5 NFL Teams & Players Under the Most Pressure to Win in the Playoffs
The regular season is winding down in the National Football League, and while any number of teams are under a great deal of pressure as they scramble for a playoff spot for others the fun has only just begun.
Once the postseason gets underway that pressure will ratchet up a notch or three, and for some players and teams the glare of the spotlight will be harsher than others.
Here's a look at a handful of folks for whom the squeeze will be most crushing.
Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh
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This is the first of two quarterback/head coach duos on this list, and the fates of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh in the 2012 postseason are inextricably linked.
Harbaugh made a very gutsy call in naming Kaepernick the starting quarterback over Alex Smith, and so far that gamble appears to have paid off, as the 49ers are well on their way to a second straight NFC West title.
However, if the second-year pro leads the 49ers to the postseason only to falter in his first career playoff game, you can bet that the sound of second-guessing will be deafening.
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Over the past several seasons, the Baltimore Ravens have been one of the AFC's best teams, making the playoffs in each of the past four years. But for all that success, the team hasn't been able to get over the proverbial hump and get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season.
That perceived failure and the mounting pressure on the Ravens to make it to New Orleans this season is apparently already taking a toll on the team, as after consecutive losses in their last two games offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was shown the door.
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After missing the entire 2011 season and being let go by the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning is enjoying a phenomenal season, passing for over 3,800 yards while leading the Denver Broncos to a 10-3 mark and their second straight AFC West title.
However, all the glowing reviews of how well Manning has played in his first year in Denver will turn quickly into derision about his inability to win in the playoffs if the Broncos don't make a deep postseason run.
It may not be fair, but that's life in the NFL.
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After years as an also-ran in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons have turned it around under head coach Mike Smith, with 2012 marking the second time in three seasons that the Falcons have won the NFC South.
However, for all the regular-season success the team has enjoyed over that stretch, the Falcons still haven't won a playoff game since 2004, and if the team parlays another No. 1 seed in the NFC into a one-and-done playoff face plant like they did two years ago, the grumbling is going to get a lot louder in Atlanta.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick
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This one's actually sort of ridiculous, but the thing about expectations is no one said they had to be realistic.
No team in the National Football League has enjoyed more success over the past decade than the New England Patriots, and after Monday night's thrashing of the Houston Texans, quarterback Tom Brady and company sent a very clear message that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the AFC.
With that said, the last two times the New England Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl they came up short against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
That means that not only do the Patriots have to make the Super Bowl, but they have to win it too.
Do that, and Brady and Belichick's legacies are cemented with their fourth win in the NFL's showcase game.
Lose, and that legacy will be as much about the ones that got away as the ones that didn't.