10 Players That Will Make or Break Their Team's Playoff Hopes

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIINovember 8, 2012

10 Players That Will Make or Break Their Team's Playoff Hopes

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    Newsflash: the NFL is a quarterback-driven league more than ever. With so many teams' playoff hopes hanging in the balance in the season's latter half, a slew of inexperienced QBs will determine the fate of many current contenders.

    One could argue that quarterbacks alone will ultimately determine the fate of each team's season.

    But every team's circumstances are slightly different, and the man under center isn't the main source of the problem. Skill players and even defensive starters making various adjustments have even more of a stake in determining how the playoff picture will shake out.

    Here is a look at the 10 players in particular who will make or break the hopes of their playoff hopeful franchises.

Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson

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    Three signal-callers were selected in the first eight picks of the 2012 NFL draft. All have been impressive, but it's a different rookie who leads all of them with 13 touchdown passes.

    Yes, the under-six-foot Wilson has risen from the third round and third string on the depth chart to be the starter in Seattle. After a nightmare game at San Francisco, Wilson has responded over the past two weeks. Most recently, he threw three touchdowns in helping the Seahawks pull out a must-win game at home against the Vikings.

    Inconsistency and a tendency to have lapses and throw picks should be expected from a player who wasn't supposed to start this early in the first place—maybe even never, given his size.

    But Wilson has defied all odds at every corner in his football career and is making strides every single game. There are plenty of factors working in his favor: an elite defense, a phenomenal running game led by Marshawn Lynch and the problems Wilson's mobility presents to an opponent.

    Oh, and the Seahawks enjoy what is probably the biggest home field advantage in the league and will take on the New York Jets in Week 10 just ahead of their bye week.

    The Seattle D and running game have done their part, but for the Seahawks to push into the playoffs, they will have to overcome an early 0-3 record in the NFC West and continue to get stellar play from Wilson.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: FS Ronde Barber

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    Much better ball security by QB Josh Freeman and the stunning play of Doug Martin at running back has the Tampa Bay offense among the most exciting up-and-coming units.

    First-year head coach Greg Schiano must find a way to improve the defense, which is his area of expertise. That starts with the longest tenured Buccaneer in Barber.

    In making the transition from cornerback to free safety, Barber has shown a nose for the football in making three interceptions. But the Bucs have been burned for a slew of big passing plays and find themselves ranked last in allowing 321 yards passing per game.

    The fact that Tampa ranks first in rush defense is part of the explanation for that, but that amount of yardage through the air will be too much for the team to overcome if it wants to make the postseason.

    Talented CB Aqib Talib was traded to the New England Patriots just before the deadline, and the team's next best player at the position is Eric Wright. That helps to explain why this is the worst pass defense in the league, and in Talib's absence, it may become even more dreadful.

    A veteran like Barber must take control of the suspect secondary, which also consists of E.J. Biggers and top-10 pick Mark Barron.

    Otherwise, the slew of elite quarterbacks left on the schedule—Matt Ryan twice, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers on a good day—will likely dash the upstart Bucs' playoff hopes.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Christian Ponder

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    Was anyone ever sold on Ponder as the No. 12 overall pick?

    A collective eyebrow was definitely raised when the Vikings selected him in that slot in last year's draft. But after a predictably up-and-down rookie campaign with no offseason and no endorsement as the starter entering Week 1, Ponder started his sophomore season with a bang.

    The Vikings were one of the biggest surprises early, and Ponder wound up being the last starting QB to throw an interception. Suddenly, the big investment in Ponder seemed like it was paying big dividends.

    Since then, unfortunately, things have gone a little bit south for the team and its franchise quarterback.

    Ponder's career is far from over, as is the 2012 season. There is still plenty of time for him to bounce back, starting with a pivotal NFC North battle with Detroit on Sunday.

    The Metrodome will be going wild to will the Vikings to victory just ahead of their Week 11 bye. Having the momentum of a win entering the hiatus would be invaluable for Leslie Frazier's team, but especially for Ponder.

    If stud playmaker Percy Harvin's ankle injury keeps him out for any extended period, it will be all the more vital for Ponder to step up and keep Minnesota's hopes alive.

Detroit Lions: RB Mikel Leshoure

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    Detroit badly needed a revelation in its backfield, and Leshoure may finally be the man to bring more balance to the Lions offense.

    A three-touchdown performance in Jacksonville resulted in a stress-free afternoon for QB Matthew Stafford, who has struggled to continue carrying the offense after a 5,000-yard season in 2011.

    With coverages continuing to roll over to Calvin Johnson, Leshoure needs to provide production for the Lions on the ground if they are meant to have any hopes of making the playoffs.

