NFL Playoff Predictions 2014: Underrated Players Who Will Be Key This Weekend

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NFL Playoff Predictions 2014: Underrated Players Who Will Be Key This Weekend
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At this point in the postseason, it's the role players who will propel teams to victories. 

Sure, the superstars will attract most of the headlines and likely finish with the big lines in the box scores, but every team still alive has a healthy share of Pro Bowl players who will shine. They aren't different in that regard. 

What will make the difference, however, is what teams can get production from the role players. 

Let's take a look at some of those underrated pieces in line to come up big during the divisional round. 

 

Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck threw three interceptions last Saturday, but after an electrifying second-half comeback and unbelievable fumble recovery-turned touchdown, he came away looking like Superman:

The talented second-year QB will once again have to be out-of-this-planet good to beat the New England Patriots in Foxboro, but if he's going to do that, the Colts must establish a balanced offense to keep the Pats' fifth-ranked pass rush honest.

Enter Donald Brown. 

The fifth-year back out of Connecticut, whose career seemed to be going nowhere after a forgettable 2012 season, has totally redeemed himself in 2013, gaining 5.3 yards per carry and establishing himself as a legitimate pass-game threat. In Saturday's win, he came up massive with 102 yards and two total touchdowns. 

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Against the Patriots, he will have a good chance to put up similar production. 

New England, already without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo, has been susceptible against the run. But with news of inside linebacker Brandon Spikes headed to the IR, an already questionable unit becomes even more questionable.  

According to Pro Football Focus' grading, via CSNNE.com's Mary Paoletti, Spikes was the No. 1 ILB in the league against the run this season. Fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower talked about his teammate's importance, via Paoletti:

"Intimidation. Fire," Dont'a Hightower said Tuesday. "He just brings that spark to the defense that a lot of people don't. If somebody needs to say something, it's usually Spikes. It's not a captain, a 15-year-old vet. It's usually him."

Add in the ability to eat up clock and keep Tom Brady off the field, and the Colts would be wise to feed Brown in the run game early and often. 

 

Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers

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The San Francisco 49ers defense gets most of the credit, but the offense is quietly multifaceted with Frank Gore running the ball, Colin Kaepernick serving as a dangerous dual threat and the weapons in the pass-catching corps finally healthy. 

Jim Harbaugh's squad put up just nine points and 151 total yards last time out against the Carolina Panthers, but with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis both back to full strength, it will be a different story this weekend.

Star Lotulelei is the type of dynamic player who can change all of that. 

The rookie defensive tackle is a freak of nature—in a good way. According to Pro Football Focus, via Deadspin's Samer Kalaf, he had the highest run stop percentage in the league for defensive tackles. Running up the middle against Carolina just isn't an option when he's taking on multiple blocks. 

Of course, he's capable of creating penetration and making the quarterback uncomfortable on passing downs, as well:

Goodness. 

Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are terrific against the run. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson can consistently get pressure on the quarterback. But Lotulelei has talent to do both, and if he does, he's going to really disrupt the flow of the 'Niners red-hot offense. 

 

Malcolm Smith, LB, Seattle Seahawks

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In Week 13, when the Seattle Seahawks embarrassed the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night FootballJimmy Graham was taken out of the game. The normally dominant tight end was held to just three catches on nine targets for 42 yards, and Drew Brees struggled to just 147 yards and 3.9 yards per attempt as a result.

The major reason for Graham's struggles was speedy linebacker K.J. Wright, who followed the tight end for much of the night and shut him down. 

Now that Wright is out with a broken foot, though, who's going to cover Graham?

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“Everybody’s going to have their shot on him,” linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said, via The Seattle Times' Jayson Jenks and Joshua Mayers.  “We have an equal-opportunity defense.”

No. 1 on the list to "have their shot" will likely be linebacker Malcolm Smith, who has filled in admirably for Wright and pulled down interceptions in the last two games.

The former seventh-round pick out of USC isn't as big or as adept in coverage as Wright, but he has proven capable of making plays at important times. 

He will have to do so once again if he sees a healthy dose of the electric tight end. 

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