It's going to take some big plays to win the upcoming divisional games in the 2014 NFL playoffs. Big plays require big-time playmakers, and there are a few who can start or build their legends with big-time games.
Opening up the weekend will be a regular-season rematch between the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Saturday, Jan. 11. Later that evening, the Indianapolis Colts will be on the road taking on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
San Francisco and Carolina get Sunday, Jan. 12's action kicked off at the Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina. Capping off the weekend, the San Diego Chargers will attempt to beat the Denver Broncos for the second straight time at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
These upcoming players will emerge as the top playmakers in their respective games.
New Orleans at Seattle: Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
There aren't many quarterbacks around the league who can truthfully be called "playmakers." This is a term usually used to describe players who make plays on the ground or in the air. However, Russell Wilson is a sneaky-good athlete who drives opposing defenses batty with his ability to extend plays with his legs.
Whether he's running or throwing the ball, Wilson is a playmaker. Better yet, he doesn't get rattled under pressure, which only makes him more dangerous.
Former offensive coordinator at North Carolina State Dana Bible talked about what makes Wilson so special recently, as relayed by Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times:
Russell doesn’t get ambushed...
When he’s out there on the field, it looks instinctive. But I will argue that it’s not instinctive. You’re not going to surprise him. That’s why when you watch him play he always looks so in control. When you see him run and create, he ain’t playing backyard ball. He knows exactly where his guys are.
The last time these two teams met, Wilson was clearly the best player on the field for both offenses. He torched Rob Ryan's defense for 310 yards while throwing three touchdowns and zero picks, and he led the Seahawks with 47 yards rushing on eight attempts.
The Saints shut down Marshawn Lynch and the power-running game, so offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell turned the game over to his burgeoning superstar quarterback.
It worked out well back in Week 13, and it'll work out well once again this upcoming weekend.
Projected Stats: 325 total yards, four touchdowns.
Indianapolis at New England: LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
You might think Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton is the obvious choice in this game, and it's hard to argue with his recent success. In Hilton's last two games, he's hauled in 24 passes for 379 yards and two scores. However, as pointed out by NBC Sports' Ross Tucker, the Patriots won't let him beat them:
Only thing I know for sure is Patriots won't let T.Y. Hilton beat them— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) January 6, 2014
With Indy's top playmaker shut down, the Patriots will have the liberty of running their offense through LeGarrette Blount, who has been coming on like a freight train the past two games.
His resurgent season with New England was capped off by a brilliant final regular-season game in Week 17. He rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 145 yards on two kickoff returns, setting up two scores in the second half.
For his efforts, he won the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week award, as relayed by PFT, via SNF on NBC:
He talked about his comfort level with New England's offense while preparing for the upcoming matchup with the Colts, as reported by the Associated Press, via the Boston Herald: "I feel like I ran hard in the beginning also, but it's just as the season went on I got more comfortable. I just kind of figured out a lot more about the offense to be a little bit more successful."
Projected Stats: 170 total yards, two touchdowns.
San Francisco at Carolina: Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers
It's remarkable how much smoother Colin Kaepernick has been running San Francisco's offense since Michael Crabtree came back from his Achilles injury, as clearly illustrated by these stats, courtesy of CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco and ESPN Stats & Info:
The 49ers offense averaged 308.5 yards per game without WR Michael Crabtree. In the six games with him: 361.2 yards.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) January 8, 2014
Since Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13, Colin Kaepernick has the 3rd-highest Total QBR in the NFL (76.9).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2014
The two players have been like soulmates on the field since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season.
In the past three games, Crabtree has eclipsed 100 yards twice, and his eight-catch, 125-yard performance against Green Bay in the Wild Card Round was critical to the team's success.
Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland recently highlighted Crabtree's impact on San Francisco's offense:
With a player like No. 15 active, [Greg] Roman can afford to open up the playbook and take consistent shots down the field. Suddenly San Francisco’s offense looks more destructive than it has at any point this season.
Crabtree will have another huge game for the 49ers, helping his team advance into the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.
Projected Stats: Seven catches, 130 yards, one touchdown.
San Diego at Denver: Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos
Having Wes Welker back is going to really open things up for Denver's perimeter receivers, and Demaryius Thomas will be the biggest recipient of that assistance.
Thomas exploded in the first meeting (with Welker in the lineup) between the Broncos and Chargers, catching seven passes for 108 yards and three touchdowns.
Without Welker in Week 15, Thomas struggled to get open downfield. He was targeted just five times, coming away with four catches for 45 yards.
Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News recently ranked Thomas as the top receiver left in the postseason, and it's hard to argue against his point:
Thomas' size and speed are a huge problem for the Chargers. There isn't a single player on San Diego's roster who can match up to him one-on-one, and he'll have a field day to propel Denver over its AFC West rival.
Projected Stats: Six catches, 145 yards, two touchdowns.
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