NFL Playoffs 2013: Key Players in Divisional Round Matchups
One week down, and just two more to go before the NFL playoffs get pared down to two Super Bowl-bound teams.
The divisional matchups have some great rematches, including New England versus Houston and an old rivalry game between the 49ers and Packers.
While Wild Card Weekend was a bit of a dud, these games are sure to excite. And as always, it'll be the players that make the big difference.
Here are some difference-makers for each team in the divisional round.
The New England defense isn't the best around, but it has its strengths. One of those is defending against the run.
In the Pats' 42-14 win over the Texans in Week 14, they held Houston to just 100 rushing yards. Arian Foster was limited to 15 carries and averaged just 3.06 yards per attempt.
In Houston's win over Cincinnati last Saturday, Foster put up 140 yards on 32 carries.
For New England's defense to keep Houston in check, it has to disrupt the balance that makes the Texans so good. That means focusing on what they do well (stopping the run) over what they do poorly (defending the pass).
For the Pats, the run defense starts with big defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork is one of the best interior linemen in the league, using his big size and explosiveness to disrupt plays at the line. He started 2012 slowly but has become more effective down the stretch.
If the Patriots are to repeat their success at slowing down Foster, it will be up to Wilfork to disrupt the running lanes any way he can.
If Houston hopes to win its game against the Patriots, it will come down to stopping Tom Brady.
The last time these two teams met, New England's offensive line was dominant. It allowed just two sacks and helped set up 130 yards rushing. And it did it all by neutralizing Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
Watt is one of the most dangerous defensive linemen in the league. In just his second NFL season, he had 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defended in 2012.
But when Houston played New England, Watt was silenced. He had four tackles in that game, but no sacks and no defended passes.
When compared to Houston's Wild Card Round win over Cincinnati, the story is drastically different. Watt had five tackles (two for loss), a sack and two passes defended.
If Houston is going to win, it has to make Tom Brady uncomfortable and off-balance. The best way to do that is to lean on Watt and hope his pure tenacity pulls through.
Baltimore has a great defense, but right now it is limping through the playoffs. The Ravens looked healthy against Andrew Luck, but the Colts aren't nearly the team that the Broncos are.
At some point, the Ravens are going to have to score a lot of points.
That's where quarterback Joe Flacco comes in. He can't be expected to keep up with Peyton Manning, but he has to do enough, when combined with the defense, to give Baltimore a chance to win.
And Flacco can do it. He wasn't exactly superior to Luck on Wild Card Weekend, but he did enough to win. He finished that game with 282 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Baltimore can't expect to match Denver yard for yard. But as long as Flacco can make the big plays—and doesn't give up the ball—the Baltimore offense should be just fine.
So now that we just reviewed ways in which the Ravens can keep up with Denver, how do the Broncos counteract that?
Well, if Baltimore needs to lean on Joe Flacco for offensive punch, the Broncos just need to keep the quarterback off-balance.
Not too hard when you have the AFC's—if not the NFL's—best linebacker in Von Miller.
As good as he was last season, Miller has been even better this season. He finished the regular season with 18.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Miller is a defensive cog for Denver, not to mention a huge reason that it has one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. As long as he's bringing the heat, it will be impossible for Baltimore to keep up on offense.
49ers Offensive Line
Green Bay had a decisive defensive victory over the Vikings last Saturday, holding Adrian Peterson under 100 yards rushing while eliminating the passing game (albeit without Christian Ponder available).
San Francisco can't let the same thing happen this weekend.
The Niners don't have the greatest offensive line in the league, but it gets the job done. While it does give up plenty of sacks, it excels at opening lanes for running back Frank Gore.
In San Francisco's season-opening win over Green Bay, the team averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Gore alone put up 112 yards with one touchdown.
Despite giving up three sacks, it was a solid day for the O-linemen. And as long as they play like that this weekend, the Niners will be able to do their damage.
Green Bay Pass Rush
The Packers defense has been much improved over last season's unit, and a big reason for that is that it has been able to limit the pass.
Green Bay ranks 11th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing on average 218.2 passing yards a game.
And even though the 49ers are much more reliant on the ground game than passing, they can be dangerous through the air.
Whether the Packers win this game will come down to how well they rush the passer. This is the first playoff appearance of Colin Kaepernick's career, and if pressured, he could go quiet in a hurry.
If the Pack can bring the pressure, San Francisco will have a very hard time keeping up with Aaron Rodgers.
The Seattle Seahawks play great defense, and they have a very good ground attack on the shoulders of Marshawn Lynch. But that's not what has gotten them this far.
That has been rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
No one expected Wilson to have the season he has had, and he's certainly proving critics wrong. He finished the regular season completing 64 percent of his passes for over 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.
But Wilson is also a great dual-threat quarterback, averaging 5.2 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns.
The Hawks QB played great in his first playoff appearance, passing for 187 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 67 yards.
Now Seattle has the difficult task of playing the Atlanta Falcons on the road. But as long as Wilson is as good as he was last weekend, the Seahawks have a great chance at an upset.
With names like Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons have one of the most dangerous receiving corps in all of the NFL.
But they have the tough task of facing Seattle in the divisional round. The Seahawks play incredibly physical defense, and that includes their shutdown cornerbacks.
Matt Ryan is at his best when he spreads the ball around, but that could be tough against Seattle. He can't come out expecting to make big plays downfield.
But Seattle is susceptible in the flats, and that's where tight end Tony Gonzalez comes in.
Even at 36, Gonzalez is one of the best at his position. He finished 2012 with 930 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
If Ryan spreads the ball around and relies on Gonzalez to make catches away from Seattle's physical corners, the Falcons will be very hard to beat.