NFL Playoff Scenarios: Who Will Most Impact His Team's Postseason Chances?

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 28, 2012

NFL Playoff Scenarios: Who Will Most Impact His Team's Postseason Chances?

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    It is a bit of a cop-out to say that each quarterback will have the most impact on his team's chances at a postseason run. Although that argument could easily be made, there are plenty of other high-profile players who will have a huge impact on this weekend's NFL playoff scenarios.

    Russell Wilson and as many as two other rookie QBs could be leading their teams into the playoffs once Week 17's action winds down on Sunday evening, though.

    Take a look at the postseason picture as it stands entering this weekend's high stakes action. Then, read on to check out which players will most significantly determine their respective franchise's potential playoff destinies.

    NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE

    DIVISION LEADERS
     No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (13-2) Clinched NFC South & Home-Field Advantage
     No. 2 Seed Green Bay Packers (11-4) Clinched NFC North
     No. 3 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth 
     No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (9-6) Lead NFC East
    WILD CARD LEADERS
     No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth
     No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (9-6)
    IN THE HUNT
     Chicago Bears (9-6)
     Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
     New York Giants (8-7)

    AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE

    DIVISION LEADERS
     No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-3) Clinched AFC South
     No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (12-3) Clinched AFC West
     No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (11-4) Clinched AFC East
     No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (10-5) Clinched AFC North
    WILD CARD LEADERS
     No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth
     No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (9-6); Clinched Playoff Berth

Houston Texans: QB Matt Schaub

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    The irregular heartbeat scare for RB Arian Foster last week is cause for concern, as is his inconsistent production over the past month in general.

    That means it will be all the more important for Schaub to step up, regardless of how Foster performs in the playoffs. As a Pro Bowler who has finally navigated through a whole season healthy—not to put the Week 17 jinx on—Schaub must perform in the playoffs.

    A massive rematch in Indianapolis against the division rival Colts looms, and Lucas Oil Stadium is sure to be ecstatic with the return of head coach Chuck Pagano to the sidelines.

    If the Texans win, they retain the all-important homefield advantage. Otherwise, a trip to either New England or Denver will await in the postseason. Sunday is the biggest game of Schaub's career, and the opposition will be playing with absolutely nothing to lose.

    Because that's the reality—the Colts really don't have anything to lose as far as playoff positioning. Such circumstances only heighten the pressure on Schaub, and it will be intriguing to see how he responds in the next two contests.

Denver Broncos: CB Champ Bailey

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    With Peyton Manning quarterbacking an offensive juggernaut on the other side of the ball, Bailey has an unprecedented chance at winning his first Super Bowl.

    The 4-3 scheme implemented by new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and an upgraded supporting cast in the defensive backfield has made Bailey's job much easier, and has led to his 12th career Pro Bowl selection.

    Denver has the luxury of two premier pass rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, along with a Manning-led offense that doesn't keep the defensive unit on the field for a long period of time.

    That all works into Bailey's favor, but he will have to make sure he is on top of his game against the high-octane offenses the Broncos are sure to face in the postseason.

    Potential matchups loom against Texans star Andre Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals second-year stud A.J. Green, Indianapolis Colts veteran Reggie Wayne, Anquan Boldin of the Baltimore Ravens or Brandon Lloyd of the New England Patriots.

    None of those will be easy no matter how much pressure Denver can get on the opposing QB. If Bailey can be his typical lockdown self at age 34, the Broncos will be nearly unbeatable.

New England Patriots: CB Aquib Talib

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    Recently acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the often-troubled but talented Talib gives New England much-needed help in the secondary.

    Although he hasn't been with the Pats for long and is still learning the schematics on the fly, there is no question that the defense has been different with Talib in the fold.

    Luke Hughes of NESN.com goes as far to imply that he and TE Rob Gronkowski are the two most important players on the team—not named Tom Brady, of course—to be healthy for the playoffs.

