8 Players Who Can Make or Break Their Careers This Postseason
NFL players have been working since the end of July for the opportunity to win the championship.
With the divisional playoffs at hand, the end of the marathon is in sight. Eight teams remain alive with a chance to win Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Reputations have already been forged this season, but some players will have a chance to make or break their careers with the way they perform in these decisive postseason games.
You won't see the names of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees on this list, because they have already established their reputations with Hall of Fame credentials. But there are plenty of other big names from each of the eight contenders who can raise their profile or fall dramatically based on the way they perform in the final run to the championship.
QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
2013 regular season stats: 292-of-473 for 3,379 yards with 24 TDs and 13 interceptions; 585 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 6 TDs
Physical skills: Cam Newton is a brilliant athlete with the arm strength needed to get the ball deep down field, and the quickness needed to get away from the pass rush. He is a powerful runner who can speed past or overpower tacklers when he decides to keep the ball.
Intangibles: Few teams have a quarterback as athletic as Newton, and that gives his teammates and coaches confidence in him. Newton will give his receivers a chance to get open, but he also knows when to run with the ball. His ability to perform in the late stages of the half or the fourth quarter has made the Panthers a dangerous team.
Possible pitfalls: In addition to a lack of postseason experience, Newton has problems putting the proper pace on the ball for short- and medium-range passes. If his accuracy or timing is off, the Panthers could have a short stay in the playoffs.
WR Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
2013 regular season stats: 92 receptions for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns
Physical skills: Demaryius Thomas is a huge man at 6'3" and 229 pounds who can overpower defensive backs and also run by them. He is an outstanding pattern runner who can make big yards after the catch on short- and medium-range pass routes. He has the physical advantage over nearly every defensive back he will face.
Intangibles: The Broncos are loaded on the offensive side of the ball and set records for points and touchdowns this year. Thomas gets plenty of help from receivers like Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas, but when Peyton Manning needs a big play he looks to Demaryius Thomas first.
Possible pitfalls: The Broncos were shocked in the divisional playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens last year. They go into the postseason as the AFC's top seed, and there is overwhelming pressure to succeed. If Thomas drops one or two passes early, he could fade away the rest of the game from a loss of confidence.
QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
2013 regular season stats: 343-of-570 for 3,822 yards with 23 TDs and 9 interceptions; 377 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 4 TDs
Physical skills: Andrew Luck is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the game. He has the arm strength to get the ball deep down field and the timing to hit his receivers in stride on shorter passes. He is also a strong runner with the speed to run by tacklers and the agility to make them miss.
Intangibles: Luck has a great understanding of what it takes to win and he put that on display as the Colts came back from a 28-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Chiefs 45-44 in the wild-card round of the playoffs. He has great confidence and his teammates believe in him.
Possible pitfalls: The Colts have to face the savvy New England Patriots on the road and that means they are going to have to play a near-perfect game to win. Luck threw three interceptions against the Chiefs and it will be nearly impossible to beat the Patriots if he continues to turn the ball over.
CB Aqib Talib, New England
2013 regular season stats: 41 tackles, 13 passes defensed, 4 interceptions
Physical skills: Aqib Talib is one of the most highly skilled cover men in the NFL. He can play man or zone defense, he tackles well and he can make plays on the ball. The Patriots have been short-handed on defense this year due to injuries to key players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, so it's essential for Talib to perform like a star when covering top receivers. He has the size (6'1" and 205 pounds), strength and speed to do just that.
Intangibles: The Patriots have Tom Brady leading the way on the offensive end and Bill Belichick knows the quarterback will produce big plays and clutch throws. However, the Pats need a defensive star to step up and Talib is capable of shutting down talented receivers. If he can break up or intercept one or two key third-down passes, it could mean the difference between advancing to the Super Bowl or going home after the first game.
Possible pitfalls: Talib is highly skilled, but he has had some problems with speedy wide receivers like Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Talib could have a rough game if he gets beaten on a key play early in a given matchup.
Running Back Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
2013 regular season stats: 78 carries for 386 yards and 1 touchdown in the regular season; 18 carries for 97 yards and 1 touchdown vs. Philadelphia in wild-card victory.
Physical skills: Mark Ingram is a short and powerful (5'9" and 215 pounds) runner who can take on tacklers with his strength or make quick moves to make them miss. While he is not a burner, he has the quickness to get to the second level and make big plays.
Intangibles: Drew Brees is the heart and soul of the New Orleans Saints and one of the best quarterbacks in the game. However, if the Saints are going to get by the powerful Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs and continue to advance, Ingram is going to have to give the Saints consistent production on the ground. That will take the pass-rush heat off of Brees, because opponents will have to respect the Saints' running game.
Possible pitfalls: Ingram was not the most productive running back during the regular season and Pierre Thomas was the Saints' No. 1 back. If Ingram does not produce consistently, the Saints will be at risk against a very dangerous opponent.
QB Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
2013 regular season stats: 378-of-544 for 4,478 yards with 32 TDs and 11 interceptions
Physical skills: Despite a somewhat awkward throwing motion, Philip Rivers has a powerful arm and remarkable accuracy. He completed 69.5 percent of his passes and he reads defenses well, and that allows him to find open receivers. He throws a ball that his receivers can catch in stride and continue to make yards after the catch.
Intangibles: Rivers is a tremendous leader who can implore his teammates to step up when the game is on the line. He is fully involved emotionally on every snap and he does not lack for courage. Going to Denver would intimidate many players, but Rivers won there earlier this year and he will build off that performance.
Possible pitfalls: Rivers is a very emotional player. He gets quite high when he succeeds, but he wears his heart on his sleeve when he makes a mistake. If he throws an interception or two against the Broncos and he does not put those mistakes quickly in the past, it could be difficult for him to rally his team.
QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
2013 regular season stats: 243-of-416 for 3,197 yards with 21 TDs and 8 interceptions; 524 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 4 TDs
Physical skills: There are several skilled dual-threat quarterbacks who are alive in the playoffs, including Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, but Kaepernick is probably the fastest runner among them. That means when he decides to run with the ball, he can pick up big chunks of yardage that turns the game in the Niners' favor. Kaepernick can buy time with his quick feet and he also has a rocket arm.
Intangibles: It's time to clean up the unfinished business the Niners' have staring them in the face. They fell just short in last year's Super Bowl against the Ravens, and they feel it's now their turn to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players have confidence that Kaepernick can take them to the title this time around.
Possible pitfalls: Kaepernick has the Niners on a seven-game winning streak, but he did not have a stellar year throwing the ball. While he has picked it up in recent weeks, he appeared ordinary for a majority of the season. He has great arm strength, but he does not always throw the ball with enough touch on shorter passes.
QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
2013 regular season stats: 257-of-407 for 3,357 yards with 26 TDs and 9 interceptions; 539 rushing yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 1 TD
Physical skills: Russell Wilson is highly regarded for his intangibles, but he also has the physical talent to carry the Seahawks on his back. He is a very accurate passer who will put the ball in a position where his receiver can catch the ball and the defender can't touch it. He is a very athletic and balanced runner who can make hard cuts to get away from tacklers. He has adequate arm strength.
Intangibles: Wilson has great poise in all situations and that's why he was able to win the starting QB position as a rookie and turn into one of the best players in the league in his second year. He has confidence in himself, and everyone on the Seahawks believes in him as well. He is willing to take a hit, bounce back up and compete hard on the next play.
Possible pitfalls: Wilson does not make many mistakes, but he is not hot coming into the playoffs. He threw four touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last four games, and he's going to have to pick it up if the Seahawks are going to emerge as the Super Bowl XLVIII champions.