The NFL Playoffs have left us with the eight best teams in the NFL remaining. These eight teams got to this point through talent and determination. Naturally, these teams feature massive star-power.
To figure out the biggest stars remaining, we'll look at a few things. The No. 1 factor in these rankings will be how important a player is to his team. These rankings will be dominated by quarterbacks, unsurprisingly, as they are the NFL's brightest stars.
That doesn't mean it will be all quarterbacks, though.
Another major factor will be how dominant these players have been this season. Guys like J.J. Watt and Von Miller have actually dominated opponents in a way no quarterback has before. That counts for a lot in these rankings.
One final factor to keep in mind—a history of playoff success. Some players come alive in the playoffs. I'm thinking of guys like Ed Reed, who single-handedly defeated the Texans in last year's playoffs, and Marshawn Lynch, whose touchdown run in 2011 will go down as one of the greatest of all time.
Honorable Mention: Colin Kaepernick, QB San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick has started the fewest games of all the quarterbacks in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean he's raw. On the contrary, Kaepernick has been awesome in his few starts, with a 98.3 passer rating and 15 total touchdowns.
This will be our best chance to determine how good Kaepernick really is, but he's always fun to watch either way. His upside lands him a spot on this list.
20. Joe Flacco, QB Baltimore Ravens
In the regular season, Joe Flacco is hardly a star. In fact, he's hardly a top-15 quarterback. In the playoffs, though, something sparks in Flacco. He's won a playoff game five years in a row, and he's exceeded a passer rating of 95 in four of his last five playoff starts.
In terms of pure passing prowess, Flacco doesn't belong on this list. For being a prime-time performer in the biggest situations, though, Flacco earns a spot.
19. Clay Matthews, OLB Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews is a marketable star with a well-known commercial for State Farm. Beyond that, he's a dynamic pass-rusher who has 42.5 sacks in his four seasons in the NFL, with 13 this season alone.
In a playoffs with three pass-rushers over 18 sacks, Matthews' prowess could get lost in the mix. Don't let that happen. He is just as dangerous as the other pass-rushing stars on this list.
18. Tony Gonzalez, TE Atlanta Falcons
Tony Gonzalez has never won a playoff game in his illustrious career, and I can think of no player more worthy of winning one than Gonzalez. No questions asked, Gonzalez is one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
Gonzalez is still a threat, with 930 yards and eight touchdowns this year alone. His 14,268 yards is the second best mark among players in these playoffs. He is truly a legend.
17. Ed Reed, S Baltimore Ravens
Ed Reed has definitely lost a step or several, but he can still bring it in big situations. His performance against the Texans in the 2012 playoffs was one for the ages, and he can still strike fear into opposing passers even now.
Reed still has the ability to make a huge impact, even if he hasn't done it lately. Reed might be gone after this season. Don't expect him to end on a down note.
16. Russell Wilson, QB Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks' brilliant rookie quarterback was one of the most efficient players in the entire NFL, with a passer rating of 100.0, a yards per carry of 5.2 and 30 total touchdowns. Those numbers are absolutely ridiculous for any player, let alone a rookie.
Wilson has a chance to cement himself as a true star with another strong playoff performance. Expect him to excel yet again in Atlanta.
15. Richard Sherman, CB Seattle Seahawks
Wilson might be the face of the franchise, but the best player is Richard Sherman. He may be the best cornerback in the league, capable of shutting down opponents and forcing turnovers, as his eight interceptions indicate.
Sherman won't back down from anyone, and his trash-talking helps fuel the Seahawks. He will be an impact performer on Sunday.
14. Andre Johnson, WR Houston Texans
The best receiver left in these playoffs is Andre Johnson, who is coming off a career-high in receiving yards. Johnson is a matchup nightmare with the size and speed to dominate any cornerback.
If the Texans are going to pass the ball effectively, Johnson will need to step up in a big way.
13. Matt Ryan, QB Atlanta Falcons
On one hand, Matt Ryan is an MVP-candidate and a superstar. For sure, his 4,719 passing yards and 32 touchdowns are seriously impressive. On the other hand, though, Ryan is a quarterback who has never won a playoff game and has wilted under pressure.
Ryan is the biggest boom-or-bust candidate on this list. With a strong performance and a win, he can skyrocket up this list, but another loss will prove him a fraud.
No player has more pressure on his shoulders this weekend.
12. Ray Rice, RB Baltimore Ravens
One of the NFL's biggest stars is also one of its smallest. The diminutive Ray Rice always entertains, both with big plays and the occasional big mouth. He's playing with extra motivation—no player is closer to No. 52 than Rice.
