In the NFL, the difference between winning and losing can come down to one player. In the playoffs, game-changing plays and being a difference maker for a team is magnified on the biggest stage for NFL players.
Memorable performances like Steve Young's six-touchdown game in Super Bowl XXIX or Marcus Allen's 191 rushing yards in Super Bowl XVIII are still as memorable as any recent game from Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
With the Wild Card Round of the playoffs officially beginning this weekend, here are the players in each game that will make the biggest impact and help decide their team's outcome.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts probably gave the best description this season of how difficult it is to keep Jamaal Charles out of the game when he told Blair Kerkhoff of The Wichita Eagle, “Whatever you ask him to do, he can do it. And take it to the house on every play. He’s a problem and a half, so we have to keep our eyes on him at all times.”
The numbers that Charles has put up this season are typically only seen in video games, but his last game against the Colts was below average, by his standards. In Week 16 against the Colts, Charles only had 106 rushing yards, 38 receiving yards and one touchdown.
But with Charles regularly posting performances of over 150 yards and multiple touchdowns, like he did in three of the last five games he's played in, a 100-yard game appears to come easy for him.
Charles averaged five yards per carry for the regular season, but in just 13 carries against the Colts, he finished with an average of 8.2 yards per carry. If the Chiefs plan on winning their first playoff game since 1994, they will need another huge performance from their workhorse in both the running game and through the air.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Sticking with great running backs from this year, let's now take a look at the leading rusher on the season in LeSean McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles. The 25-year-old not only won the rushing title this season, but also set the Eagles' rushing record for a single season.
Facing off with a rushing defense that ranks 19th in the NFL in yards allowed, McCoy should be set to rush for yet another big game. As for the Saints defense, outside linebacker Junior Galette made a pretty bold comparison during an interview with Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
This guy is explosive. It’s scary what it reminds you of. It reminds me of, like, Barry Sanders, as much as I hate to say it. This guy is an amazing athlete, his footwork, and he knows what hole he wants to get to. … You’ve got to be gap sound. You can’t just jump out your gap and do your own thing on the run, or he’s gonna exploit that. A 3-yard loss could turn into a 50-yard gain.
In a game where cold weather will likely be an issue—The Weather Channel is predicting temperatures to drop down to 23 degrees on Saturday night—the running game for both teams will certainly be valuable.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
When it comes to dynamic receivers in the NFL, A.J. Green is one of the best.
After putting together a huge season last year, Green exceeded those numbers in 2013. The third-year receiver is just two receptions away from his first season with 100 catches and needs 74 yards to move past 1,500 yards receiving.
In the game against the San Diego Chargers earlier this season, Green finished with five receptions on seven targets for 83 yards and a touchdown.
While Green has failed to post a game with 100 or more yards in his last five games of the season, he finished with 80 or more yards in three of them and posted five touchdowns during that stretch.
If Green can continue to put up those numbers, the Bengals will flourish. But with another 100-yard receiving performance—which he did in five straight games through the middle of the season—Cincinnati fans will remember his game for several years to come.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
In case you haven't heard, Colin Kaepernick is originally from Green Bay and rooted for the Packers when he was a child. He has clearly moved on as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, and as Taylor Price, a senior reporter for the 49ers official website, points out, Kaepernick has posted some of his best results:
Price's article points to the fact that Kaepernick has both his best single-game rushing performance (181 yards in the 2012 divisional round of the playoffs) and his best single-game passing performance (412 yards in Week 1) against the Packers.
With the weather expected to dip below zero degrees before it's all over, according to The Weather Channel, the running game will be vital for both sides. With Kaepernick able to make plays with his legs and arm, the potential for another breakout game is relatively high.
If Kaepernick can put together anything similar to one of those games, he would have yet another memorable game for 49ers fans.