You gotta love football. To make this list, you have to love the game for what it is.
Let me explain.
As NFL analysts, we don't have an offseason. The Senior Bowl occurs in the week between Championship Sunday and the Super Bowl. Then draft coverage begins—the combine, the pro days and then the actual event in April.
We then have rookie minicamps, organized OTAs and preseason to cover. We have predictions to make and thoughts to get on record in the permanent annals of the World Wide Web.
As NFL teams become eliminated from playoff contention, time frees up. So what do we do? We look for things to fill it with. This is the time of year to start becoming acquainted with some of the faces that will define our offseason: 2013's NFL rookie class.
And every year, I am reminded. I want winners. I want players who love football. I want attributes in this order when evaluating a prospect at any position:
1. Love of football
2. Natural physical gifts
3. Attention to detail and fundamentals
Why? Easy. For when we get here. This is when your legacy is made.
These are the 20 key veterans we trust most heading into the NFL playoffs.
Peyton Manning's neck connects his arm to his brain.
The neurological synapse which serves as a conduit to this connection may be the most important bit of clinical psychology the NFL has seen in decades.
Manning can no longer make the throws he used to, yet he can. The difference is simply in the way the ball is delivered to the target. The difference is in the trajectory and the velocity—and the timing/anticipation issues created by his fairly bad "new arm."
Manning's mind is like a computer, and whether he is "75 percent," "80 percent," or "100 percent," it doesn't even matter. The computer will compensate. We should all be thankful for getting to witness this breed of NFL player, live and on the field.
Manning leads like no other player in any major American sport. If you want a dependable veteran in the playoffs, it is hard to do much better.
Ben Roethlisberger will be remembered for many things, all distinctive in some form or fashion.
I'll remember Roethlisberger as the toughest "diva" I've ever seen play the game. What can you really say? He plays hurt, and usually brilliantly—in limping, wincing fashion.
He likes people to know he's playing hurt. People play this game very differently, and it is important to remember how much psychology really is involved here. Whether a drama gene exists within Big Ben's fiber or it's just how he plays to a defense, it doesn't matter.
He's been a playoff winner since entering the league and has "it." I would take him on my squad any day to enter these playoffs.
Tom Brady is Captain America.
If I was an NFL GM and could choose any player in the game to have on my team heading into the playoffs, it would be Tom Brady.
Two words: Joe Montana.
Brady is tied with Montana for the most playoff wins (16) by a quarterback in NFL history. Tom Brady is going to break that record, though.
In a few weeks.
Adrian Peterson is unbelievable, and he will be my vote for Comeback Player of the Year when filling out my PFWA ballot for this season.
Even given the amazing resurgence of Peyton Manning, I can't get over what a physically dominating specimen Peterson is. Let's stop and think about this, and think about it honestly:
Adrian Peterson tore his knee ligaments to shreds, then came back 10 months later better than he was before; better than the league's best running back that he was previously.
We are seeing in Peterson what the generation before mine likely saw in Jim Brown. A player operating at a higher level than anyone else because of his physical stature and power of will. It's an angry, unequaled combination that is thrilling to watch.
Arian Foster is not the league's best running back as a physical specimen, but he is the league's most natural runner.
In the correct scheme, Foster is a deadly weapon due to his versatility and one-cut vision. He keeps a low center of gravity and maintains a functional balance that is unrivaled when navigating from the first to second level of the defense.
Money in the bank, every time.
Andre Johnson has had a recent resurgence that has led to the shedding of the very concerns that have plagued his entire career: injuries.
When you see Johnson in person, you can understand why these muscles pop out of place sometimes. They already seem "popped out of place" to begin with. His physique is cartoonish in the sculpted-ness of his musculature.
I asked Johnson in training camp if he felt like he had anything to prove coming into the 2012 season.
"The guys who play know who's elite," he said.
The fans and media are being reminded as well as we round out the NFL's 2012 regular season.
Megatron is a target you can throw to anytime.
No matter how he is covered, he is simply too big. Matt Stafford knows this, as do the defensive coordinators who have to game plan for him.
Even if facing a team with a talented secondary, Calvin Johnson is an ace in the hole. Even if they treat him like a gunner on the punt team and press him with two DBs all game (like Week 15), Megatron just happens to get his, consistently.
When he is not producing on his own, he is eating up opposing personnel by his mere presence. A true game-changing weapon.
Miles Austin has hamstrings that are hard to trust, and the Dallas Cowboys aren't exactly Team Dependable in the playoffs this century, either.
When healthy, though, I'll take Austin on my team to go to battle in the playoffs any day. Austin runs a dagger route that breaks perfectly with Tony Romo's cadence, and he just so happens to get underneath Cover 3 looks when the opposition elects to bring pressure in obvious passing situations.
Austin serves not only as an outlet, but as a decoy when clogging the shell between the deep and intermediate third of the field.
To make this list you have to love football, and you have to impact plays that do not involve you having the ball in your hands. Miles Austin fits the mold in both ways.
Rob Gronkowski is very likely the best tight end in football.
I still cannot say for sure whether or not he is a more dangerous weapon than Jimmy Graham, but I think we are splitting hairs when arguing this point.
