NFL Playoffs 2013: Key Defensive Players to Watch in Each Divisional Game

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 29:  John Abraham #55 of the Atlanta Falcons sacks Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints at Georgia Dome on November 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Defenses are going to be vital in this weekend's divisional round games.

Here are four defensive players that could have a big impact and send their team to the conference finals.


Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos: Baltimore LB Ray Lewis

This is of course Ray Lewis' last NFL playoffs, as he announced he is retiring at the end of the season. Before last week's Wild Card game against the Colts, Lewis hadn't played in a game since October.

He didn't show the tiniest signs of rust, getting nine solo tackles and assisting on four others.

Lewis is one of the most inspiring players in the league. As this is likely the end of the line, you can expect every single Raven to play with the express purpose of letting Lewis go out on top.

The Baltimore defense will need to step up against Peyton Manning. If he's able to have a big performance, the Ravens won't stand a chance.

It's up to Lewis to organize the defense at the line of scrimmage and make the proper reads.


Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: Green Bay LB Clay Matthews

In replacing Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick has been dependable while adding enough to possibly push the San Francisco 49ers over the top. Kaepernick's inexperience could be his downfall, though.

In order to get a win, the Green Bay Packers will need to throw Kaepernick off his game. This is where Clay Matthews comes in.

Kaepernick hasn't been tested as a playoff quarterback. The Packers don't want to let him get off to a fast start, because his confidence would just grow with each snap.

Hitting him early and often could get him rattled and lead him to turn the ball over.

Frank Gore is a work horse, but Kaepernick needs to have a good game in order for the 49ers to advance.


Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta DE John Abraham

Everything said about Kaepernick applies to Russell Wilson.

The rookie did well enough in the Seahawks' Wild Card Round win over the Washington Redskins. Wilson wasn't spectacular, but he didn't turn the ball over and let Marshawn Lynch grind out the game.

With the 21st-ranked rush defense, the Atlanta Falcons might have a hard time handling Lynch. Forcing Wilson into turnovers would be huge for Atlanta.

The good news is that the Falcons might be able to count on their best pass-rusher, John Abraham.

Abraham picked up an injury in Atlanta's last game of the regular season. But Pat Yasinskas of reported that the defensive end will practice on Wednesday.


Houston Texans at New England Patriots: Houston CB Johnathan Joseph

The Houston Texans counted on Johnathan Joseph to shut down A.J. Green in the Wild Card matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.

For the most part, Joseph did well. Green only managed five receptions for 80 yards. Joseph also intercepted an Andy Dalton pass in the third quarter.

J.J. Watt will demand a lot of attention, but it's in the secondary where this game will be decided.

Houston will be looking to Joseph again this weekend against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It's a much tougher test for Joseph.

In the team's regular season meeting, Brady torched the Texans secondary for 296 yards and four touchdowns. If that happens again, the Texans will be toast.