The NFL playoffs are a place where names can be made or condemned based on player success or failure on the football field.
For all of Peyton Manning's success in the regular season, he has been bumped from the playoffs after just one game eight times in his career. In the short career that Colin Kaepernick has enjoyed thus far, he is already seen as a good playoff quarterback, having posted a 3-1 postseason record and leading his team to the Super Bowl last year.
The postseason giveth and it taketh away. And after a wild-card weekend in which just one higher seed advanced, it's a pretty safe bet that this weekend will not go according to plan.
With the divisional round set to start on Saturday, here are the players expected to be the most valuable in each matchup.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch
When talking about the New Orleans Saints, I would be remiss to not bring up the epic run that clinched Seattle's home playoff win following the 2010 season. Here is a video of one of the most memorable plays in NFL playoff history:
But the reason why Lynch is going to be the MVP in this week's game is not because of something he did three years ago. Rather, it's what he didn't do against the Saints back in Week 13.
While the Seattle Seahawks rolled to a 34-7 win over New Orleans, Lynch didn't factor much into the equation, posting just 45 yards on 16 carries.
Though he's been in the news this week for his media silence, Lynch did hold a press conference—albeit a presser that lasted less than five minutes. But here is the transcript, according to Todd Dybas of The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.,):
The man of very few words was able to run with much more success in the final game of the regular season to help Seattle clinch the No. 1 seed. With 97 yards and a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams, Lynch was once again the workhorse and is expected to be on Saturday against the Saints as well.
Lynch will let his play do the talking, literally and figuratively.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots: Andrew Luck
It's tough to say that anyone else but Tom Brady will be the MVP of a game when he's on the field, but Andrew Luck will need to do more for his team in order to get the win.
While Brady has a stable of backs that includes Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen, Luck can hardly depend on Trent Richardson or Donald Brown after they both fumbled the ball in crucial situations, though Brown's was memorable thanks to Luck's recovery and diving touchdown.
Luck might not get off to a hot start in the first half, but as ESPN Stats and Info notes, he has been one of the best second-half quarterbacks this season:
Going against a quarterback with as much experience as Brady could be intimidating, but Luck is one of the most even-keel guys in the entire league. With his team trailing, he comes to life.
Over his last five games, Luck has thrown for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. With the Colts' postseason lives on the line, Luck will once again have to put the team on his back.
And he will.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly
All Luke Kuechly has done this season is solidify himself as one of the best defensive players in the NFL and lead a Carolina Panthers defense that finished the season ranked second overall.
And in a game where the defenses dominated, Kuechly was the best player on the field when the Panthers took on the San Francisco 49ers back in Week 10. Kuechly was all over the place, finishing with 11 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, one pass defended and another QB hit on Colin Kaepernick.
Frank Gore remembers facing Kuechly vividly and said he'll be prepared to take him on, according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle:
He's a beast. I compare him with our guys—he's a top guy at the position, too. I respect him. He's fast, reads, gets to the ball. He's fast. Fast, big, fast. He's got it all. It will be good. I'll be ready for him Sunday.
If the Panthers plan to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2004 season, they will need Kuechly to play at the same level he has all season. And going against Kaepernick and Gore, getting into the backfield will be a huge priority for the inside linebacker.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos: Philip Rivers
Much like the reasons why Luck will be more valuable than Brady, Philip Rivers will need to be more valuable than Peyton Manning when the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos play on Sunday.
After Ryan Mathews didn't practice again on Friday, Cecil Lammey of ESPN Denver said the likelihood of the Chargers RB playing is slim:
In the Week 15 matchup between the two teams, with San Diego coming out on top, 27-20, Mathews rushed the ball 29 times for 127 yards and a touchdown. He not only ran through the Denver defense but helped the offense eat up the clock which kept Manning from getting his hands on the ball late in the game.
This time around, even if Mathews does play, he won't be at full strength. So for Rivers, completing passes in third-down situations takes on even greater importance with the quarterback who in 2013 broke regular-season records for passing yards and touchdowns standing on the other sideline.
But with Rivers enjoying one of his best seasons ever, anything can happen. The importance of his play to the success of San Diego's offense couldn't be overstated to Chargers' explosive rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, as relayed by Ricky Henne of the Chargers' official website reports:
My rookie year has been great for me because of Philip Rivers. It’s great to have a quarterback that has the knowledge that he has. What he means to me is everything I’ve accomplished this year (because he was the one) throwing me the ball. What he means to this team, that speaks for itself.
Whether it's the bolo tie this season or the energy that he's shown down the stretch, Rivers is playing his best football, and the Chargers are riding with him. In order for the Chargers to continue their improbable run, it will have to be courtesy of Rivers' arm.