No position in the NFL is more important than quarterback. A good one can mask flaws elsewhere on a team's roster while a bad one can cause a promising season to come crashing down. No other player on the field wields that much power.
Not every team can have a QB the caliber of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Those that don't have an elite option are still going to need strong performances from their signal-callers to survive the playoff journey, which leads to a lot of pressure.
With that in mind, let's examine three quarterbacks that will be feeling the heat once the postseason gets underway next week. They must rise to the occasion if their teams are going to reach the Super Bowl.
1. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
The regular season hasn't been an issue for Ryan. He's 56-21 with a passer rating of 91, leading the Falcons to at least 10 wins in four of his five seasons. Those numbers would put him in the same category as many of the league's top QBs.
Matching that success in the playoffs is still a work in progress. The Boston College product has lost all three postseason games he's started, posting a QB rating just a shade over 70. That's not going to cut it in do-or-die matchups.
The Falcons have clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Ryan, who sports a 33-4 regular-season mark at home, should benefit from that. He still needs to play exponentially better than his previous three forays into the postseason for the Falcons to make a deep run.
2. Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers)
Alex Smith was playing extremely well before getting injured. After seeing the added dimensions Kaepernick brought to the table, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with the dual-threat QB even when Smith was healthy.
Now fans will find out if he made the right decision. Everybody knows how dominant the 49ers defense is and how reliable Frank Gore has been throughout his career, but San Francisco will fall short if Kaepernick doesn't continue to excel.
The toughest thing he's going to face in the postseason is game plans designed to shut down his running ability. Opposing defenses are going to do everything in their power to make him a pocket passer. He must prove he can handle that role to keep the 49ers alive.
3. Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
If you watch Flacco throwing the football without seeing where the ball lands it looks terrific. He has the arm strength necessary to make every throw and can toss a perfect spiral. Accuracy continues to be a serious concern, though.
He's completed just 60 percent of his passes in 2012, which is nearly 10 points behind the league leaders. That's a lot of yards being left on the field. The Ravens defense, which only ranks in the middle of the pack this season, isn't good enough to carry the team on its back.
Flacco possesses enough talent to lead a dangerous aerial attack. He just hasn't shown it consistently enough for Baltimore to succeed with him under center in the playoffs. The Ravens have a chance in the wide-open AFC, but only if their QB helps lead the charge.