The NFL field has officially been whittled down to eight teams, and they will do battle during this weekend's highly anticipated divisional round. Each and every matchup is surrounded by a great deal of intrigue, and many of the league's elite players will have a chance to shine on the big stage.
Some of those players are bound to fall flat, but others will elevate their game when it matters most. Performing well in the regular season is obviously important since it helps teams get to the playoffs, but showing up in the postseason is how players truly earn their money.
Here are three players who will do precisely that during this weekend's divisional round.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning enjoyed the most prolific season by a passer in NFL history this year, setting records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Manning also threw just 10 interceptions while leading Denver to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. As good as Manning was this year and has been over the course of his entire career, questions remain about his ability to thrive come playoff time.
Manning does have one Super Bowl title under his belt, so he can no longer be called an all-time choke artist, but he hasn't excelled in the postseason to the same degree as some of his peers. The Broncos were shocked by the Baltimore Ravens in last year's playoffs despite being favored to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and Manning actually has a losing record of 9-11 in postseason play. In fact, Manning also has a habit of being bounced in his team's opening playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
In Super Bowl era, Peyton Manning has had twice as many 'one-and-done' playoff games than any other QB. Manning has 8.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2014
Although Manning's career playoff numbers of 5,679 yards, 32 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 20 games are below his usual standards, the 11 losses obviously haven't all been on him. If the Broncos are going to beat the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, though, Manning will have to be at his best. The Chargers are 29th in the league against the pass, and Manning will have his full allotment of weapons, so look for No. 18 to slay some playoff demons.
Statistical Projection: 336 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions
Running back Marshawn Lynch often doesn't receive as much praise as he deserves, but the Seattle Seahawks' workhorse was a driving force behind the team's first-place finish in the NFC this season.
The defense and quarterback Russell Wilson steal headlines, but Lynch grinded out tough yards all year long. He finished with 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns on 301 carries while adding another 316 yards and two scores receiving, so he'll play a huge role in Seattle's game plan against the New Orleans Saints.
Lynch rushed for just 45 yards during the Seahawks' regular-season meeting with New Orleans, but Seattle was so dominant in every facet that it didn't really matter. He'll need to be better this weekend in order for the Seahawks to prevail. The Saints were No. 19 against the run during the regular season, so they can definitely be run on.
As good as Lynch is on the field, he has made some headlines for other reasons as of late. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Lynch was fined $50,000 by the NFL for not talking to the media all season long.
Lynch claimed on Facebook that he won his appeal, though:
"To all the 12s I appreciate your support. Wanted you to know I appealed the fine & won."
As it turns out, Lynch's fine was lifted on the condition that he now complies with the league media policy, although it could be raised to $100,000 if he doesn't, per Florio.
Lynch is an interesting guy who makes strange decisions from time to time, but not of that will matter when he steps onto the field to face the Saints. Seattle needs to control the line of scrimmage and physically dominate New Orleans, and Lynch will be a contributing factor.
Statistical Projection: 128 rushing yards, two touchdowns and three receptions for 22 yards
Which player will have the best divisional-round showing?
Most observers seem to believe that quarterback Andrew Luck is the one and only reason why the Indianapolis Colts are still alive in the playoffs. While Luck was instrumental in Indy's comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round, he was also partially responsible for the Colts falling behind in the first place. Another key figure in the Colts' comeback happened to be running back Donald Brown, who has come on strong in recent weeks.
The former first-round pick initially looked like a bust, but he is finally starting to live up to his potential. Brown supplanted Trent Richardson as the team's No. 1 running back, and he has taken some pressure off of Luck as well. Brown racked up over 100 total yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs, which caused NFL Network's Ian Rapoport to marvel at his return to form:
Has anyone reestablished themselves as a baller better than #Colts RB Donald Brown? Maybe Mark Ingram. Both came from being buried— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 4, 2014
Brown averaged over five yards per carry for the Colts during the regular season, and he now appears to be their unquestioned bell-cow back. Indy enters the divisional round as a decided underdog against the New England Patriots, but that doesn't mean that it can't win. Keeping Tom Brady off the field is the Colts' easiest path to victory, and that will largely fall on Brown's shoulders. The Pats defense is No. 30 against the run, so Brown should have plenty of room to roam this weekend.
Statistical Projection: 105 rushing yards, on e touchdown and five receptions for 44 yards
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