Every team begins the season with hopes of making the playoffs. Once they get there, however, the amount of pressure on their shoulders increases markedly. Suddenly, every play is of the utmost importance and mistakes are extremely costly.
Some players handle the added attention without a problem. Others struggle once the spotlight is turned on, impacting their ability to help their team advance. Players who consistently struggle in the clutch, like Tony Romo, are given a label that's difficult to shake.
With that in mind, let's examine one player from each conference that faces an immense amount of pressure heading into Wild Card Weekend. If their play doesn't match the hype, their regular-season accomplishments will quickly be overshadowed.
AFC: J.J. Watt (Houston Texans)
After a respectable, yet unspectacular, rookie year that saw him record 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks, Watt exploded onto the national radar with a dominant second season. The Wisconsin product tallied 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
His most eye-popping stat aside from sacks was passes defended with 16. It ranked him in 12th in the league, and every player ahead of him was a defensive back, who get more chances. His ability to read the play, time his jump and bat the ball down is uncanny.
The Texans need him to step up in a major way against the Cincinnati Bengals. Houston's defense has faded down the stretch, giving up nearly 27 points per game over their final seven games. To reverse the trend, Watt must wreak havoc.
He's certainly capable, posting six games with at least two sacks during the regular season. The onus is on him to make life incredibly difficult on Andy Dalton; otherwise, the Texans secondary isn't going to hold up.
NFC: Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
Wilson has been on fire since early November. The Seahawks' rookie quarterback has led the team to a 7-1 record over the past couple months, helping them rebound quickly enough to earn a playoff spot after a lackluster start.
During that time period, Wilson has posted seven games with a quarterback rating of 100 or better. The only game in which he didn't was a blowout victory over the Arizona Cardinals in which he wasn't forced to push the pace.
After entering the season in the shadow of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, he's emerged as a future star in his own right. That said, with the added attention comes increased expectations and a boatload of pressure for Sunday's game.
The fact he's facing Griffin only amplifies that. Seattle will attempt to establish the ground game with Marshawn Lynch in the early going, but it will be up to Wilson to make the big plays. His hot streak must continue into the playoffs if the Seahawks want to make a run.