With the NFL playoffs finally getting underway, there’s very little margin of error. Many would-be Super Bowl contenders, and each playoff team, will need key players to step up in big ways to head to New York in February.
Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints might’ve made it to the NFL’s postseason, but each team will need some serious help from their stars to advance.
The Bengals managed to knock the rival Baltimore Ravens out of the playoff hunt with a 34-17 win in the final week of the regular season, but the victory didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Similarly, the Saints rolled to a big win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they’ve really struggled in the latter half of the season, losing three of their last four games.
Both squads will need their key players to really step up in the impending Wild Card round if they want to advance deeper into the playoffs.
By all accounts the Bengals should be a dangerous playoff team; they’ve got a dominant defense, a running game with several talented stars and a veteran coaching staff.
The problem? Quarterback Andy Dalton does not seem to thrive when the pressure’s on.
Dalton was able to guide the Bengals to a big win over the Ravens in Week 17, but he certainly made it look ugly while doing so, as the game highlights show.
He threw for 281 yards and two scores, but also threw four interceptions in the face of Baltimore’s pressure.
It’s the second time in his last three games that he’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes as well. He dominated the lowly Minnesota Vikings in Week 16, but when the Pittsburgh Steelers jumped out to an early lead in Week 15, he couldn’t get anything going to bring the team back.
He’s been sacked 29 times this season and they all seem to come at the worst possible time.
Dalton’s history in the postseason doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either, as Tom Pelissero of USA Today points out.
Next week's playoff game will be Dalton's third. In the first two, both wild-card losses at Houston, he has completed 56.9% of his passes with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
That's unacceptable for a player whose role is to limit mistakes, get the ball in his playmakers' hands and let one of the NFL's toughest defenses go to work, not win games on his own.
Dalton knows it. His teammates know it. Coach Marvin Lewis knows it, even if he bristled at a question about Dalton being better equipped now to rebound from a performance such as Sunday's.
"I don't know," Lewis said. "You're evaluating the performance. We won the football game by two or three scores. I feel good about that."
But what happens if the miscues come in the same spots next week or down the road against a higher-powered team such as the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots?
No one’s taking the Bengals very seriously in these playoffs, and Dalton’s incompetence is a big reason why.
He’ll have a relatively easy matchup in the opening round against the San Diego Chargers, and he has to have a big game to quiet some of the doubters.
The Saints have an explosive offense, but it’s largely been one-dimensional once again.
Drew Brees is brilliant, but his brilliance can only carry the Saints so far come playoff time.
The Philadelphia Eagles are another talented offensive team, and if their defense is able to slow the New Orleans passing game, Sean Payton will have to be able to turn to his running game to keep up with Chip Kelly’s bunch.
That’s where running back Pierre Thomas comes in. Thomas is currently leading the team in rushing with just 549 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to 513 receiving yards, but he’ll need to do more for this team to advance in the postseason.
Thomas is certainly valuable in the passing game, but he has to be able to provide the Saints with another option on the ground to add vitality to the offense.
It doesn’t have to be too much; he’s never put up gaudy numbers, even in the team’s Super Bowl season, but when he can do just enough to relieve the pressure on Brees even a little, the offense is infinitely better.
He’s been in Payton’s offense for a long time now, so he certainly has the experience to pull this off.
“I’ve been here a lot longer than the rest of the guys, so I know the system very well,” Thomas told the Saints’ website. “If you look at it, I can do all (roles). I can catch the ball out of the backfield, I can run through the tackles and I can block very well. So you could say that I’m that all-around back, that guy who can fill every position if it’s needed.
Thomas may be a jack-of-all-trades, but Payton will need him to focus on running the ball if the Saints want to advance.
If he can’t, it’ll be easy for the Eagles to pressure Brees and it will prevent the Saints from taking advantage of Philadelphia’s suspect run defense the way other teams have.
Similarly, if Dalton can’t perform at an elite level for the Bengals, they don’t stand a chance against the Chargers, much less the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots.
Football may be a team effort, but the performance of some key players in this year’s playoffs will have a huge effect on the NFL.