NFL Playoffs 2013: Defensive Difference Makers for Each AFC Team
While superior defenses remain a staple of the NFC's top playoff teams, the AFC was much more about offense this season. Hence names like Andrew Luck, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning all in the playoffs.
But just because these teams have bigtime passers doesn't mean they aren't just as stifling with defense. With such evenly matched offenses, defense could be the real difference in many matchups and you can't have difference making defenses without key players anchoring said units.
Here are some of those defensive difference makers in this season's AFC playoff picture:
Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins
It seems defense will never die as the staple of the AFC North. First, there was Baltimore and Pittsburgh and now there's Cincinnati.
The Bengals posted the NFL's sixth-best defense this season, allowing just 319.7 yards per game.
A big part of that defense was the pass rush and defensive line, anchored by third-year player Geno Atkins. Atkins was a beast all season, posting a career high 12.5 sacks, on top of 53 tackles and four forced fumbles.
The Bengals face an immediate challenge against Houston in Round 1 of the playoffs. From there, a win would pit them against the Denver Broncos.
Cincinnati will need Atkins at his finest if he's to pressure those offensives into submission.
Indianapolis Colts: Everyone
The Indianapolis Colts may have the worst defense amongst all AFC teams this playoffs. If they don't play as a perfect unit, they're going to stumble.
The Colts defense was not great this season. They allowed 374.2 yards a game and opponents averaged a total of 24.2 points against them. Still, they're 11-5 and in the playoffs, largely in part to their offense leading them back from deficits the defense dug them into in the game's final minutes.
As long as they find ways to win, though, that's all that matters.
If the offense can set the tone, then the defense just must follow suit. So, as long as Andrew Luck can score points, the D just has to do the best they can.
If they can get healthy and play cohesively, the Colts will be a tough playoff team to beat.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs
Regarded as one of the toughest defensive units in all the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens enter the playoffs as banged up as anyone else remaining.
But the team understands they must play to win, so that's what they've tried to do, in spite of numerous injuries.
No one has tried harder than Terrell Suggs, whose suffered through injury after injury this season. Still, he's stayed on the field and managed to play in eight games, though he sat out last week's game against the Bengals.
Suggs continues to do what he can to make an impact. In his eight games he's posted 22 tackles and two sacks with four passes defensed.
With an aging Ray Lewis losing effectiveness, this defense is Suggs' to command. When he's at his best, so are they.
If the linebacker can find any foothold of health in the playoffs, it will make Baltimore as challenging as ever.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt
Usually one tries to avoid finding such obvious players with a list like this. But, in Houston's case, it's nearly impossible.
The Texans have had one of the league's best defenses this season, allowing a mere 323.2 yards per game, good for seventh in the NFL.
The Houston unit is built around defensive end J.J. Watt, whose been a one-man wrecking crew this season. Not only did Watt lead the NFL in sacks with 20.5, but he also posted 81 tackles, 16 passes defensed and 23 stuffs.
The Texans thrive around Watt and he's ultimately what makes the defense so devastating . But take Watt away and you don't have much.
While Houston is a solid unit, it's because of who they're built around. It the Texans want to make a solid playoff push, it will be around No. 99.
New England Patriots: Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones has had the exact kind of effect New England hoped he would when they drafted him in the first round of last year's NFL draft.
The rookie has six sacks (second highest on the Pats), 45 tackles, three forced fumbles and five passes defensed on the season.
New England hasn't seen immediate dividends on the field, as they're still allowing 271.4 passing yards a game. But injuries have hampered the unit all season long.
Pats are still only giving up 20.7 points a game, ninth in the NFL, due in large part to the damage Jones caused in the 14 games he played.
It's still not a perfect fix for New England's problems, but as long as Jones is on the field, the defense will be a force to reckon with.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller
Once again, we come to high-profile player but, just like Houston's case, it is inevitable that Denver's should be Von Miller.
Miller had another prolific season, racking up a team leading 18.5 sacks, 68 tackles, six forced fumbles and an interception. His sack total set a single-season record for the Denver Broncos and was a big reason why Denver featured the best pass rush in the NFL, tied with St. Louis with 52 total sacks on the season.
When one player represents over 35 percent of your team's sack total, it's impossible to say he won't be your defense's key player in the playoffs.
The Broncos have a stellar defense, but they're considerably better with Miller. As long as he's pressuring the quarterback, they'll be a force come playoff time.