The NFL playoffs are always the place where you hear that stars shine brightest. Well, what about those superstars who help spur their teams into the playoffs in the first place?
With so many teams hanging on the precipice of playoff glory heading into Week 16, it will be those guys who take precedence the next two weeks. There are eight teams battling for three playoff spots in the NFC and four teams still hanging onto wild-card dreams in the AFC. As parity continues to reign supreme, it may come down to the final games of Week 17 to determine the field.
Each of those bubble teams will need stars to shine, but there are a few who stand above the crowd.
With that in mind, here is a look stars who must ascend further down the stretch in order to clinch a playoff berth.
Robert Griffin III (QB, Washington Redskins)
Heading into Week 16, the Redskins have the inside track to the NFC East. With the tiebreakers in the division firmly in their favor, all this once 3-6 team has to do is stretch its five-game winning streak to seven and pop the champagne bottles.
Whether Washington will do that very much depends on the status of Robert Griffin III. The scintillating rookie quarterback is still on the mend from an LCL sprain, but was going "full speed" in practice and is expected to play this week against the Eagles.
That news obviously comes as a massive relief to Redskins nation. Though Kirk Cousins performed admirably in last week's victory over the Browns, throwing for 329 yards and two touchdowns, he is not a multi-faceted threat like Griffin.
Heading into Week 15, RGIII's résumé speaks for itself. He's thrown for 2,902 yards and 18 touchdowns against four interceptions and the latter statistic leads the NFL. Griffin has also added 748 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. All of those factors combine to give Griffin the sixth-highest QBR (71.3) in the NFL and unquestionably has him contending for the best rookie quarterback in league history crown.
All that said, he's still a rookie who is coming off a scary knee injury. If Griffin's mobility is altered or he doesn't have full trust in his knee, it will affect his play and slow down the Redskins' vaunted offense.
With the Eagles wanting to play spoiler in Week 16, Griffin's injury and sense of the moment are two things worth watching.
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals)
The scintillating second-year receiver's place on this list particularly pertains to this week's matchup against the Steelers. If Cincinnati is able to win in Pittsburgh, it will lock up a playoff berth. And depending on the result of Baltimore's game, the Bengals could even have a chance at the NFC North title.
Still, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. In order to take care of business against the rival Steelers, the Bengals will need a brilliant performance from Green on Sunday.
In other words, a statistical output far different than he had in the teams' first matchup in Week 7. Green set career lows with just one catch for seven yards and a touchdown, as Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 24-17.
While it's an obvious point, Green cannot have a repeat performance on Sunday. While it's an admittedly limited sample size, the Bengals are 1-3 in games where Green has five or fewer receptions and 7-3 in their remaining games.
His prominence in the offense also opens up a cabal of offensive possibilities for guys like Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu. And when Green is locked up, Andy Dalton is forced to turn to Hawkins and Sanu into top options—not a pretty sight.
Green will have to be prominent early and often for Cincinnati to top a Pittsburgh defense that heads into Week 16 leading the NFL in pass defense.
Adrian Peterson (RB, Minnesota Vikings)
Well...duh. AD has been scampering his way toward MVP consideration down the stretch and bringing the Vikings along with him. Semi-surprising wins over the Rams and Bears put Minnesota in the driver's seat in the NFC wild-card race with just two games remaining.
One problem: Those games are against the Texans and Packers.
Starting with Houston could especially pose a problem for Peterson and the Vikings offense. Through the season's first 15 weeks, the Texans rank fifth against the run both statistically and according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.
They've held Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Ray Rice (among others) to putrid games and have one of the most versatile front-sevens in the NFL.
Peterson has been matchup-prone all season and there's little reason to think he won't have solid games down the stretch. But Christian Ponder hasn't thrown for over 150 yards in the past three weeks and has gone under triple-digits three different times this year.
Eventually, that has to catch up. The only way it doesn't is if Peterson continues to eviscerate opposing defenses to the tune of 150 to 200 yards every week. With Houston this Sunday and a solid Green Bay attack in Week 17, there's a reason Football Outsiders only gives the Vikings a 19.6 percent of making the playoffs.
NFC Playoff Picture
|No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (12-2) Clinched NFC South|
|No. 2 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 3 Seed Green Bay Packers (10-4) Clinched NFC North|
|No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (8-6) Lead NFC East|
|Wild Card Leaders|
|No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (9-5)|
|No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (8-6)|
|In the Hunt|
|Chicago Bears (8-6)|
|Dallas Cowboys (8-6)|
|New York Giants (8-6)|
|St. Louis Rams (6-7-1)|
| New Orleans Saints (6-8)|
AFC Playoff Picture
|No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-2) Clinched AFC South|
|No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (11-3) Clinched AFC West|
|No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (10-4) Clinched AFC East|
| No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (9-5) Lead AFC North; Clinched Playoff Berth|
|Wild Card Leaders|
|No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (9-5)|
|No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)|
|In the Hunt|
|Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)|
| Miami Dolphins (6-8)|
Atlanta: vs. Detroit, vs. Tampa Bay
San Francisco: at Seattle, vs. Arizona
Green Bay: vs. Tennessee, at Minnesota
Washington: at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas
Seattle: vs. San Francisco, vs. St. Louis
Minnesota: at Houston, vs. Green Bay
Chicago: at Arizona, vs. Detroit
Dallas: vs. New Orleans, at Washington
New York: at Baltimore, vs. Philadelphia
St. Louis: at Tampa Bay, at Seattle
New Orleans: at Dallas, vs. Carolina
Houston: vs. Minnesota, at Indianapolis
Denver: vs. Cleveland, vs. Kansas City
New England: at Jacksonville, vs. Miami
Baltimore: vs. New York Giants, at Cincinnati
Indianapolis: at Kansas City, vs. Houston
Cincinnati: at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore
Pittsburgh: vs. Cincinnati, vs. Cleveland
Miami: vs. Buffalo, at New England
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