There are plenty of NFL superstars playing in the divisional round of the 2014 playoffs, but so often in sports it's the guys nobody talks about before the game who come up with the biggest plays.
They don't get talked about a lot in the national media, but when they are mentioned, it's usually accompanied by a disclaimer about how they just don't get enough credit for the jobs they do.
With four divisional games on the schedule, this column will focus on four unsung heroes who will come up with big performances to propel their respective teams to victory.
New Orleans at Seattle: Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
Seattle fans are excited about Percy Harvin's potential return to action. After practicing with the team for the second day in a row on Wednesday, Jan. 8, he received a nice report from head coach Pete Carroll, as relayed by SiriusXM NFL Radio, who hopes to see him on the field on game day:
Carroll: On Percy Harvin, He is practicing today. He looks great, extremely fast. Hoping he can play on Saturday. #Seahawks— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) January 8, 2014
With Harvin, along with Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks feature a formidable trio of playmakers. However, while New Orleans invests defensive firepower to account for those players, Doug Baldwin will flourish.
Catching 50 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, Baldwin proved productive during the regular season. He also had a big game against New Orleans in Week 13, catching four passes for 77 yards and one touchdown.
Look for a repeat performance from the former Stanford Cardinal. He'll catch at least one touchdown to help the Seahawks advance to the NFC Championship Game, when they'll host either San Francisco or Carolina.
Indianapolis at New England: Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots
Julian Edelman deserves way more hype than he gets.
Here's a little bit of perspective about his unbelievable season, via the Patriots on Twitter and Deep Threat:
Yards After the Catch T.Y. Hilton 402 Julian Edelman 500— Deep Threat (@DeeepThreat) January 8, 2014
When New England ditched Wes Welker, everyone assumed Danny Amendola would become the next Welker-type receiver for the Pats. Amendola has struggled to stay on the field, starting just six games during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Edelman has become the peanut butter to Tom Brady's jelly.
He'll need to be on his game against Indianapolis, because Andrew Luck and the Colts are going to bring it. Based on the way he's come through in his last six games, catching 53 passes for 556 yards and four touchdowns, it seems he's up to the task.
San Francisco at Carolina: Ahmad Brooks, OLB, 49ers
Everybody knows the San Francisco 49ers feature a formidable quartet of linebackers, but only three of the four have garnered enough national attention. Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone provides some perspective on the matter:
I think people underestimate Ahmad Brooks because of his background. How he arrived. Should've been a 1st-rounder like the LBs next to him.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) January 5, 2014
Ahmad Brooks has been relentless this year as a pass-rusher off the edge, racking up 8.5 sacks with one forced fumble and an interception. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also notes he hit quarterbacks an additional nine times and tallied 31 hurries.
Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney provided additional stats and analysis, showing just how dominant Brooks was against Green Bay in the Wild Card Round:
I said last week one of the keys was Ahmad Brooks getting to Rodgers and he did. +2.3 overall grade, two sacks, seven total pressures #49ers— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) January 6, 2014
With Aldon Smith back and playing to his potential once again, Brooks' talents are blossoming even more. The dynamic duo will make life miserable for Cam Newton on passing downs, and they'll pin down the edges on running plays to lead San Francisco to victory.
San Diego at Denver: Knowshon Moreno, RB, Broncos
Peyton Manning is the best in the business at dissecting defenses while spreading them out with three and four wide receivers. His record-breaking 2013 season (passing yards and touchdown passes in a single season) will be remembered as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL.
San Diego keyed in on Manning's aerial attack the last time these two teams played, however, back in Week 15, holding him to a pedestrian (relatively) stat line: 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Knowshon Moreno didn't play well in that contest, gaining 19 yards on eight carries, and Denver's rushing attack was able to generate just 18 total yards on 11 carries.
Don't expect a repeat performance.
The Broncos have had plenty of time to devise a smart game plan to exploit San Diego's defensive weaknesses. You can be sure this team will be ready to execute that plan, given Manning's relentless work ethic.
One of the biggest recipients will be Moreno, who'll be running at defenses expecting Manning to pass the ball. He eclipsed 1,000 yards for the first time in his five-year career in 2013, and he'll get 2014 started off with a bang against the Chargers.
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