    Talib's health has been a concern lately, unfortunately. He was only able to take the field for eight of the team's 80 defensive snaps in Week 16 at Jacksonville. A mistake-prone Chad Henne bailed the Pats out with three interceptions, but still threw for 348 yards and a touchdown.

    With the league's 29th-ranked pass defense, the Patriots definitely need help in that regard if Brady and head coach Bill Belichick want to win Super Bowl No. 4. It starts with Talib.

Baltimore Ravens: QB Joe Flacco

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    If Joe Cool truly is one of the best quarterbacks in the league—Flacco went as far to say he was the very best before the season began (h/t SportsRadioInterviews.com)—he must prove it in the playoffs.

    There are no excuses, at least on the offensive side of the ball. With the likes of Ray Rice and the emerging rookie Bernard Pierce at his disposal in the backfield, there is balance there for Flacco to get it done.

    The biggest problem is actually the Ravens' typically vaunted defense, which is as lackluster as it's been in the past decade.

    Flacco should be able to overcome that, but color me skeptical. If the Ravens fall behind and are forced to abandon the run—as has often been the case lately—it will be up to Flacco to win the game on his own. If he gets it done, he'll be hailed a hero.

    But if not, Flacco may not even get a long-term contract extension this offseason, which would make him a free agent. It'd be hard to believe the Ravens would let him go based on his upside, arm strength and lack of other attractive options on the QB market.

    That said, it's time for Flacco to take that next step.

Indianapolis Colts: QB Andrew Luck

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    At the center of attention as far as players are concerned on this inspiring Colts team is the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft.

    Luck has led seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, and has cut down on turnovers lately, putting together his first two-game stretch as a pro without a giveaway.

    Several factors have accounted for Luck's alarming 23 turnovers in 2012. He has had average pass protection at best, which frequently flushes him from the pocket.

    Reading the complex defenses of the NFL while adjusting to the enhanced speed in the pros—despite his renowned football IQ—is far more difficult with 300-pound linemen in his face.

    The play-calling by interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has also been extremely aggressive. No one has taken more shots down the field than Luck this season, and it sort of makes sense. Many of the Colts' receivers are young and raw—but fast.

    Most notable is fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton, who averages over 16 yards per catch and has snagged a team-high six touchdowns.

    But perhaps a more conservative offensive approach would be more suitable in the playoffs. If Luck can continue cutting down on the mistakes while still chewing up chunks of yardage, Indy could be a more dangerous playoff team than many may expect.

    The Colts weren't supposed to be in this position, and Luck has thrown caution to the wind for the whole year. As incredible as the team's 10 wins have been, it's only going to get better for Luck.

Cincinnati Bengals: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    One of the biggest keys to Cincinnati's resurgence in the second half of the season is the Law Firm's production.

    After a lackluster start, many were questioning the Bengals' free agent investment in Green-Ellis this past offseason. However, he has proven his value in recent weeks as the team has won six of its past seven contests.

    Green-Ellis has powered his way to four 100-yard showings in that span, but struggled mightily in a critical 13-10 win in Pittsburgh in Week 16.

    The Bengals will take the "W" anytime against their AFC North rival, but the Steelers totally shut down Green-Ellis. For Cincinnati to be successful at all in the playoffs, QB Andy Dalton must have a running game to fall back on.

    If the season were to end today, Cincinnati would travel to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots—Green-Ellis' former team—in the opening round. That would add plenty of incentive for the Law Firm to play well, but if he couldn't, Dalton couldn't outscore the likes of Tom Brady on the road.

Atlanta Falcons: RB Jacquizz Rodgers

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    Matt Ryan looks to have taken a step forward in 2012, looking like a legitimate Super Bowl winning quarterback. With Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside and legendary TE Tony Gonzalez as weapons, Ryan and the passing attack should be fine.

    It's the running game that is worrisome in Atlanta. Michael Turner isn't quite the burner he once was, as he's hit the age of 30 and predictably had a massive drop off this year.

    Turner is averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry and has never been a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.

