Of the four Wild Card Round games that will take place this weekend, it can certainly be argued that the New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles is the most intriguing. Either team could potentially do a ton of damage should it advance to the next round, and both teams seem evenly matched on paper.
All eyes will be on superstars such as Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy; however, they won't be the only players who decide the result of this contest. Both teams need a total effort from everyone on their roster in order to move on, so there is no question that this will be an intense affair from start to finish.
Here are three players who aren't being talked about much ahead of this all-important playoff game, but who will ultimately have a hand in how it plays out.
It's no secret that kickers are important come playoff time. Adam Vinatieri became a hero thanks to his clutch kicks for the New England Patriots, while former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood became a goat because of "Wide Right."
Kickers make or break their careers in the postseason, and Saints kicker Shayne Graham will find that out soon enough. Graham has played in just two games for the Saints this season; however, he will find himself in a pressure-packed situation in Philadelphia.
It isn't often that a playoff team makes such a significant change late in the season, but Saints head coach Sean Payton finally decided that something needed to be done about his kicking situation. Garrett Hartley had some great things in New Orleans, and he even helped the team win a Super Bowl, but his inconsistent play had become a liability. With that in mind, Payton made the difficult decision to release him, according to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett:
Enter Graham, who is a 13-year NFL veteran. The Saints are Graham's ninth different team, but it isn't as if he has bounced around due to poor play. Graham owns an 85.5 percent career conversion rate, which is about as good as it gets. The Saints were fortunate that he was available considering how dire their situation was. This game promises to be a close one, and it could come down to Graham needing to come through in the clutch.
LeSean McCoy is the NFL's rushing champion, and there is no doubt that he will receive the bulk of the touches out of Philadelphia's backfield against the Saints. He is a workhorse, and the Eagles are at their best when they feed him the football. At the same time, McCoy naturally needs a rest once in a while, and the Eagles happen to have some guys who can provide that. Among them is Bryce Brown, who was a revelation for Philly last season when McCoy was injured.
Brown instantly proved his worth as a seventh-round pick in 2012 by rushing for 564 yards and averaging nearly five yards per carry. He hasn't received as many opportunities this year, but he is still running at a clip of 4.2 yards per tote, and he has been an excellent change of pace. Brown understands his role, and he embraces it, according to John Murrow of Philly.com:
I think we are all very different, but we all complement each other very well. It really doesn't matter who is in there, because we can all make plays when given the opportunity, and it's a blessing having all three of us on the same team.
Brown also referenced No. 3 back Chris Polk, who made quite an impression down the stretch as well. When McCoy needs a blow against New Orleans, though, Brown will be the primary option off the bench. He may only get five carries, but Brown is a home run threat who broke off a 65-yard run against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, so the Saints will have to be cognizant of him when he's out there.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has made a living out of spreading the ball around and keeping opposing defenses on their toes. He has always been surrounded with a multitude of weapons, and that is a big reason why he has had so much success. Brees has relied heavily upon tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston this year, however, which means that the third, fourth and fifth options in New Orleans' offense haven't been as productive as usual.
Which unheralded player will have the biggest impact on Saints vs. Eagles?
One player who experienced a somewhat surprising dip this season was slot receiver Lance Moore. The small, shifty receiver has been among Brees' favorites for many years, and he enjoyed the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2012. Moore has dealt with some injuries this year, but he's also had much of his thunder stolen by rookie Kenny Stills in the passing game.
Based on the fact that Moore has taken a backseat in the offense, Triplett speculated that he could be released during the offseason.
With that in mind, he has plenty to prove and play for against the Eagles and beyond. Brees has been looking in Moore's direction more often lately, as evidenced by the fact that he has topped 70 yards in two of his past three games. That is a great sign for him, especially since Brees figures to utilize his sure-handed receiver in big moments on the playoff stage.
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