    The NFC North division will likely send at least two teams to the postseason—the Bears and Packers—and the Lions must win their Week 10 trip to Minnesota to maintain pace in the wildcard race.

    Perpetual concussion issues have held out explosive RB Jahvid Best, and he may not ever see a football field again.

    As volatile as the running back position has become, Leshoure is easily Detroit's best option and must shoulder almost all of the load. He averaged just two yards per carry in his last outing against the Vikings and will need much more than that to ensure the Lions get a win this time around.

    Entering an arduous two-game homestand with Green Bay and Houston, the difference between 5-4 and 4-5 will be substantial. It's up to Leshoure to build off his career-best game to push Detroit over .500 and key it to a second consecutive playoff berth.

New Orleans Saints: LB Jonathan Vilma

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    The Bountygate scandal had a severe impact on multiple players, but Vilma was the most noteworthy among them. Originally slated to miss the entire season, the longtime Saints middle linebacker was reinstated and activated for the team's Week 8 game in Tampa Bay.

    Since Vilma's return, the defense hadn't improved much as a unit until Monday night's home game against Philadelphia, where the Eagles were consistently stymied in the red zone.

    That may be more of an indication of Philly's dysfunction than anything, but the Saints did allow a season-low 13 points regardless.

    Such a performance should inspire confidence and give coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a boost after a slew of such nightmarish results in the first half of the year. Vilma is the unquestioned emotional leader of the defense, and the plug-in of former Atlanta Falcon Curtis Lofton couldn't replace that.

    Now, the two talented linebackers share the field, with Vilma playing to Lofton's side (h/t The Sun-Herald). It worked well for at least one week and should continue to help fortify their league-worst run defense.

    With Drew Brees orchestrating the lethal New Orleans passing attack, you know what you're getting from the Saints offensively. It's the defense that has prevented the team from being more prominently featured in the playoff discussion.

    If the Saints keep improving and Vilma can avoid his suspension, a running game can be better established on offense. That will lead to the defense seeing less time on the field and improvement as a result.

    An immediate, stern test looms at home against undefeated Atlanta on Sunday. Lofton will likely perform well facing his former team, but it will be Vilma's play that ultimately determines how effective the explosive Falcons offense can be.

    It's a must-win for the Saints, and Vilma must get it done for them to have a chance at winning their fourth game out of five.

Indianapolis Colts: QB Andrew Luck

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    An extremely young team is playing inspired football for their head coach, Chuck Pagano, who is dealing with a treatable form of leukemia and hasn't been able to man the sidelines during the Colts' stunning 5-3 run.

    Luck is leading the way as the No. 1 overall pick and has already shown a knack for leading Indy to victory in close games. Of the Colts' five victories, none of them have been by more than six points. That outcome was an overtime victory over Tennessee.

    With a golden opportunity to go 6-3 on Thursday night in Jacksonville, don't expect Luck to let it slip. His rookie-record 433 yards passing and two touchdowns against the Dolphins last week was nothing short of phenomenal—no turnovers, 13-of-19 on third down and uncanny veteran poise were all present.

    Any hype that could have been placed on Luck has been exceeded in terms of what his team has done. In an uncharacteristically weak AFC, the Colts find themselves right in the thick of playoff contention.

    Imagine this: If the regular season ended today, Luck would go up against—yup, you guessed it—Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in an AFC wildcard game.

    If Indy can pull out its fourth straight win on a short week, it will be a huge boost. The Colts will then have an extra few days of rest and preparation before facing the New England Patriots in Foxboro. That will be a true test of just how good this team and Luck really are.

    It's incredible that Luck has brought this preseason bottom feeder in most power rankings to a playoff contender this early on.

    Any hope this team has of continuing its storybook season rests on Luck, and for that reason, you have to at least somewhat like their chances.

Cincinnati Bengals: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    The Law Firm was a touchdown machine in New England, but it seems that the Bengals are missing Cedric Benson more than they thought they would.

    Massive expectations were set by outsiders, analysts, fans and even Cincinnati players alike. With the Pittsburgh Steelers surging as usual and the Baltimore Ravens continuing to be a formidable foe, the Bengals have become buried in the AFC North.

    All the magic from their improbable playoff run last year has been vaporized, and QB Andy Dalton is having a difficult time taking the passing game to the next level.

    That's partially due to the fact that Green-Ellis hasn't been productive at all, averaging a measly 3.4 yards per carry.

    His touchdown in the team's most recent game in Denver was his first since Week 3, and his career-long streak of no fumbles has crashed and burned in 2012. Green-Ellis put the ball on the ground three times within the first four games.

