2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs: Who Are This Weekend's Most Important Players?

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs: Who Are This Weekend's Most Important Players?

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    This is the week that will separate the wheat from the chaff. The teams which battled their way out of the last round will find four fresh teams rested and waiting for them.

    They will need more from their players, and even the teams coming off of their postseason byes will have some players who have to step it up.

    Wild Card Weekend lived up to its name. As insane as it was, though—and it was—the divisional round will probably find a way to top it.

    As we see almost every year though, even the four bye teams, who are the top seeds, are not immune to failure.

    So who will be the difference in winning and losing this weekend? Who is important?

    Let's take a look.

     

    *All statistics obtained from NFL.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

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    This seems obvious, right? Who else should lead this list?

    However, it’s not just about Peyton Manning’s fantastic season—it’s about how without Manning's stellar season, Denver may not be in the playoffs.

    The Denver defense, ranked No 14 during the 2013 NFL regular season, allowed the 11th-most points per game in the league.

    Of the 12 teams which made the playoffs, nine of those teams were ranked between No. 22 San Diego and No. 32 Seattle for fewest points allowed this season, according to NFL.com.

    Only the Packers gave up more points (No. 8 in the NFL) than the Broncos among postseason teams, though the Eagles were close to Denver’s No. 11 ranking at No. 16. Everyone else was in the bottom third for points allowed per game.

    That puts the Broncos at a bit of a disadvantage and makes Manning all the more critical—even against San Diego.

    The Chargers offense was ranked No. 5 in overall potency in 2013—No. 4 in passing, and No. 13 in rushing. That’s not far behind the Broncos, who have the No.1 overall ranking in offense—No. 1 in passing and No. 15 in rushing.

    That’s almost a ‘push’ when comparing offensive production.

    We know that San Diego can move the ball, but it’s their defensive ranking—and the fact that they allow an average of just 21.8 points a game—which makes Manning so critical.

    That is especially true when you note that both previous games between the Chargers and Broncos accounted for two of the three lowest-scoring games for Denver this season. In those two games against San Diego, Denver only scored 28 and 20 points, respectively. The Broncos' other low-scoring win was a 27-17 decision over Kansas City.

    The Chargers will try to stymie Manning again and cap the Broncos’ scoring. If they can do that, San Diego has a very good chance of winning, which means Manning has to come up big.

Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Diego Chargers—and their fans—are hoping that Ryan Mathews will play Sunday against the Denver Broncos. He has been dealing with a bad ankle for three weeks, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com.

    Williams reported that head coach Mike McCoy wouldn't say if Mathews will play or not. Mathews, however, sounded like he will play when he spoke with Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune:

    “My mindset is I'm playing,” said Mathews, who praised the work of the team's running backs. “We keep fighting. Coach (Mike) McCoy says it all the time. It's the next man up. We're all ready.”

    They’ll need him.

    When the Chargers beat the Broncos, 27-20, in Week 15, Mathews’ 127 yards and his touchdown helped the Chargers command the ball for 38:49, compared to the Broncos’ 21:11.

    The Chargers like long, drawn-out, clock-munching drives. They got away from that against the Cincinnati Bengals when Mathews exited the game early in the third quarter, allowing the Bengals to hang around longer than they should have been able to and have one too many shots to come back.

    San Diego will want to keep Manning off the field, and the Chargers have a much better chance of doing that if Mathews is the guy doing the running than if San Diego has to rely on Ronnie Brown.

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

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    When the New Orleans Saints lost at Seattle in Week 13, Russell Wilson had his best game of the season for the Seahawks.

    His 310 passing yards were second only to his 320 passing yards against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1, but his three touchdowns and 47 yards rushing made Week 13 much more impressive.

    We know the New Orleans Saints can score, although they struggled in Week 13. Expect the Saints to have a much better offensive game plan this time out, as well as a very different one defensively. as Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will want to avenge a pretty embarrassing loss.

    Last season, Wilson had one mediocre game against Washington and one very good game against Atlanta, though the Seahawks lost.

    If the Seahawks are going to meet the expectations that everyone has set for them—a Super Bowl appearance—they need more from their star quarterback.

    He will actually need a little help, though.

Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    As vital to the Seattle offensive effort as Russell Wilson has been, Marshawn Lynch also needs to improve his overall performance from last season’s playoff showing.

    While his 2012 Wild Card Weekend numbers against Washington were fabulous (132 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries), Lynch had a much tougher time on the ground against Atlanta (46 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries) the following week.

    Lynch’s average yards per carry dropped from 6.6 against Washington to 2.87 against Atlanta, so it wasn't so much that he didn’t get as many carries as he did less with them.

