25 NFL Players, Teams and Coaches Feeling the Most Pressure in Divisional Games
Week 2 of the NFL playoffs is set to kick off this weekend with the four divisional round matchups taking center stage.
For some, expectations are riding high and the pressure is mounting, while for others the heat is on to prove that they should be taken more seriously.
From franchise quarterbacks with chips on their shoulders to head coaches who just can't seem to lead their team to victory in the postseason, there are plenty of people on the hot seat this weekend.
No matter the situation, it's time for these 25 teams, players and coaches to step up or watch the conference championship games from their couches.
There may be no team facing more scrutiny this postseason than the Atlanta Falcons.
This season marks the fourth time in five seasons that the team has reached the postseason, yet the team is still looking for its first win over that span.
Since the 2008 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons have compiled a regular-season record of 56-24, yet they are 0-3 in postseason action.
This weekend's showdown against the Seattle Seahawks will give Atlanta the opportunity to silence all those who don't believe that this team can win when playoff time comes.
Sticking with the Atlanta Falcons theme, Matt Ryan certainly has a lot to prove on Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks make their way to the Georgia Dome.
Despite posting career highs in completion percentage (68.6) this season and passing yardage (4,719 yards) this season, questions remain about Ryan's ability to lead the Falcons offense to victory come the postseason.
In his three prior playoff appearances, Ryan has averaged just 194.7 yards per game, while throwing for three touchdown passes compared to four interceptions.
Sunday afternoon will be Ryan's chance to prove that he can win games when they really count.
Wes Welker's future as a New England Patriot seemed to be in doubt earlier this season when he and the Pats were struggling to come to an agreement on a new contract.
Talks of a possible Welker-New England split, however, dwindled as the season progressed thanks to a sensational season from the 5'9" receiver.
After another season of well over 100 receptions and 1,300 yards (the third time in four seasons that Welker hit the 1,300-yard plateau), the focus has shifted back to New England's Super Bowl chances and away from Welker's expiring contract.
A bad game from Welker against the Houston Texans on Sunday could bring that talk back to the forefront.
While it may not seem like Welker is under pressure heading into Sunday's matchup, both parties are definitely aware of his contract situation, particularly after he faltered down the stretch in last year's Super Bowl.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco may not be expected to win this Saturday when he and the Ravens travel to Denver to face off against the Broncos, but the fifth-year QB still has a lot to prove, especially playing away from home.
Flacco's play away from home in 2012 has been less than stellar to say the least, and having a big game this weekend in Denver's high altitude would go a long way toward silencing his critics.
Another lackluster performance, however, could leave the team and its fans wondering if Flacco really is the quarterback to take them to the promised land.
Matt Schaub has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in each of his last three full seasons under center for the Houston Texans.
His completion rate hasn't dropped below 61 percent since 2005, when he attempted just 64 passes.
He's thrown at least 20 touchdown passes in each of his last three full seasons, yet Schaub is rarely mentioned as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
Perhaps it's the fact that before last weekend, Schaub had never won a postseason game, and he had only led his team to the playoffs once before.
Well, this week is Schaub's chance to hit the road and come up with a big win against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
If Schaub can waltz into Foxboro and avenge the Texans' Week 14 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots, he will put to rest a lot of the doubts about him being one of the NFL's best signal-callers.
The 2012 season wasn't one of Ed Reed's best.
As much as Reed seems like a Raven-for-life kind of player, one has to question whether that is the case.
Most fans would certainly like to see Reed finish his career in Baltimore, but will Ozzie Newsome be willing to pay the aging veteran what he desires?
We haven't seen the dominant Reed much lately, and at 34 years old, he isn't getting any younger.
The pressure to play well is certainly there for Reed. Throw in the fact that he's still looking for his first Super Bowl ring, and it's fairly obvious that the stakes are high.
Tony Gonzalez doesn't really have anything left to prove.
As someone who holds the NFL record for most receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and 1,000-plus-yard seasons for a tight end, Gonzalez will go down as the greatest tight end to play the game of football.
Yet Gonzalez has never been a part of a Super Bowl-winning team. And at age 36, this could be Gonzalez's last shot at winning a Super Bowl.
That's all the prolific tight end has left to accomplish, and the clock is ticking.
Since taking over for Alex Smith in Week 10 of the NFL's regular season, Colin Kaepernick has led the San Francisco 49ers to a 5-2 (5-2-1 if you include the tie in Week 10 when Kaepernick took over for the injured Smith) record and a first-round bye in the postseason.
