There are only four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs, and any one of them has the ability to win the Super Bowl. While 53 men on each squad will play a necessary role, there is one on each that could be more important than others.
Obviously, each quarterback will have a huge impact on the next two games. This includes veterans Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who are used to carrying an offense, as well as young guns Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, who have smaller roles but can make plays when asked.
Still, there are a number of non-quarterbacks whose play could determine if their teams win a Super Bowl or get knocked out on the conference championship games.
These players are all extremely talented, but they must be at their best in order to help their teams this weekend.
Seattle Seahawks: Golden Tate, WR
In a perfect world, this space would be reserved for Percy Harvin, a dynamic receiver who can score from anywhere on the field. However, the oft-injured player suffered a concussion in his return to the field against the New Orleans Saints.
Harvin only had one catch in the regular season but three in the divisional-round win. Still, the Seahawks have to plan for life without him once again. According to Todd Miles of The News Tribune, receiver Jermaine Kearse explains that he is used to this:
Obviously, we want Percy out there. He is a very explosive player—probably one of the most explosive players out there in the league. When he went down, it kind of went back to how it had been the whole season with us three (Baldwin, Kearse and Golden Tate). We had to adjust a little bit because throughout practice we had Percy in certain spots, so Doug had to move over.
Though Baldwin did have the biggest catch of the game—a 24-yard reception on a third-down play in the fourth quarter—Golden Tate is the one who must step up against the San Francisco 49ers.
The former second-round pick led the team this season in catches and receiving yards while tying for the team lead with five touchdown catches. He is explosive with the ball in his hands, and he helps Wilson tremendously with his ability to make plays after the catch.
Unfortunately, he only caught one of his five targets against New Orleans, and it contributed to Wilson's lowest passing output of his career.
If Harvin cannot play, Tate will once again need to be the player who can consistently come through in the passing game. The 49ers defense is too good to just beat with the running game, so the team needs the receiver to create balance with a strong showing on Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers: Aldon Smith, OLB
A tumultuous season for Aldon Smith has turned the former All-Pro into somewhat of an afterthought on the 49ers. The linebacker finished the year with 8.5 sacks, although only four of them came after September.
Still, the third-year player has loads of talent, as evident by his 19.5 sacks in 2012. As Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone points out, he is also very important towards the team's success on defense:
San Francisco's D is so heavily dependent on Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. And if they're not getting pressure, well, #49ers are in trouble.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) January 10, 2014
While NaVarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks are all among the best at their positions, none of them have the pure pass-rushing ability of Smith. He needs that to come through against the Seahawks.
This will certainly be a challenge against offensive tackle Russell Okung. Even if he gets into the backfield, it will not be easy bringing down the mobile Russell Wilson. Unlike other quarterbacks, simply getting pressure is not enough.
If Smith can get to Wilson and actually wrap him up, it will limit the Seahawks ability to move the football through the air. This plays right into the 49ers' hands as they have the No. 4 run defense in the NFL.
In a low-scoring game, San Francisco has to limit Seattle's offense in any way possible.
New England Patriots: Jamie Collins, OLB
While the win over the Indianapolis Colts was a nice breakout game for LeGarrette Blount and his four touchdowns, the true breakout star was linebacker Jamie Collins.
The rookie had not made much of an impact this season, but he took advantage of the playing time in the divisional round and put on quite a show. He finished with six tackles, two for a loss, plus a sack, an interception and three quarterback hits.
Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus discussed his grade for Collins after the game:
Now, the question is if this playoff performance was a fluke or can he do it again versus the top offense in the NFL.
Collins' ability to get to the quarterback in a hurry would certainly help throw Peyton Manning off his game. This will be vital to avoid the same fate of the San Diego Chargers, who could not get a single sack and had only one quarterback hit in the recent loss.
Additionally, he can drop back into coverage to cut off the slants that have worked so well this year.
The second-round pick has great versatility on defense, but he will need to keep playing well in order to help the Patriots upset the Broncos in the AFC Championship.
Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno, RB
Anyone who plays fantasy football knows that Knowshon Moreno had a big year while rushing for over 1,000 yards with double-digit touchdowns. However, he was rarely used as a go-to option in the pass-heavy Broncos offense.
In fact, only twice did Moreno get more than 20 carries, and only once did he rush for over 100 yards. Of course, that one time was against the New England Patriots, when he totaled 224 yards on the ground in an overtime loss.
If the Broncos want to advance to the Super Bowl, he will need his "A game" once again to control possession and keep the opposing offense off the field. The Denver defense certainly wants no part of Brady or even Blount after his recent showing.
Moreno can be used as a weapon to move the football and control the clock. This should not be too difficult against the NFL's No. 30 run defense, which has already lost Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in the middle of the field.
The running back has been limited many times this year, but he cannot let it happen in this favorable matchup.
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