After what was a competitive and unpredictable regular season, it is only fitting that the NFL's Wild Card Round features four evenly-matched tilts that could go either way. All of the matchups figure to be quite entertaining, and a number of superstar players will have an opportunity to shine brightly.
Playoff football is much different from what we traditionally see in the regular season, but the fact remains that teams need their best players to produce in order to succeed. Several Pro Bowl-caliber players will have an opportunity to do precisely that this weekend.
Here are three elite players who will come through with dominant performances in the Wild Card Round and help their teams advance in the playoffs.
Frank Gore (San Francisco 49ers)
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore has reached the magical age of 30, which normally signals the end of the line for backs in the NFL, but he has refused to submit to imaginary barriers.
Gore enjoyed yet another strong season as he rushed for better than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns for a Niners team that is getting hot at the right time. Gore also averaged 4.1 yards per carry, as he has yet to average less than four yards per carry in any of his nine NFL campaigns.
Much of the focus will be on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, especially after he torched the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 this season as well as in the playoffs last year. That may ring true for the Packers as well, which should open up more running lanes. Green Bay is among the worst teams in the league against the run, as they are allowing 125 yards per game, and that bodes well for Gore due to his past playoff success, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
#49ers RB Frank Gore averages 96.4 rushing yards per game in the playoffs (482 rushing yards in 5 games).— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) December 31, 2013
The Packers were able to hold Gore in check during their Week 1 meeting, as Kaepernick did much of the damage, but he did rack up 167 total yards and a touchdown against the Packers during last year's playoff meeting.
Since the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field figures to be ice cold on Jan. 5, running the ball will be of the utmost importance. Gore realizes that, and he won't disappoint.
A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals)
Most would probably agree that Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions is the NFL's No. 1 receiver, but the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green certainly isn't far behind.
Although this is only Green's third NFL season, he has quickly established himself as a dominant force for the surging Bengals. Green has topped 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three campaigns, and he is in rarefied air as far as his statistical production is concerned, according to NFL on ESPN:
Most Rec yds 1st 3 seasons NFL History: '98-00 R. Moss 4,163 '11-13 A.J. Green 3,833 '99-01 T. Holt 3,786 '85-87 J. Rice 3,575— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 3, 2014
Green has somehow managed to get better with each passing year. He set career highs with 98 catches for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season, and there is reason to believe that his high caliber of play should continue in the playoffs. Cincinnati will host the surprising San Diego Chargers in the Wild Card Round, and while the Bolts certainly have a ton of talent on the offensive side of the ball, they are quite vulnerable defensively.
The Chargers rank No. 29 in the league against the pass, and they had trouble corralling Green when the two teams met earlier in the season. Green didn't exactly go off, but he did catch five balls for 83 yards and a touchdown, so he knows how to handle San Diego's secondary.
This certainly feels like the year that the Bengals will finally break through and make it to the AFC Championship Game, and Green will lead them to an emphatic win over the Chargers en route to that contest.
Cameron Jordan (New Orleans Saints)
Which player will have the best performance in the Wild Card Round?
The first thing that most people think about when it comes to the New Orleans Saints is offense. Quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston have a penchant for making life miserable for opposing defenses, and all of them will have to be on their game in order to make a run at the Super Bowl.
With that said, improved defense has been important for New Orleans in 2013, and that will continue to be the case in 2014 as the playoffs commence.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan has been the defensive anchor for New Orleans this season with 12.5 sacks. His play has made things much easier on the Saints offense, and he has helped make the Saints a complete team.
Jordan also happens to be solid against the run, and he realizes that is an important aspect against LeSean McCoy and the Philadelphia Eagles, according to Brett Martel of the Associated Press:
We face elite talent every week and sometimes you have missteps. You're not going to be perfect on every play, and that's what we've got to do for the playoffs. We have to try to be perfect.
Jordan must also make life difficult for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who has been a steadying force for Philly this season. Foles has never played on such a big stage though, and it's possible that the Saints and their playoff experience can rattle him a bit. If Jordan can get some consistent pressure on Foles, then the Saints will be in very good shape.
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