When you are 6'6", weigh 265 pounds, excel as a run-blocker and serve as a truly elite option in the receiving game, who wouldn't want you on their squad when heading to the big game?
Jason Witten is an old man by NFL standards, but he is a quarterback's best friend.
In much the same way Laurent Robinson did in 2011, Witten has adopted the strategy of breaking out of his routes and going playground-style with Tony Romo when the pocket collapses.
Witten's size through the intermediate lanes make him an easy target, and his wingspan and hands can make a QB look good in tough spots. He is a true veteran presence any team would be thrilled to depend on heading into the playoffs.
Duane Brown is the best offensive lineman in football, and to me, it's not even close.
Brown possesses everything that an NFL franchise covets in a cornerstone to their offensive line and protector of their quarterback's blind side. Brown is a violent protector at the point of attack, maintaining balance and awareness as a pass blocker and simply dominating in the downhill run game.
I want winners when heading into the playoffs. I don't want sacks, and I certainly don't want holding penalties.
Geno Atkins is the most disruptive interior defensive force in the National Football League.
I want winners and I want motor. Geno Atkins is the definition of motor. Any time a scheme can create disruption through the interior of the defensive line without bringing help, you are in great shape.
As you can see here, I study matchup grouping metrics closely. It might be impossible to say just how important a player like Atkins is to a defensive game plan. The number of opportunities for a defensive coordinator that get freed up by having this sort of weapon lined up inside are virtually endless.
If you are an NFL fan, do yourself a favor. Put on some Geno Atkins tape and enjoy him in his prime. I'd put him on my playoff squad every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Justin Smith is the definition of "veteran leadership" and one of the key building blocks in the juggernaut that San Francisco has created on the defensive side of the ball.
When you talk about blue-collar players in the National Football League, Smith is likely the first to come to your mind. Let me reiterate: I want a destructive interior force. I want the pocket to collapse and I want my contain guys to be able to fly in from all sides with their ears pinned back.
Big, impact plays on defense make playoff runs occur—and while Smith might not always be the direct producer of the play, he is always most certainly involved. Sign him up on my playoff team. He is as trustworthy as they come.
Jason Pierre-Paul is the closest thing the National Football League has to an octopus.
I want the illusion of gap integrity along the edges of my defensive front, even if it doesn't exist. The length Pierre-Paul brings provides that. He's a player who sets the edge in a unique, effective way while concurrently serving as a disgusting pass-rush threat.
Furthermore, he shows up the most in the biggest games—because he loves football, and the "big games" are like stacking one drug on top of another. At least to the players I want.
The magnitude of the situation multiplies the stimulation that the simple love of the game provokes. The bigger the stage the better.
Patrick Willis is the league's best linebacker, and anyone who has different thoughts, I'll meet you in the comments section.
Give me winners. Give me play-callers. I want a linebacker who is the epitome of a QB on defense. I want the opposing QB having to assign the "Mike" on every play, pointing fearfully at Patrick Willis in doing so.
I want a downhill, powerful centerpiece of my defense to depend on coming into the playoffs. The fact that Willis is so good in coverage as well makes him an easy choice as the inside linebacker I trust the most.
Ray McDonald is "that No. 91" you see on TV every Sunday getting consistent inside pressure on the quarterback.
According to Pro Football Focus, McDonald has 32 QB hurries thus far in 2012, the most of any defensive end (3-4 or 4-3) playing on a team still left in playoff contention.
Champ Bailey was the first player that came to my head when I was given this assignment. If I'm looking for veterans I can trust during a stretch run into the playoffs, I want a cornerback who loves studying and then locking opposing WRs down in man.
I want a cornerback who can face a WR like Vincent Jackson 13 times and never allow him a 100-yard game. I want that side of the field locked down to let my other corner pounce on any quick extensions to the flats the offense may run against cloud coverage.
Talk about a veteran leader you want on your playoff team. You can trust Bailey with an entire quarter of the field in most cases.
Brian Jennings is the Jedi of long snappers and a guy I want on my team in the NFL playoffs.
Ask any San Francisco fan how many botched snaps they have seen since 2002. Long snapping is a thankless job, and one that only really gets noticed when there is a screw up.
I want winners, and I don't want screwups. Not on special teams, especially. There are three phases of the game, and you only have a limited number of snaps to win the special teams phase. Every aspect is crucial.
Troy Polamalu provides a leadership, spark and toughness that is so evident that it very clearly permeates through TV sets into the living rooms of NFL fans worldwide.
I want leaders. I want players who execute with calculated, violent abandon. Polamalu is a heat-seeking missile and the type of strong safety I want in an AFC playoff race that will feature teams looking to establish the run early.
Kickers are different. I honestly don't know much about how to evaluate them. They are their own species.
Very simply, I want a kicker to depend on in the playoffs who has ice water in his veins. I don't care what you do during practice or who you hang out with, but I want the newspapers to call you "Mr. Clutch."
I want the player on my team who has won Super Bowls with his feet previously. The player who has scored the most postseason points of anyone in history and owns literally every postseason record that can be attributed to kicking a football.
Sometimes it comes down to the kicker. Who could you trust more?