    That's where Rodgers comes in. Although his 3.8 yards per pop on the ground isn't much better than Turner's, the second-year back out of Oregon State is extremely elusive—and surprisingly powerful—in the open field.

    Ryan can hit Rodgers on short passes, which would serve as a de facto running game—something Turner doesn't bring to the table.

Green Bay Packers: WR Randall Cobb

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    If there were ever a triple-threat skills player, Cobb would fit the bill. In fact, Cobb is quite similar to a certain Minnesota Vikings NFC North counterpart in Percy Harvin.

    Cobb's abilities as a much more polished receiver, a dynamic returner and occasional backfield companion alongside superstar QB Aaron Rodgers makes Cobb a threat to take it to the house from anywhere on the field.

    Unfortunately for the Packers—who endured lengthy injuries to wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson throughout the course of the year—Cobb went down in a meaningless, Week 16 dismantling of the Tennessee Titans.

    The ankle may not even keep Cobb out for this week, as he is listed as questionable for Sunday's showdown in Minnesota (h/t ESPN).

    Green Bay fans have to be hoping that's the case, because Cobb has provided a unique big play threat that the Pack haven't had in years past.

    As we saw in last year's NFC Championship clash, special teams can make a huge difference between evenly matched teams. Cobb provides that difference in edition to stepping up with 80 receptions through 15 games for the stars who were absent from the lineup.

San Francisco 49ers: DL Justin Smith

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    That vaunted 49er defense that returned every starter from its 2011 unit has enjoyed a generally successful season yet again.

    San Francisco may still be in position to win the NFC West and host a playoff game, but since Smith's injury in Week 15 against the New England Patriots, the Niners haven't been able to stop a nosebleed.

    As big of a blow as TE Vernon Davis' concussion from last week in Seattle  may turn out to be, Smith's may make even more of a negative impact.

    Suddenly, the pass rushing capability of the unrelated Aldon Smith has dissipated, coverage on the back end isn't holding up and San Fran looks to be in serious trouble.

    According to a report by ESPN, Smith has a partially torn triceps. That's going to hurt quite mightily down in a four-point stance. Yet Smith is going to have to be productive for the Niners defense to be successful if the past game and a half have been any indication.

    It's become apparent that San Francisco is not the same team without Smith on the field. What once seemed like a surefire Super Bowl contender is now surrounded by serious doubt.

Washington Redskins: WR Pierre Garcon

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    The Redskins started their current six-game winning streak without Garcon, but the offense is clearly different with him in the fold as the No. 1 wide receiver.

    If there were any doubt that Garcon is a legitimate go-to guy after playing in the shadow of Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis for several years, it has been put to rest in recent weeks.

    Garcon exploded on Thanksgiving in Dallas for four catches and 86 yards that included an electric, 59-yard catch and run for a TD. Robert Griffin III looks much more comfortable under center with him in the fold, and Garcon's speed combined with Griffin's arm creates a lethal combination.

    Having been to the Super Bowl before, Garcon can provide RG3 and fellow stud rookie Alfred Morris with sage wisdom and how to handle pressure situations despite being only 26 years old.

    For the Redskins to win the NFC East on Sunday at home against the Dallas Cowboys, they will need a big night from Garcon. Beyond that, a first-round matchup with the Seattle Seahawks' outstanding secondary is likely next.

Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson

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    Everything is coming together in Seattle, and Wilson has been at the epicenter of the change. Despite his shorter stature and lower draft status, Wilson has emerged as one of the more dangerous players in the NFL already.

    That certainly justifies his Twitter handle, "@DangeRussWillson."

    As improved as the Seahawks' offensive line is, outstanding improvisational skills by Wilson have made all the difference to open up the offense.

    There was no doubt that this team had a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but Wilson's early struggles threatened to make this team fall short. Since then, he has come into his own, and Darrell Bevell has even added in some read-option for his athletic quarterback and RB Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch.

