The NFL playoffs are a proving ground. While success during the regular season is important, the postseason is where stars become superstars and superstars become legends, allowing them to leave a lasting legacy when their career comes to an end.
While most of the players taking the field for Wild Card Weekend aren't ready to enter that legendary category, a big game to carry their team into the divisional round can pave the path to superstardom. Coming up short will lead to an offseason of questions about why they fell short of the ultimate goal.
Knowing that, let's take a closer look at four players who are ready to rise to the occasion during a very enticing Wild Card Weekend.
If they don't live up to expectations, their respective teams are in serious danger of being one-and-done.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs faced off with the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 and made the mistake of getting away from the ground game, especially after the Colts built a lead. Charles finished that contest with just 13 carries, but still managed 106 yards and a touchdown.
In the end, that loss should benefit Kansas City.
As they prepare to meet again in the Wild Card Round, the Chiefs should realize their game plan should revolve around getting the ball in Charles' hands as often as possible. He needs to get around 20 carries and a handful of touches through the passing game.
If that happens, he should post monster numbers against a Colts defense that gives up 125 yards per game on the ground, ranking 26th in the league.
Charles should be ready to roll after the Chiefs rested most of their starters in Week 17, and that will push Kansas City over the top.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Foles, not record-setting Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, finished the regular season with the highest passer rating in the NFL. He didn't carry the same offensive burden as Manning, but he was extremely effective when called upon to make plays with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
For the Eagles to get past the New Orleans Saints and their high-powered offense, they need Foles to keep playing at an elite level.
It's a lot of pressure, but Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com passed along comments from the Eagles QB, who's keeping the focus on team success over individual numbers:
All that matters is the wins, and the Eagles just won for the eighth time in his 10 starts and clinched a playoff berth in his first elimination game.
"I’ve done my job," he said. "My job is to be the quarterback for this organization. The team is the most important thing."
It's the right mindset, but he needs to back it up with more good decisions and key plays. LeSean McCoy should be able to set the tone on the ground, but it will be up to Foles to come up with crucial throws—especially on third down and in the red zone.
The Eagles should feel confident he's ready for the test.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals finished the regular season with the league's eighth-ranked passing game. Andy Dalton's improvement, the emergence of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and the instant impact made by Giovani Bernard out of the backfield helped.
But it all comes back to Green.
Which of these players will shine the brightest in the Wild Card Round?
Few receivers in the NFL demand the type of defensive attention that he does. His combination of size, speed and athleticism is a nightmare for opposing secondaries. Despite the added attention, he still caught 98 passes for over 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That's bad news for the San Diego Chargers, who allowed 83 yards and a touchdown to Green in Week 13. The Chargers' pass defense ranks 29th in the league and doesn't have the arsenal necessary to keep Green from taking over en route to a Bengals first-round triumph.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Given the amount of talent on the San Francisco defense, it's hard for any single player to stand out, but Bowman did exactly that this season. He tallied 145 total tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. A lot of those came in his terrific December, as noted by the league's Director of NFC Football Communications, Randall Liu:
49ers Bowman is only @NFL player in past 20 years w/ 45+ tackles, 3+ sacks, 2+ INTs, INT-TD, 2+ FFs & FR in a calendar month— Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) January 2, 2014
His versatility will be essential to slowing down the Green Bay Packers' offense, which received a huge boost with the return of Aaron Rodgers. He put up 333 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 1 matchup between the teams, which San Francisco won 34-28.
The 49ers must mix up their looks defensively and Bowman's ability to rush the passer, drop into coverage or play the run will be essential to that.
Expect him to make plays all over the field while leading the San Francisco defense to just enough stops to pick up the victory.