NFL Playoff Schedule 2013: Players Who Will Decide Each Divisional Clash

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 7, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 09:  Aldon Smith #99 of the San Francisco 49ers drinks from a Gatorade water bottle before their game against the Miami Dolphins at Candlestick Park on December 9, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We're set for one of the most exciting divisional rounds of the NFL playoffs in recent memory, and each game will be decided by one X-factor.

While the Wild Card round was exciting as usual, it was no match for the quality of play we'll see this weekend as the NFL's best face off. 

Each matchup has huge Super Bowl implications, and you can't count out a single team left in the running. Any of the teams remaining are dangerous and could be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Super Bowl Sunday.

Let's take a look at one player who will decide each divisional clash.


Seattle at Atlanta – Matt Ryan

There hasn't been a storyline more beaten to death (okay, excluding Tim Tebow and the Jets) in recent years than Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's transformation from the regular season to the playoffs.

Ryan has been the leader of one of the NFL's best teams over the past three seasons, but they've been shut down in the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, going 0-2 over those two postseasons.

There's no way of knowing if this year will be any different. The red-hot Seattle Seahawks are coming to town with a rookie quarterback who is playing like a chiseled veteran. 

The Falcons will live and die with Ryan's performance. If he plays reminiscent of their 2011 Wild Card game against New York, Atlanta won't stand a chance. 


Green Bay at San Francisco – Aldon Smith

At the beginning of the season, not many people thought it was possible that these two teams would face off anywhere other than the NFC Championship. But regardless, they're both huge Super Bowl contenders. 

The best way for opponents to have success against the Green Bay Packers is to put pressure on Aaron Rodgers. If you don't, he'll make you pay by executing with his many pass-catching options and quick feet. 

49ers defensive end Aldon Smith is one of the best pass-rushers in the game, and his ability to get to Rodgers will decide this game one way or another. If the Packers' offensive line can keep Rodgers clean, he'll have a big day.

But if Smith can get his hands on Rodgers, expect a San Francisco victory.


Houston at New England – Tom Brady

Although the Houston Texans were once thought of as the AFC's best team, they've slipped in recent weeks and are backpedaling into Foxboro. 

They couldn't have found a worse place to backpedal into, as they were ousted there, 42-14, just in Week 14 of this season. Quarterback Tom Brady was on fire against the strong Texans' defense.

But that hasn't been the case in every game this season, as Brady has been hot and cold. The Texans have plenty of game film to look at from their most recent beatdown, and they'll likely come into this matchup ready to make Brady pay. 

If Brady can do more of what he did in Week 14, it'll be a long day for Houston, and their Super Bowl hopes will come crashing down. But if they can torment him and throw him off his game early, they'll stand a chance.


Baltimore at Denver – Knowshon Moreno

We all know that Peyton Manning will be solid as usual for the Denver Broncos. What we don't know, is how ready running back Knowshon Moreno is.

The Ravens traditionally have a stout rushing attack, but they were just 20th in the league in rush defense this season. Plus, they gave up 172 rushing yards to the Colts in last week's playoff win.

Moreno wasn't the top backfield option until Willis McGahee went down midseason, but he's dazzled ever since he was immersed back into the lineup. But there's no way of telling if he'll continue that pattern against a Ravens defense that finally has Ray Lewis back, hungrier than ever to continue his career.

The Broncos rusher must help Manning move the chains to get past the pesky Ravens.