NFL Players with the Most to Prove This Postseason

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIJanuary 4, 2013

NFL Players with the Most to Prove This Postseason

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    The 2012 NFL postseason offers an interesting mix of players to watch, from wily veteran stars like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to the other end of the spectrum—the three rookie quarterback stars from the draft class of 2012.

    While Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson get their first exposure to the pressures of the NFL playoffs, there are a number of veteran players who have something to prove this postseason.

    They have either been to the playoffs before and come up short, or they are there for the first time and need to seize the moment to raise their profile.

    We will go through 11 slides of players who have the opportunity to prove something in the 2012 postseason.

11. QB Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings

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    Despite Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson turning in arguably an MVP-type season, the Vikings were still struggling to qualify for the playoffs until clinching the final spot in Week 17. The reason for the struggles centered on the play of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

    The combination of Peterson and Ponder (OK, mostly Peterson) has led the Vikings to a four-game winning streak. They have defeated Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Green Bay over that span, some of the best defenses in the NFL.

    Going forward, the Vikings will be playing Green Bay for the second straight week. If Ponder can play like he did in Week 17, the Vikings have a reasonable chance to advance in the postseason. If he reverts to the way he played when these teams met back in Week 13, the Vikings' season will be ending this weekend.

    The jury is still out on Ponder, as it is difficult to say that he is the answer as the franchise quarterback Minnesota has been looking for. Ponder is ranked 21st overall in passer rating, conveniently between Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford, fellow NFC North starting quarterbacks.

    Perhaps Ponder is finally reaching the stage where the game is starting to slow down more for him. We will know more about his development after this weekend.

10. QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

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    San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is in a tough situation in the 2012 postseason. He is expected to lead his team to the Super Bowl, even though he only has seven regular-season starts under his belt.

    There is very little margin for error. If the 49ers fail to reach the Super Bowl, head coach Jim Harbaugh will no doubt be blasted for his decision to bench Alex Smith and continue to start Kaepernick.

    Harbaugh had brought Smith along to be a very efficient quarterback in the 49ers offense. The defense is exceptional, so the combination of an efficient offense with a powerful defense could very well take the 49ers all the way.

    But Harbaugh took a stand and went with his gut. By sticking with Kaepernick, who went 5-2 over those seven starts, Harbaugh is basically saying that Kaepernick makes the 49ers offense more dynamic and gives them the best overall chance to win.

    If Kaepernick happens to flounder in the playoffs, it will be some time before the 49ers faithful forgive Harbaugh for the decision. Consider what the flak will be like if Smith winds up starting for a different team in 2013 and takes that team to the Super Bowl.

9. QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andy Dalton has been provided with a chance to seek some revenge on the Houston Texans for ousting the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 playoffs. It is one thing to come back and repeat a playoff slot in consecutive years; it is something else to face the same team two years in a row.

    The Bengals are currently riding a wave of confidence, as they have won seven of their last eight games. Some of the better-quality wins have come against the New York Giants, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That should give the Bengals greater belief that they can compete with anybody.

    At least they have the benefit of reviewing what the Texans defense did to them last year in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if Dalton throws the ball in J.J. Watt's direction again or not. Did Dalton learn his lesson from the 2011 playoff game?

    Dalton has turned in a solid year in 2012, as he finished the season as the 13th-ranked quarterback in passer rating. That is up from No. 20 last year. Dalton's touchdowns went up from 20 to 27, and his completion percentage jumped from 58.1 to 62.3 percent. His average yards per attempt went up this year as well, from 6.59 yards per pass to 6.95 yards per pass.

    However, all of the improvements won't mean much if the Bengals exit without a playoff win again. It is up to Dalton to get a postseason win, or else he will be the latest version of Matt Ryan.

8. WR Randy Moss, San Francisco 49ers

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    San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss came into the 2012 season with a lower set of goals than he did when he was back in his 20s. Moss played the role of good soldier on and off the field. He set a positive tone and example to the rest of the younger 49ers wide receivers throughout the year.

    But as the regular season wound down, the 49ers' receiving corps thinned out due to injuries. That has forced Moss to take on a more prominent role in the offense, as he is now receiving more targets and more snaps per game.

    There hasn't been much dialogue about what Moss intends to do for 2013. If he intends to continue with his playing career, the 2012 postseason will be an ideal showcase for him to prove to teams that he can still be a major contributor.

    In 2012, Moss has caught 28 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He leads all 49ers wide receivers with an average of 15.5 yards per catch. He has also come up with seven catches that have gone for 20-plus yards.

    If Moss winds up scoring a touchdown or two down in the red zone during the postseason, that would be a great development for his 2013 prospects.

7. TE Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons

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    For Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, the 2012 postseason will likely feature his final game(s) in his long and illustrious NFL career.

    Gonzalez has turned in a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame career, but the one thing that has always eluded him is a playoff victory. Fifteen years in the NFL, and no playoff wins to show for all the years of grinding, toil, sweat and tears.

    Gonzalez has the chance to change all of that in this postseason. He doesn't really have "that much to prove" since we are already stating that he is destined to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But he does have something he can do about getting that playoff monkey off his back. 

    So far Gonzalez has lost both his playoff games with the Falcons. In the 2010 loss to Green Bay, he came up with only one reception for seven yards. That is the kind of performance you have in the preseason, not the postseason.

    In the playoff loss to the Giants last year, Gonzalez came up with four receptions for 44 yards. The Falcons were shut out on offense in that game, though, so if Gonzalez is tired of the frustrations from the playoffs, he has the chance to do something about it.

6. WR Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins

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    The Seattle Seahawks defense will look to slow down rookie running back sensation Alfred Morris this weekend and will dare Robert Griffin III to beat them with his arm. The one veteran player that Griffin trusts more than anybody else to throw the ball to is wide receiver Pierre Garcon.