    For the Bengals to have any hope of digging out of a 3-5 hole and their current four-game losing streak, Green-Ellis must bounce back in Week 10 in Paul Brown Stadium. The only problem is, the opponent is the defending champion New York Giants, who are eager to get off the mat after a crushing home loss to Pittsburgh.

    If there were ever a time for Green-Ellis to have his first 100-yard outing as a Bengal, it would be Sunday. The Giants haven't been particularly stellar on defense in 2012, and Cincinnati desperately needs to keep the ball away from Eli Manning.

    Only the Ravens and Steelers in the final two regular season games currently have winning records on the Bengals' remaining schedule.

    The playoffs are still within shouting distance, but Green-Ellis must get going.

San Diego Chargers: TE Antonio Gates

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    Gratitude should be given to Gates, since he essentially revolutionized the tight end position. Also admirable is the veteran's ability to gut through numerous nagging injuries to stay on the field for the talented Chargers.

    A beat-up San Diego receiving corps has led to a second consecutive inconsistent year from QB Phillip Rivers thus far, and he needs to look more toward his security blanket in Gates to help him out.

    Rivers and Gates have only connected on 24 of 41 attempts and will need to get more on the same page for the Charger offense to have more success in the passing game. The team ranks 22nd in the league in averaging just 217 yards per game—and it's not as though Ryan Mathews or the other San Diego backs have been putting up huge numbers, either.

    Other than a fluky, scrappy 7-6 loss in Cleveland, Gates has performed well recently. His six-catch, 81-yard performance with two touchdowns against Denver was very impressive. When the Chargers hosted Kansas City in Week 9, Gates had three catches for 43 yards and a score.

    It seems Gates is becoming more and more involved, and Rivers is coming off of his best outing of 2012.

    The extra time off from the Thursday night game will be key, as the Chargers travel to the East Coast to take on Tampa Bay in a key matchup of 4-4 teams.

    The Bucs are dead-last against the pass, which should result in another big game from Rivers and Gates. That should be an emerging trend if the Chargers are to snag a wildcard spot in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill

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    The pass defense definitely needs some work—particularly after suffering at the hands of Andrew Luck's record day. But with such a stellar run defense and a three-deep backfield behind him, it really falls on the No. 8 overall pick to get it done for Miami.

    Tannehill has benefited from having the same offensive system as he did in college thanks to Joe Philbin's hiring of Mike Sherman as offensive coordinator on the Dolphins staff.

    That has resulted in a stellar season for Tannehill, who put up a largely impressive outing in Indianapolis despite gutting through an injury.

    Not many pundits had the Dolphins sitting at 4-4 at the halfway point, but here they are.

    Two very winnable games are on tap with a home tilt against the Titans and a road test at AFC East rival Buffalo. If Tannehill and Co. emerge victorious in both, the Dolphins will be 6-4 as they enter the tougher part of their schedule.

    A loss in either of those two games, though, will likely deflate the team's bid at the postseason. With Davone Bess and Brian Hartline as the top two receiving options, it will be an uphill battle for Tannehill despite his consistent improvement and familiarity with the scheme.

    It's hard not to love Tannehill's upside as the Dolphins' answer—finally—at QB, but it will take an extraordinary effort on his part to make Miami a playoff team in 2012.

Oakland Raiders: RB Darren McFadden

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    Run DMC has been hit with the injury bug once again, this time in the form of a high ankle sprain in Week 9's loss to the Buccaneers.

    There are plenty of fingers to point on this struggling Raiders team—the defense's putrid performance against Tampa and Carson Palmer's tendency to throw untimely interceptions not least among them. In breaking down McFadden's season, though, it's not difficult to see how his play will largely determine Oakland's season.

    At the time of his injury, McFadden had been underwhelming as it was on the field, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per reception. Palmer was forced into obvious passing situations as a result, and a slew of talented but inexperienced receivers at his disposal weren't helping the cause.

    Through all that, the Raiders still found a way to be 3-5, although McFadden will likely be out of action against Baltimore.

    The fate of the season hangs in the balance against the Ravens, who thankfully have a horrific defense. It should be a shootout, and Oakland has proven that it can rack up yards with the league's best in the passing game.

    However, a 31st-ranked rushing offense led by McFadden is unacceptable. While the Raiders shouldn't rush him back, they have no chance of making the postseason without him.

    Hopefully the sprain doesn't keep McFadden out for more than one week, because the Raiders definitely have a chance to surprise the football world in the second half of the season with such a suspect remaining schedule after this week.