Expect Rice to atone for his two fumbles last week with a big performance Saturday.
11. Aldon Smith, OLB San Francisco 49ers
Aldon Smith has quietly pieced together one of the best seasons in NFL history for a pass-rusher, with 19.5 sacks. In fact, the dynamic linebacker has 33.5 sacks in just two NFL seasons.
Smith will have plenty of opportunities to keep that torrid pace going against Aaron Rodgers, who is well known for his tendency to hold the ball.
10. Patrick Willis, ILB San Francisco 49ers
The best inside linebacker in this draft might not be the most famous. Patrick Willis is one of the quieter superstars in the NFL, but his impact cannot be understated. Willis has accounted for 120 tackles and four turnovers this season.
Willis will virtually guarantee that the Packers will be one-dimensional, as they will be unable to run against the 49ers brilliant front seven.
9. Rob Gronkowski, TE New England Patriots
As good as Tony Gonzalez is, Rob Gronkowski has overtaken him as the best tight end in the NFL. In just 11 games this season, Gronk has racked up 790 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has racked up an insane 38 touchdowns in just three seasons in the NFL.
When the Patriots get into the red zone, you better believe they'll be looking for Gronkowski. Expect him to turn that trust into points.
8. Ray Lewis, ILB Baltimore Ravens
Purely in terms of storylines, Ray Lewis is the biggest star in the NFL right now. He is one of the greatest players of all time, and even non-Ravens fans want to see Lewis go out a winner.
Unfortunately, Lewis' level of play has fallen off this year. He has a chance to go out on top though, with the rust of 10 weeks on the bench falling away. Lewis will play with more fire than ever on Saturday.
7. Marshawn Lynch, RB Seattle Seahawks
Marshawn Lynch is a playoff superstar for one play, and one play alone. His 67-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints in 2011 will go down as perhaps the greatest run in NFL history.
Lynch has been prone to those kinds of heroics recently, as this offense really relies on him. Lynch won't disappoint on Sunday.
6. Arian Foster, RB Houston Texans
Arian Foster is always a great running back, but he seems to turn the intensity up in the playoffs. In three career playoff games, Foster has racked up 425 rushing yards and 85 receiving yards. He's been a true weapon for the Texans when it matters most.
For the Texans to have a chance, Foster will need another strong game. Expect big things in his fourth career playoff start.
5. Von Miller, OLB Denver Broncos
Though not as prolific as his peer Aldon Smith in terms of sacks, Miller is arguably the better pass-rusher who always impacts games in a big way. With 30 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Miller burst onto the scene and never looked back.
Now, Miller will get to take on Michael Oher and the Baltimore Ravens. Miller has to be licking his chops for that juicy matchup, one in which he will dominate.
4. J.J. Watt, DE Houston Texans
No NFL player can defend as well as J.J. Watt. He led the NFL in sacks with 20.5, and he did that from a position that rarely produces a big pass rush. The 3-4 defense does not ask its ends to get after the quarterback, yet Watt did it better than anybody. He's also a stout run defender, using his 295-pound frame and elite strength to great effect.
Watt will have a chance to wreak havoc against the Patriots' pass-happy offense. His performance could be the difference for the Texans.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB Green Bay Packers
We are in an era of quarterbacking excellence, and Aaron Rodgers just might be the most visible image of it. In almost any other year, Rodgers would be considered an MVP-candidate with the season he had (4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns, 108.0 passer rating), yet Rodgers is largely an afterthought.
That doesn't mean Rodgers isn't one of the best players in these playoffs. He is, and he will prove it in San Francisco.
2. Tom Brady, QB New England Patriots
No quarterback can match the combination of passing stats and championships that Tom Brady has accumulated in his career. Brady has averaged over 5,000 yards per season the past two years and has 334 career passing touchdowns. Only one quarterback can match that level of statistical success.
More on him later.
Brady, at any rate, is a living legend, but he has one thing to prove. He hasn't won a Super Bowl since 2005, and with the end of his career looming on the horizon, Brady has to be feeling the heat. This is perhaps his best chance in years.
Expect Brady to make the most of it.
1. Peyton Manning, QB Denver Broncos
The numbers speak for themselves on Peyton Manning: 436 career passing touchdowns and 59,487 yards. No quarterback has averaged higher numbers than Manning on a seasonal basis.
Yet, Manning hasn't always turned that into postseason success. Just one championship and two Super Bowl appearances for Manning, who has never been the same quarterback in the playoffs.
This is his best chance to put those doubts aside.
Manning has a chance to lead two teams to a championship—something that has never been done. That would cement his status not just as a legend, but the best ever. That makes Manning these playoffs' biggest star.
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