    While the Saints were only ranked No. 19 against the run this season, they did an outstanding job of containing the NFL's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, in their victory over the Eagles.

    When the Seahawks and Saints last met in Week 13, the Saints held Lynch to 45 yards rushing and a shockingly low 2.8 yards per carry.

    Part of what helps Wilson be an effective quarterback is the threat of a great run game. The Seahawks need Lynch to have a better game than he did earlier this season if they want to send the Saints marching home.

Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    There’s a temptation to say that San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree had his breakout game last week, but he was just doing what he did throughout last year’s playoffs, as well as the latter half of this season, when he finally returned from his Achilles injury.

    How vital is Crabtree to this offense? Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh praised Crabtree after San Francisco's victory over Green Bay last weekend, per ESPN.com’s Ashley Fox:

    "If my life depended on it and someone had to catch a ball, I'd enlist Michael Crabtree to do it," Harbaugh told reporters after the game.

    He also called Crabtree the “greatest catcher of all time” so maybe he’s a bit biased.

    That said, Crabtree accounted for 13 targets among quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 30 passes. No other receiver had more than six targets and none came close to his eight catches.

    When Kaepernick needed a sure catch, he went to Crabtree.

    San Francisco faces a tough Carolina defense, ranked at No. 6 against the pass and allowing just 214.3 yards through the air per game with just 17 touchdowns compared to 20 interceptions.

    Crabtree may have to be the “greatest catcher of all time” to replicate his numbers from last Sunday, and the Niners certainly will need him to come close.

The Indianapolis Colts Defense

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    Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

    We saw two very different performances from the Indianapolis Colts defense last Saturday night.

    In the first half, it allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to amass 217 yards through the air and three passing touchdowns, along with another 110 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground.

    The result was a 21-point lead for the Chiefs, which seemed insurmountable, although the second half was a much different story.

    The Colts defense stepped it up a notch in the second half, holding the Chiefs to just 161 passing yards and a touchdown along with 40 more rushing yards.

    As much as Andrew Luck needs to be on point—and he does—the Indianapolis defense cannot allow the Colts to fall that far behind again.

    The New England Patriots don’t tend to stall out when they have a lead. Unlike the Chiefs, the Patriots are a team with veteran leadership which has been in the playoffs before.

    They know how to win, which means the Colts need to stymie the 49ers offense as much as possible and keep things close—and sane.

    If the defense allows another 31 points in the first half, the Colts will lose this game.

Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

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    You might think that we’d expect Danny Amendola on this list instead of Julian Edelman, but over the last three games, Edelman has been quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target.

    Edelman has been targeted 41 times, catching 29 balls for 281 yards in the Patriots' last three games. Amendola, who was signed last offseason to replace Wes Welker (now in Denver),  has been hurt during much of his initial season as a Patriot. He has only seen 20 targets, with 13 catches and 185 yards to show for his efforts.

    If you were to bet on one of these two having to step up and keep the momentum going, the safe—and surprising—bet would be Edelman.

    With Rob Gronkowski out, Brady and the Patriots offense are back to the cast of backups who carried them through the season. Edelman, who was slated to continue his job as a role player, has had to step up.

    He has so far—and he’ll have to again when the Indianapolis Colts come calling this weekend.

Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

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    With Pierre Thomas sidelined with a chest injury (via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com), New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram needed to step up.

    So he did, totaling 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries with another 17 yards on three catches.

    The performance was the second best of the season for Ingram and came under the bright lights that he had been used to at Alabama, but had seemed to shrink under since coming to the NFL.

    As of Wednesday morning, Thomas' status for Saturday was still uncertain, but given the lack of information about his injury, as well as his surprising deactivation last week, it shouldn't shock anyone if he will miss this game as well.

    Expect Ingram to be given the rock plenty of times again, as the Saints will be in a hostile environment and cannot expect to throw the ball on every down.

    They will need to establish an offensive rhythm via the ground attack and Ingram will have to show again that he can be the high-production back that the Saints thought they had drafted in the first round back in the 2011 NFL draft.

Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

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    With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick coming to town, the Carolina Panthers will need their Pro Bowl linebacker to be on point.

    Kaepernick tore up the Green Bay Packers again last Sunday, in part because the Packers lacked the speed and athleticism to contain him.

    While Luke Kuechly works the interior, he has enough of both traits to keep up with Kaepernick if need be. Further, Kuechly is excellent in pass coverage and will help negate some of the advantage that Vernon Davis was able to gain on the Packers linebackers.

    The Carolina defense has a ton of talent with defensive end Greg Hardy, rookie Star Lotulelei and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, but Kuechly’s presence looms the largest.

    The entire Panthers defense needs to step it up a notch, and nobody more so than Kuechly.

     

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.