Star players matter in every game of the NFL season, but their importance gets infinitely magnified as the postseason progresses. With the separation between the talent level of teams shrinking down to minuscule levels, that emphasis on star players will be evident in Sunday's divisional round contests.
It will no longer be good enough for Russell Wilson to just be a very good rookie quarterback; he'll have to be a great signal-caller, period. The same goes for Matt Ryan with his status as the NFL's new Peyton Manning—a guy who can dominate a regular season but falls short in the playoffs.
In the AFC, the very few are questioning the New England Patriots' ability to advance in the postseason. Can J.J. Watt ascend to even further greatness and help spur an upset?
All of those questions remain to be answered. However, the thing most abundantly clear about Sunday's slate is that star players must have huge games. With that in mind, let's break down the players who must have huge performances for their teams to advance on Sunday.
(For complete, interactive NFL bracket information, head to CBS Sports.)
Tony Gonzalez (TE, Atlanta Falcons)
Even at their midseason worst, much of the Seahawks' hype has deservedly surrounded their star duo of cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The tall, athletic duo lived in receivers' back pockets all season and was the overarching reason Seattle led the NFL in total scoring defense.
Sherman, who was named an All-Pro on Saturday, was particularly special. When Browner was absent for the season's final four games due to a drug suspension, Sherman stepped up his game even higher and swallowed up opposing teams' top targets with a jarring ease. According to Pro Football Focus' coverage snaps per reception metric, Sherman ranked first among cornerbacks who were active for 60 percent or more of their teams' snaps this season.
All of this makes the Seahawks' defense a very difficult matchup for the Falcons' offense. Atlanta wants to spread the field out and air the ball out with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White. Though Browner was still a little rusty last week against Washington, the presence of the Seahawks' cornerbacks will likely make passing a frustrating task for Ryan.
That's where Gonzalez's importance comes in. Though Seattle has been great against opposing wide receivers this season, it's actually right around replacement-level against tight ends. Football Outsiders' DVOA metric ranks the Seahawks 17th, which is compared to top-10 standings in every other facet of the passing game.
If Ryan and Gonzalez produce a huge game, the Falcons may not need White or Jones to ascend. With very few playoff games likely remaining in his storied career, the (arguably) best tight end in NFL history will have to play like it on Sunday.
Russell Wilson (QB, Seattle Seahawks)
On the other side of the ball, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Marshawn Lynch will carve up the Falcons front seven. The All-Pro running back has five consecutive triple-digit rushing performances heading into Sunday and will face off against an Atlanta defense that finished the regular season 21st in run defense.
However, whether the Seahawks win or lose will ultimately be decided by the star rookie under center.
Even after last week's win at Washington, the fact remains that Wilson is a noticeably better quarterback at Qwest Field. Eight of his 10 interceptions during the season came away from Seattle, and his quarterback rating dips over 40 points when on the road.
Those stats aren't fluky and are one of the many reasons the Seahawks are a below-.500 team on the road this season.
Wilson obviously got better as the season went along, so those numbers aren't an end-all, be-all argument. Wilson looked very much like he had a case of the rookie yips early on against the Redskins last week, but whether those were playoff-related or road game-related remains unclear.
Either way, Wilson cannot be anything short of poised on Sunday. Just like the Seattle is a noticeably worse team on the road, Atlanta is almost equally better at home—especially defensively.
According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Falcons have the fourth-best defense in the NFL when at home. On the road, that number dips all the way to 21st. Any sign of playoff or road yips in the passing game from Wilson and Atlanta could load up the box and work on mitigating Lynch's effect as well.
J.J. Watt (DE, Houston Texans)
The Texans are a heavy underdog coming into Sunday's matchup with the Patriots for a very good reason. They lost three of their final four games to end the season and lose the AFC's top seed, and their performance in last week's ugly victory over Cincinnati isn't inspiring much confidence, either.
There's also the little fact that New England trounced Houston, 42-14, a little over a month ago in Week 14. In that contest, the Patriots absolutely eviscerated the Texans' secondary, as Tom Brady methodically picked apart a still-healing Johnathan Joseph while feeling nary a whiff of pressure from Houston's pass rush.
The one exception to that latter point was J.J. Watt, who was just about the lone Texans defender who brought his A-game. The likely NFL Defensive Player of the year failed to record a sack on Brady, but was responsible four of the six times the Patriots quarterback was hit, per Pro Football Focus.
As admittedly unrealistic as it sounds, Watt is going to have to improve on those numbers for Houston to have a chance.
History tells us best way to defeat Brady is pressure him. That's been the case throughout his career, and he especially struggles when the pressure comes from three or four down linemen—case in point, of course, coming in the Patriots' two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants.
If Watt is able to get into the backfield and wreak havoc, Houston won't have to blitz to create pressure and can drop eight or even nine men into coverage. With Joseph fully healthy and looking phenomenal last week, that could make Brady's life exceedingly difficult.
On the other hand, a disappointing performance from Watt would pretty much signal the end of the Texans' season. No pressure or anything, J.J.
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