    Garcon has obviously had a tough year due to injuries. He has only appeared in 10 games this year and came up with 633 yards on 44 receptions. He is sporting a healthy average of 14.4 yards per catch.

    With two rookie quarterbacks running the show, it will be interesting to see if the game plan for both youngsters calls for them to be conservative or to go for broke.

    Whatever the situation, when Griffin looks to pass, he will probably be looking at Garcon more often than not. Garcon led the Redskins in receiving yards and yards after the catch and tied for the team lead with 10 receptions of 20-plus yards or longer.

    Garcon signed a big contract in the 2012 offseason, so this weekend is his first real opportunity to step up and prove that he was worth the investment.

5. DE/LB Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts

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    With all of the new faces in Indianapolis this year, it will be incumbent on some of the Colts' veteran players to step up, as their playoff experience will be invaluable to share with the youngsters.

    The two veteran stars of the Colts defense that need to step up and lead by example are Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.

    Freeney has enjoyed seven seasons in his NFL career where he has registered at least double-digit sack totals. His role in the new defense under Chuck Pagano has changed, and his sack numbers have suffered as a result. He only had five sacks during the regular season, which is his lowest total in five years.

    Mathis has registered four seasons of double-digit sack totals in his career. This season he only came up with eight sacks, which led the Colts in 2012. The Colts were just 23rd in sacks this year with 32 on the year. With the amount of pressure that the Ravens defense is expected to bring on Andrew Luck, it will be incumbent on Freeney and Mathis to respond by getting in the face of Joe Flacco.

    The Colts defense will need somebody to step up and show them the way. If Mathis and Freeney can't do the job, then who can?

4. WR Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts

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    We just covered the Colts' defensive stars that need to prove something in this postseason. Now we slide over to the offensive side of the ball, where we find wide receiver Reggie Wayne wearing the hat of the wily veteran, leading a bunch of young receivers into postseason battle.

    With the likes of T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, LaVon Brazill and Dwayne Allen playing roles on offense, they will all be looking for somebody to guide them through their first playoff game. For that matter, add Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard to the list as well, so Wayne will have to be vocal and settle the team down in the huddle.

    Wayne has obviously developed some strong chemistry with Luck this year, so coming up with a big playoff game will serve as an excellent example for the rest of the Colts' offensive rookies.

3. WR Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings had enjoyed a solid career until the 2012 season rolled around. This season would have to be described as anything but solid.

    Jennings has averaged 61 receptions, 934 yards, 15.4 yards per catch and eight touchdowns per year in his career. His 2012 production reads like this: 36 receptions for 366 yards, averaging 10.2 yards per catch, four touchdowns and three catches of 20-plus yards.

    With such a drop in production, Jennings will no doubt he motivated in 2013 to prove that he still has something left to offer a team. He is only 29 years old.

    Jennings was active in September and December but missed every game in October and November. As a result, his stats reflect that he is only the No. 5 overall receiver this year in Green Bay, and it seems like a formality that he will be playing for some other NFL team in 2013.

    These playoff game(s) will serve as an audition for the rest of the NFL to show how much he still has left in the tank.

    There are a number of teams that need help at wide receiver, so the better that Jennings can perform in the postseason, the more attractive the offers will be when free agency begins in 2013.

2. QB Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

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    Based on his play down the stretch run of the 2012 regular season, the perception is that Matt Schaub has trouble winning in big games.

    The Texans were sitting in the driver's seat with a record of 11-1 and a golden opportunity to clinch home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. But the team faded badly down the stretch, losing three of its final four games. Losses to Minnesota at home and to Indianapolis on the road led NFL analysts to question if Houston was as good a team as people thought.

    The only way for Schaub to prove all of the doubters wrong is to come up with some impressive performances in the postseason. It doesn't help Schaub's case that he had to sit out the Texans' first playoff win in franchise history last season due to injury.

    Schaub has plenty of weapons to work with. He has a great running back in Arian Foster, who gained 1,424 yards rushing this year and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Foster has a reliable backup in Ben Tate to help keep him fresh. Then there is No. 1 receiver Andre Johnson, who turned in a stellar 2012 season with 1,598 receiving yards.

    The Houston defense is ranked No. 7 overall this year, which is another strong asset that gives Schaub confidence that he doesn't have to be perfect in order for this team to win. Then again, if he performs in the playoffs like he did in December, the Texans will have a short run in the playoffs.

    Houston had five games in December, and the best that you can say about Schaub's performance in December is that it was wildly inconsistent. In the two wins, he threw three touchdown passes and had no interceptions. His quarterback passer rating scores were 95.8 and 109.7.

    In the three December losses, Schaub had no touchdown passes and threw three interceptions. His QB passer ratings were 68.7, 72.1 and 66.3.

    Schaub has the opportunity to correct the perception that he can't win in big games, but if he doesn't take this team to the Super Bowl, the doubters will be pouring it on.

1. QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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    Is there any player in the 2012 postseason who has a bigger monkey on his back than Matt Ryan?

    Ryan and the Falcons have made three appearances in the postseason since he joined the franchise, and they have made a quick exit all three years, going 0-3 in the process.

    In the 2008 season, Ryan's rookie year, the Falcons were defeated 30-24 by Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals. In 2009, the Falcons were 9-7 but failed to qualify for the playoffs. In 2010, Atlanta was playing at home but lost 48-21 to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Last year, the Falcons were embarrassed again, losing 24-2 to the New York Giants on the road. 

    This year the Falcons own the best record in the NFC at 13-3, but that record will mean nothing at all if they bow out again in the first playoff game. The Falcons not only need to win that first playoff game, but probably need to go all the way to the Super Bowl if Ryan is to ever be championed as an elite quarterback in the league.