Now that NFL fans have had a few days to get a grasp on the playoff picture—which wasn't set until the final game of the season—the first weekend of the playoffs is shaping up to be yet another must-watch weekend of football.
With many of the teams in the Wild Card Round making it thanks to late-season surges like the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles, several games are between teams that have been dominant all season and others who are on considerable winning streaks.
Therefore, many of the games could come down to one play or even one player. Before the games kick off on Saturday, here is a look at one player in each game that will be crucial to his team's success and dictate how the Wild Card Round will be decided.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck
If there is one player that the entire Indianapolis Colts offense relies on, it's Andrew Luck. While Jamaal Charles is on the other side and clearly a crucial component to the Kansas City Chiefs' success, Luck has seen success unlike any other quarterback in his first two seasons.
The Colts' official Instagram posted a record-breaking moment for Luck in the final game of the season:
After his favorite target in Reggie Wayne went down for the season, Luck began to spread the wealth more regularly. But with T.Y. Hilton finishing with over 1,000 yards this season in his second year, it appears the tandem might be one to watch when the Colts face the Chiefs for a second time.
While Luck's numbers weren't great against the Chiefs in their last matchup, he was effective. The second-year quarterback passed for just 241 yards and one touchdown but got the team down the field against a good defense to score 23 unanswered points after Charles scored the first touchdown of the game.
If the Colts plan to move on to the divisional round for the first time since Peyton Manning was their quarterback, they will need a great performance from their current one.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: Vontaze Burfict
It's no secret that much of a team's success in football is dependent on its quarterback play. And for the Cincinnati Bengals, the erratic play of Andy Dalton will need to end if they plan to advance in the playoffs.
But with a matchup against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, the Bengals will really need a huge game from their defense. This is where Vontaze Burfict comes in. One of the best emerging linebackers in the country this season, Burfict told Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer that he considers himself accountable for everything on the defense:
I’m the leader of the defense and I hold myself accountable for everything that happens out there in the game. If they score, I feel like it’s my fault. For me, I just know we need to get a win. If we win, I’ll feel great. If we lose, I’ll feel like it’s my fault.
In the same article, Reedy begins by stating that when the Chargers and Bengals played earlier this year in Week 13, Burfict was far from his normal self, stating that 60 percent might be a stretch. The second-year linebacker still finished with 13 tackles and led Cincinnati to a 17-10 win.
When Burfict is fully healthy, he's drawn comparisons to other former great linebackers.
In an interview with Josh Kirkendall of the Dayton Daily News, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had some pretty high remarks for Burfict, stating "I told [owner] Mike Brown, 'I don't mean to overstate this, but he's special.' He reminds me of another guy I've coached."
As a point of reference, Lewis coached a young linebacker by the name of Ray Lewis during his days with the Baltimore Ravens. In order for the Bengals to continue their run toward the divisional round, they will need Burfict to once again be perfect.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy
Everyone who's watched the NFL this season knows that Drew Brees and Nick Foles have been two of the season's best quarterbacks. Therefore, the difference-maker on either team's offense might just be in the running game. Insert LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher.
While much of the credit for the Philadelphia Eagles' success this season has been given to Foles, McCoy has been the brute force behind the Eagles offense all year and has yet to slow down.
For all of their improvements on defense this season, the New Orleans Saints have yet to effectively stop the run. The Saints rank 19th in the NFL in rushing defense with 111.6 yards allowed per game. New Orleans has also given up 11 rushing touchdowns this season.
On the road, New Orleans has allowed four different running backs to go for 90 or more yards this season. McCoy has rushed for 100 or more yards in seven games this season, three of which came at home.
Though McCoy has certainly emerged as one of the best running backs in the NFL, he still isn't pleased with certain aspects of his game, according to Terrance Harris of Nola.com:
You can never be comfortable, there are always guys each year trying to come for that crown, that spot. Myself, I'm still trying to be the best I can be and there is still so much room in my game for improvement. Each time I get a chance to get better I do that.
I'm not perfect so I'm not going to make every guy miss but I want better chances, better percentages on the one-on-one opportunities, and the small things like making more big plays. Sometimes I feel like it's always I do just enough and it's that last guy who gets me, whereas if I get him I'm gone. I'm just trying to make more of my opportunities. I think I'm doing a good job but I can get better.
For the Saints, the task of stopping an offense that implements the talents of both Foles in the passing game and McCoy in the running game is terrifying. That is probably why no NFC team truly wanted to see the Eagles get into the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers: Michael Crabtree
In a game that features Colin Kaepernick vs. Aaron Rodgers and Frank Gore vs. Eddie Lacy for offensive supremacy, a guy that wasn't even involved in the game the last time these teams faced will be the biggest difference.
Michael Crabtree has been one of the most consistent receivers for Kaepernick in his five games since his return. With 33 total targets and 19 receptions, he could be much more explosive if he hauled in a few more passes.
Ironically enough, Kaepernick's completion percentage has actually gone up since the return of Crabtree, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
Colin Kaepernick: 62% completion pct since Michael Crabtree's return from injury; had 57% comp pct in first 11 games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2014
With Crabtree simply on the field, other receivers like Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis get room to breath, and Frank Gore won't have as many players loading up the box. Throw in the fact that the fifth-year receiver can explode at any point for over 100 yards—like he did against the Atlanta Falcons—and Crabtree will be the key for the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round.