The level of intrigue in the NFL has flipped from rookie QBs to seasoned veterans, and in the minds of fans of the league, that's just fine.
Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will take the forefront of this weekend's Divisional Round, with Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck now watching at home for the duration of the 2013 playoffs.
From the Denver Broncos to the Atlanta Falcons, this year's top teams are getting ready to prove that the bye week helped rejuvenate their spirits as the wild-card challengers prepare to hit the road.
There's always a player or two who has the potential to be an X-factor in a big game. For these four games, that's the case in a major way, as we're looking at some of the most intriguing matchups of the entire season in just one weekend.
Here's a look a four guys who will emerge—either in a good or bad way—as X-factors for their teams, as well as a complete schedule of where you can find each game on television this weekend.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos—Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
X-Factor: Denver LB/DE Von Miller
Miller played his way into consideration for Defensive Player of the Year down the stretch, single-handedly changing games for a Denver defense that hasn't exactly been the most consistent bunch.
We all know about Manning, Ray Rice and the rest of the offensive weapons these two teams employ, but the game will be won on defense. Ray Lewis is waiting to figure out Manning, and Miller will have a similar task with frustrating Joe Flacco.
If the Broncos can get pressure on Baltimore, this could be a long day for a Ravens team that has struggled with that kind of problem all season. Miller is a true threat to change a game by himself, so Baltimore must be ready to both chip with Rice and Bernard Pierce in the passing game and send extra help to the tackles on the edge.
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers—Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox
X-Factor: San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick
I know, picking a QB is so cliché. But the difference between opening night between these two teams is the QB, where Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers and the 49ers have chosen to open things up with the second-year pro from Nevada.
When Kaepernick turns the ball over, San Francisco generally loses (see Week 13 versus St. Louis). When he plays well, the 49ers are a hard team to beat, because the defense rarely gives up more than 20 points a game.
Sure, Green Bay is a challenge to stop, and a full complement of players will find a way to break through for a couple of scores against the Niners. But if Kaepernick turns the ball over and can't get things going through the air, this game could get really ugly, really quickly.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons—Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. ET on Fox
X-Factor: Atlanta RB Michael Turner
Have we seen the last of Turner as an elite back? If the answer to that question is no, this weekend would be a great time to prove it.
Against Seattle's defense, the Falcons can't afford to let Matt Ryan drop back 50 times and try to sling it around. Cornerback Richard Sherman is waiting to pounce, as is the rest of the talented secondary from Seattle.
With balance comes play action, and with play action comes the deep threats of three of the league's most dangerous receivers—Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Without the threat of Turner or even Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta could be forced into a situation where it must abandon the run and challenge these corners.
That generally doesn't end well. Just ask Tom Brady.
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots —Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
X-Factor: Houston S Glover Quin
Unnoticed to the untrained eye, Quin played a big role in his team's win over the Cincinnati Bengals. As noted on the broadcast, Jermaine Gresham had fits against this guy all game, and it really frustrated Andy Dalton and the passing game to the point of not being able to sustain drives to win that football game.
Against the Patriots, he and Danieal Manning are both faced with the near-impossible task of slowing down Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two of the best tight ends in the business.
Brady had his way against this defense in an early-season route. Even though the Texans are on the road, they have a lot of pride, and one of the major areas of their game plan will be to slow down the tight ends in the passing game.
To do so, Quin will have to take assignments against these two All-Pro-caliber players. He'll have to earn his worth against them the same way he did against Gresham, or it's going to be a long day.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team. Follow @DowntownEG
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