NFL Divisional Predictions 2013: Stars Destined to Come Up Big for Their Teams
After Wild Card Weekend was mostly a snooze-fest that simply weeded out all of the dregs of the 2013 NFL playoffs, it's now up to the Divisional Round to inject excitement back into our postseason lives.
Obviously, teams cannot do that without big performances from their star players. Last week we saw middling performances from Adrian Peterson, Andrew Luck and Ray Rice, with only one of their teams surviving.
With the top division winners getting bye weeks to prepare for this weekend's slate of games, there won't be any room for error. A bad performance from a top star and your team is likely booking vacation plans for February.
Which players will come up huge for their teams? Here is a look at a few star players who should have massive performances in the Divisional Round.
Peyton Manning (QB, Denver Broncos)
If the Broncos can take away anything from the Ravens' 24-9 Wild Card Round victory over the Indianapolis Colts, it's that Ray Lewis' return didn't suddenly fix Baltimore's defensive woes.
Though the team scored just nine points, Indianapolis once again proved that you can move the ball on this Ravens defense. Slowly matriculating their way up the field, the Colts had seven drives that went at least 40 yards and gained a total of 419 yards on Baltimore's once-vaunted unit.
Like teams have all season, however, the problem came with Indianapolis' inability to put points on the board. Both of Andrew Luck's turnovers on Sunday were deep inside Ravens territory, as was Adam Vinatieri's critical missed field goal in the fourth quarter.
At minimum, those were nine Colts points wiped off the board by preventable mistakes and that could have fundamentally altered the course of the game.
Though this is an admitted generality, Peyton Manning does not make those mistakes. On passes thrown inside the red zone, Manning only threw two interceptions against 27 touchdowns on 82 attempts this season.
All of that is to say Manning should have a fantastic game against Baltimore on Saturday. The Ravens were thoroughly average in pass defense this season (17th in passing yards against, 13th in DVOA), and Denver will ostensibly pass more than in its 31-17 victory during the regular season.
One could look at the box score and simply deduce that the Broncos' strategy against Baltimore earlier this season was rather conservative. They ran the ball 45 times compared to just 28 pass attempts for Manning, his second-lowest rate of 2012.
However, that would ignore game situations entirely. Denver was ahead 17-0 at halftime and 31-3 by the end of the third quarter. There was little reason for Manning to pass and even less reason for him to take big risks when he did drop back.
If this game is remotely close, the Broncos will put the ball in Manning's hands. And there's no reason to think he'll do anything less than excel with his opportunity.
Marshawn Lynch (RB, Seattle Seahawks)
It took Lynch all of 20 carries to rush for 132 yards and a touchdown and the Seahawks as a whole only 37 carries to gain 224 yards against the fifth-ranked Washington Redskins run defense last week.
Certainly, one could (correctly) argue that number was skewed because Washington's porous secondary made it easy to throw on them. True enough. The Redskins were far closer to mediocre this season in run defense than they were top five.
It doesn't matter because Lynch gets an even better matchup this week against the Atlanta Falcons. They ranked 21st in the NFL against the run this season in total yards and 29th in yards per attempt.
More importantly, the Seahawks will actually get to play football...on an actual football field.
They'll get to run the read-option with Wilson and Lynch on a fast turf surface rather than that knee-shredding sod the Redskins called a football field last weekend. While some will point to that giving Julio Jones an advantage down the field against the Seahawks' hulking cornerbacks, Lynch and Wilson stand to gain a lot more from the fast surface.
Lynch's brilliant 2012 season is once again proof of how much a running quarterback can help a running back. In his previous five seasons in the NFL, Lynch had a 4.0 career yards per carry on 1,137 rushing attempts. He had never rushed for more than 4.2 yards per carry in a season, nor was he a guy who had a low YPC because of an abundant workload.
In 2012, Lynch averaged a career-high 5.0 yards per carry on 315 carries, also a career-best. That isn't a coincidence. Lynch didn't change overnight into a consistent breakout runner, his circumstances exponentially improved over what they were in Buffalo and early on in Seattle.
His circumstances should once again improve this week from last and he should come up with a massive performance on Sunday.
Aldon Smith (LB, San Francisco 49ers)
After looking like a virtual lock to break the NFL's sack record heading into Week 15, Smith fell flat on his face. The second-year pass-rushing specialist failed to record a sack in any of San Francisco's final three games and had just three solo tackles to boot.
In perhaps the least coincidental fact on the planet that Smith's descent from superstardom coincided with Justin Smith's absence. The 49ers' star defensive end went out in Week 15's victory over the New England Patriots with a triceps injury, and the team's defense has desperately missed his presence since.
Luckily, it seems like Justin Smith will be back in the lineup in some capacity on Saturday. He was a limited participant in practice throughout last week, per 49ers.com, and is expected to wear a brace and suit up against the Green Bay Packers.
That sound you hear was Aaron Rodgers tightening up his flak jacket. Justin Smith's return to the lineup should help out the entire 49ers defense, but mostly Aldon Smith, who won't have to worry about being the key target of double teams by Green Bay.
Instead, Aldon Smith should return to the single-blocker sets he's accustomed to and that could spell doom for Rodgers. The Packers allowed their quarterback to get sacked 51 times this season and had an 8.6 percent adjusted sack rate, both of which were second-worst in the NFL.
If San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, Saturday night could be a living nightmare for Rodgers in the pocket. And, if it is, look for Aldon Smith to be the driving force.
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