After an unpredictable start to the 2014 NFL playoffs, the focus for football fans has shifted to the divisional round and the players who will be the biggest difference-makers on Saturday and Sunday.
Eight of the most talented teams will go to battle with conference championship berths on the line, and these are the moments that live in infamy. The players who shine the brightest now will cement their place in history.
Here are the players who will make the biggest difference in the divisional round.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos enter the divisional round as the most decorated offensive team in the NFL due to the MVP-worthy play of quarterback Peyton Manning.
With Super Bowl aspirations, the focus will be on how the experienced Manning handles the pressure.
There is no denying the sheer magnitude of what the veteran accomplished individually in 2013—he racked up an astounding 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and a 115.1 passer rating—but the 13 wins for the team despite a lackluster defense exposes how important Manning is to the franchise.
San Diego boasts a tough defense that proved it could stifle Manning in Week 15 when the Chargers were victorious, but Denver has too much firepower to be slowed once again. This is a very even matchup.
Led by Manning’s play, the team has averaged 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game, amassing 76 total touchdowns. As well as San Diego has played, the team doesn’t stand a chance against the Broncos with Manning performing this well.
Predicted Stat Line: 30-of-40 for 340 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is not the flashiest running back in the NFL. He doesn’t possess the elite speed or the elusiveness seen from other backs, but he has the raw power and strength to dominate the line of scrimmage and keep drives alive.
While quarterback Russell Wilson is the centerpiece of the offense, the game plan would not work without the consistent running of Lynch. With 1,257 yards on 301 carries and 12 touchdowns, he is the workhorse that makes the team successful.
Just as he did in the 2011 playoffs, Lynch will go beast mode on New Orleans once again. Just ask former teammate Raheem Brock:
The veteran running back goes up against some of the toughest run defenses in the league in the NFC West, but he has still managed to rack up a respectable 4.2-yards-per-carry average. Even when Lynch has been slowed on the ground, though, he has found a way to contribute through the air, adding another 316 yards and two touchdowns receiving this season.
The Saints have been better defensively than last season, even holding Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy to just 77 yards in the first round, but the team has not faced a running back as physically imposing as Lynch.
Predicted Stat Line: 21 carries for 90 yards and one touchdown; three receptions for 35 yards and zero touchdowns.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers will square off against the vaunted defense of the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, and the ultimate difference-maker in the team’s hope of advancing is quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is one of the best dual-threat QBs in the NFL. Using a blend of pass plays, planned quarterback draws and his ability to scramble out of trouble, the dynamic player can do as much damage on the ground as he can through the air.
With Carolina playing a suffocating style of defense, Kaepernick must keep the play alive with his elusiveness and find the openings to make first downs. If the 49ers control the clock using the rushing attack and timely passing, the franchise will steal the victory.
After underperforming in the first meeting between these two teams—Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards—look for San Francisco’s franchise player to bounce back and prove his worth.
Predicted Stat Line: 18-of-28 for 240 yards, two touchdowns; seven carries for 60 yards and one touchdown.
*Stats via NFL.com.