healed to the point where there is little danger of him re-breaking it.

    Knowing what's on the line for the Niners, I expect Walker to take the field and make an impact.