But should the 49ers come up short this weekend at home against the Green Bay Packers, there will be plenty of questions about whether Kaepernick should have kept the starting job, even after Alex Smith was cleared to play.
Should he help the 49ers advance to the NFC Championship Game, though, Kaepernick would surely be seen as the best QB for the team moving forward.
Saturday night will be a test of monumental proportions for the sophomore QB from Milwaukee.
If the pundits are to be believed, Saturday afternoon's tilt in Denver will be Ray Lewis' final NFL contest.
Just about no one seems to think that the Baltimore Ravens can pull off the upset in the Mile High City.
As the emotional leader and elder player on the defensive side of the football, the Ravens will look to Lewis for leadership and guidance.
If that wasn't enough, Lewis will be fighting to keep his career alive.
I would say the pressure's on for No. 52.
They're something that no NFL head coach ever wants to deal with.
Nevertheless, should the 49ers find themselves on the outside looking in come next week, Jim Harbaugh will have some serious questions to answer.
Chief among them will be why he didn't go back to veteran QB Alex Smith when he was cleared to play.
Sure, Colin Kaepernick is 5-2 since taking over for Smith, but he hasn't managed to throw for more than 276 yards in any of his starts, and his completion rate has dipped below the 60 percent mark in each of the last three weeks.
Kaepernick hasn't even been as much of a threat running the ball as he was when he first took over for Smith, totalling just 64 yards on the ground over the last three games.
Harbaugh is taking a major risk having the second-year QB take the snaps this weekend. He better hope it pays off.
Any team that has to head into the Georgia Dome for a playoff game against a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 2004 has a tough task ahead.
But running back Marshawn Lynch has an especially difficult task this weekend as the main cog in Seattle's offense.
While rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has been a pleasant surprise, he's passed for approximately 700 yards less than any other QB suiting up this weekend (with the exception of the aforementioned Colin Kaepernick).
Seattle's offense revolves around the running game.
If Lynch struggles in Atlanta, the Seahawks will have a tough time finding a way to win.
J.J. Watt has undoubtedly put together a season worthy of Defensive Player of the Year honors.
When Watt heads to New England this week, however, I doubt his mind will be on how successful of a season he's had.
Instead, he's more likely to be thinking about the trouncing the Texans suffered at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense in Week 14.
In that game, Watt was held to just two tackles and didn't record one of his 20.5 sacks.
This week, you know Watt will be looking to apply much more pressure to No. 12 in blue to keep him and the rest of the Patriots offense from putting up points at will.
Vernon Davis has to be feeling his seat getting warmer as San Francisco's go-to target.
After posting 965 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2009, Davis has seen his numbers in both those departments drop steadily from year to year.
In 2012, Davis had just 548 yards and five touchdown catches, nearly cutting his yardage numbers in half from his 2009 season and watching his TD total drop drastically from that career season.
This weekend will give Davis the opportunity to show that he can still contribute in big games and avoid the path to irrelevancy he seems to be on.
After Chuck Pagano left the Baltimore Ravens to accept the head coaching position for the Indianapolis Colts, Dean Pees was elevated to the position of defensive coordinator for the Ravens.
In his first year at the helm, Pees oversaw the decline of one of the most iconic defenses of recent times.
Yes, Baltimore's defense was plagued by injuries this season, but even before some of the major injuries, the Ravens were giving up an inordinate amount of yardage and just didn't look like the same dominant defense fans had become accustomed to.
While the team stepped up in its wild-card matchup with the Colts, Ravens fans will be looking for more of the same this week against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
Repeating last week's performance on the road against a Denver offense that is firing on all cylinders will be easier said than done.
It was another fine season for Jerod Mayo, who recorded upwards of 147 tackles for the New England Patriots this season.
As one of the NFL's top run-stoppers, Mayo will be put to the test at home this weekend against one of the league's premier tailbacks in Arian Foster, who is coming off of an incredible performance last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown in Houston's wild-card victory, and it will be up to Mayo and the New England defense to slow him down this weekend.
With Sean Weatherspoon being the Atlanta Falcons' second-leading tackler this season (though he does average more tackles per game than fellow linebacker Stephen Nicholas), much of the burden to stop Seattle's explosive running game will fall on his shoulders.
With Marshawn Lynch collecting nearly 1,600 yards on the season, slowing him down won't be easy.