    Everything's working, but Wilson is the key. If he can keep eluding pass rushers and making extraordinary plays, the Seahawks have as good a chance as anyone of snagging the Lombardi Trophy.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Christian Ponder

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    Adrian Peterson has been an absolute beast, but Ponder has looked incompetent even before losing top target Percy Harvin for the year.

    With an improving defense under Leslie Frazier and a record-setting rusher, the pressure is on for Ponder to preform. He was after all the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, selected before the likes of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.

    In order to justify that pick, Ponder has to play better. He played well enough to get Minnesota a road win against the AFC-leading Houston Texans in Week 16, even without Peterson reaching 100 yards.

    One thing working in Ponder's favor is his underrated but exceptional mobility. It's a wonder why the Vikings don't implement some option looks with Ponder and Peterson considering the QB's struggles to throw the football consistently.

    If things somehow start clicking for Ponder like they appeared to be at the beginning of 2012 and he can make several big plays against eight and nine-man boxes designed to stuff Peterson, the Vikings could suddenly be extremely dangerous.

    But it starts with a win at home over Green Bay in the season finale. Otherwise, any playoff aspirations will be dashed.

Dallas Cowboys: RB DeMarco Murray

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    Production from Murray not only helps set up the vertical passing game for oft-criticized QB Tony Romo and his arsenal of weapons, but it also protects Dallas' defense from being on the field for too long.

    Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a complex, extremely aggressive 3-4 scheme that is reliant on pressure and gutsy blitzes. Those pressures aren't effective when the defense is worn down, and that has often been the case with the Cowboys.

    With the league's 31st-ranked rushing offense that averages a putrid 77.7 yards per game and often poorly utilizes the services of lead-blocking FB Lawrence Vickers, Dallas has been perpetually flawed.

    But Murray's return from injury in December has at least given the threat of a decent running game while also giving Romo another weapon to hit with quick passes.

    The more the Cowboys can run the ball, the better chance they have of winning the NFC East on Sunday in the nation's capital. Otherwise, Washington's own top-ranked ground game will chew up clock and force Romo to lead a comeback charge from behind.

    Such a scenario would result in yet another instance where the Cowboys fall short of the postseason.

New York Giants: FS Kenny Phillips

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    By beating the lowly Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday and having several outcomes fall their way, the defending Super Bowl champions just may find a way to sneak into the playoffs.

    But to have any kind of chance at defending the Lombardi, the presence of Kenny Phillips in the defensive backfield is a must.

    Phillips is one of the best free safeties in the league, and the Giants defense has been a disaster without him in the lineup. Couple that with the bad play of CB Corey Webster and underwhelming play from a typically outstanding pass rush, and it has created a concoction that has the G-Men in big trouble.

    A victory and losses by Minnesota (vs. Green Bay), Chicago (at Detroit) and Dallas (at Washington) would get the Giants in.

    As explosive as the Eagles' offense can be even with rookie QB Nick Foles at the controls, Philadelphia could easily win even on the road considering how New York has played lately. In Phillips, though, the Giants have a true game-changer—and potential season-changer, at that.

Chicago Bears: LB Brian Urlacher

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    The future Hall of Famer is questionable for Sunday's must-win game in Detroit (h/t ESPN), and it is going to be difficult sledding without Urlacher.

    As horrible as the 4-11 Lions have been, they would love nothing more than to play spoiler to their NFC North rivals' playoff hopes. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson form such a formidable QB-WR tandem, and RB Mikel Leshoure has given Detroit improved balance on offense.

    Chicago has given up just 21, 21 and 13 points in the three full contests that Urlacher has missed, which included a matchup with the high-flying Green Bay Packers.

    There's a reason Tim Jennings and Patrick Tillman are starting cornerbacks for both the Bears and the NFC Pro Bowl roster, after all.

    But Urlacher is the unquestioned leader of this defense and this team. His skills in pass coverage and run support, as well as his ability to match wits with the opposing QB at the line of scrimmage, are paralleled by few in the league.

    The Bears don't control their own playoff destiny as it is, but having Urlacher on the sideline certainly doesn't help their cause as the regular season draws to a close.