Getting to Lynch and then being able to bring him down will both be critical for the Falcons this week, and Weatherspoon will be the man spearheading that operation.
While Peyton Manning has certainly earned the loyalty of the Denver Broncos faithful and will be loved in the Mile High City whether the team wins or loses on Saturday, there is still a certain amount of pressure that comes with being such a heavy favorite.
As the leader of a team that hasn't lost since Week 5 and is favored to beat Baltimore by more than a touchdown in a rematch from Week 15, the expectations are high for Manning and his crew.
A loss at home on Saturday would be devastating for the Broncos and their fans.
Just as Matt Ryan will be feeling the pressure to break Atlanta's playoff winless streak, Mike Smith will also be looking to dispel the notion that his team cannot win big football games.
Despite the fact that Smith helped turn this team around when he took over in 2008, many people have grown impatient with his lack of postseason success.
A win or three over the course of the next few weeks would go a long way toward easing the minds of Falcons fans everywhere.
Bruce Irvin/Red Bryant
After the Seattle Seahawks lost their leading pass-rusher in Chris Clemons last week against the Washington Redskins, all eyes will be on Bruce Irvin to pick up the slack and on Red Bryant to step in and replace Clemons on the Seahawks defensive line.
Losing Clemons, who had a career-best 11.5 sacks in 2012, is crippling to the Seahawks defense.
More so than the rookie Irvin, the pressure is on for Bryant, who will need to step in on short notice and still bring the pressure many expect from the Seahawks defense.
Outside of Michael Crabtree, the San Francisco 49ers didn't have a single wide receiver reach the 500-yard receiving mark.
Suffice it to say that San Francisco's passing game relies heavily on Crabtree, and if he isn't able to get open for Colin Kaepernick, it could be a long day for the San Francisco offense.
While Frank Gore is effective running the ball, if Green Bay can shut down Crabtree, it can focus almost exclusively on stopping the run.
Crabtree will be crucial to San Francisco's success come Saturday.
Michael Oher/Kelechi Osemele
It's been a fairly underwhelming season thus far for the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line.
Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda have been very good as usual, while Michael Oher and rookie Kelechi Osemele have had some trouble stopping opposing pass-rushers and avoiding penalties.
Now, Baltimore heads to Denver, where the O-line will find two of the NFL's best pass-rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
While the whole offensive line will need to really bear down come Saturday, Oher and Osemele in particular will need to step up their game.
Last week against the Washington Redskins, the Seattle secondary, led by the boisterous Richard Sherman, held Washington to just 99 passing yards (albeit against an injured Robert Griffin III).
This week will present a much tougher task, with Sherman and his cohorts tasked with shutting down two of the top wideouts in the league in Roddy White and Julio Jones.
After talking a lot of trash after the Seahawks' wild-card win in Landover, Md., last Sunday, Sherman and company will have to back that up once more on Sunday.
Clay Matthews is definitely regarded as one of Green Bay's leaders on the defensive side of the football.
He's also one of the better pass-rushers in the league, recording 13 sacks this season in just 12 games.
Matthews, however, is also an important part of Green Bay's run defense.
Consider this statistic (h/t scout.com): In the four games that Clay Matthews did not play due to injury, the Green Bay defense allowed an average of 158 rushing yards per game and gave up a total of five touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, in the 12 games with Matthews in the lineup, the Packers allowed just 105.3 yards per game and seven touchdowns.
Even as a pass-rusher first, Matthews will play a big role in slowing down Frank Gore and the 49ers run game.
Although Ray Rice is one of Baltimore's integral pieces on offense, he's coming off a game in which he fumbled not once, but twice against the Indianapolis Colts.
In fact, it was Bernard Pierce who led the team in rushing yards against the Colts, while Rice was seen on the sidelines more often than usual (he only attempted two more runs than Pierce in the Wild Card Round).
This week, the Ravens will need Rice to have a much better game if they are to come out of Denver with a win.
Establishing the run will be even more critical should Joe Flacco have his typical off game away from M&T Bank Stadium.
It has been a long season for Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner.
Turner eclipsed the 100-yard mark just twice all season and has only run for more than 50 yards twice since Week 10, averaging a paltry 35.75 yards per game over that span.
With sophomore running back Jacquizz Rodgers knocking at the door (the 5'6" Oregon State product tallied over 760 yards from scrimmage in 2012), it's now or never for Turner in Atlanta.