This upcoming Championship Sunday is the best in recent memory, with New England at Denver and San Francisco at Seattle. The games are rife with drama, storylines and star power.
It will be an epic day of football.
There's little doubt that the quarterbacks will all play significant roles. Everyone knows about the greatness of New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning, and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson have already experienced playoff success in their young careers.
But outside of the signal-callers, there are a number of players who will be extremely vital to their respective team's performance. Just think about some of the heroes of the last few title games in both conferences.
Last year, Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin was fantastic in helping his team upset the Patriots. In 2012, Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams forced a pair of special-teams fumbles that helped Big Blue earn a trip to Super Bowl XLVI.
You already know that Brady, Manning, Kaepernick and Wilson will perform. But what about everyone else? Which players loom large as a game-changing force?
Here are this weekend's most important players for the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
If the New England Patriots can't mount a pass rush against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, they'll likely be sliced and diced by one of the most potent aerial attacks in NFL history. Getting pressure on Manning will be of paramount importance.
Enter defensive end Chandler Jones, who led the Patriots with 11.5 sacks in the regular season. One of those sacks came against Manning and the Broncos in New England's Week 12 win over Denver.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Manning's completion percentage drops by over 10 points when under pressure. While that is fairly standard among NFL quarterbacks, Manning has operated on such an elevated level this season that getting in his face and disrupting his timing is crucial.
The Broncos offensive line is coming off a dominant performance in Sunday's divisional-round win over the Chargers, where it allowed zero sacks and only one hit on Manning. The Patriots will have to do better if they're to advance to their first Super Bowl since 2011.
And Jones is going to have to key up the pressure. He's the most important player on the Patriots defense for the AFC Championship Game.
For the first three quarters of their divisional-round win over San Diego, the Denver Broncos defense was outstanding. And then starting cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL.
After Harris was forced to leave the game, the Chargers were able to move the ball through the air, with quarterback Philip Rivers connecting with receiver Keenan Allen throughout the stanza.
Harris' absence looms large as the Broncos get set to host quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Broncos coach John Fox was coy with the media about who would replace Harris, telling Gary Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com:
Well, we’re going to know long before you guys will know. But, we have been with these guys for some time. We’ve had the same corps of guys. So, we’ve been through the whole cast, really throughout the whole season. It is really how they perform in practice and what we see on the practice field in preparation for New England.
While Fox was noncommittal about Harris' replacement, the smart money would be on veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played a reduced role this year while battling an assortment of maladies. While he's no longer the All-Pro player he once was, Bailey still remains a viable option.
Chris Hansen, B/R's lead AFC West writer, agrees with my assessment and believes that Bailey will play a large role for Denver's defense on Sunday.
There's little doubt that the Patriots will test the 35-year-old Bailey early and often. It remains to be seen if he'll be up to the task, which makes him one of the most important players in the AFC Championship Game.
In Week 2, the San Francisco 49ers were blown out by the Seahawks, 29-3. In that game, running back Frank Gore carried the ball nine times for only 16 yards.
In Week 14, the 49ers squeaked out a 19-17 win over the Seahawks. In that game, Gore toted the rock 17 times for 110 yards.
Is it coincidence that the 49ers won the game in which Gore ran the ball effectively? If you think that's the case, I have an island in the Caribbean to sell you.
While quarterback Colin Kaepernick has stepped up his game over the last two months, the 49ers offense is still at its best when Gore is finding success on the ground. The Seahawks are most certainly aware of this, with defensive end Cliff Avril telling Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:
They’re going to get Frank Gore the ball, they’re going to get Frank Gore the ball, then maybe take a shot or something like that. But it all starts with Frank Gore.
The Seahawks might know what's coming, but that won't make it any easier to stop. If Gore rushes for over 100 yards, the 49ers will likely find themselves in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Because they finished with a gaudy 13-3 record, the prevailing assumption is that the Seattle Seahawks offensive line had an excellent season. But that's not the case.
Quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked 44 times in the regular season and was often under duress, forced to run for his life. He was also sacked three times in the Seahawks' divisional-round victory over the Saints.
Meanwhile, the 49ers pass rush is now firing on all cylinders, having sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton five times last weekend.
As B/R's lead NFC West writer Tyson Langland noted, the 49ers' defensive line has a distinct advantage over the Seahawks' offensive line. But it's more than that, as the 49ers have had success rushing the opposing passer with their linebackers as well, with Ahmad Brooks compiling 2.5 sacks last Sunday against the Panthers.
In San Francisco's Week 14 win over Seattle, it held running back Marshawn Lynch to only 72 yards on 20 carries. That type of performance from Lynch won't be good enough for the Seahawks to win and advance to the Super Bowl.
The onus will be on Seattle's offensive line to both protect Wilson and open up adequate holes for Lynch to power through. If that doesn't happen, its season will likely end at the hands of its biggest rival.
When receiver Wes Welker joined the Broncos after five spectacular seasons with the New England Patriots, it was widely assumed that Danny Amendola would pick up the receiving slack for coach Bill Belichick's team.
And while Amendola caught 54 passes during the regular season, he didn't emerge as Welker's successor. That honor instead went to receiver Julian Edelman, who hauled in a ridiculous 105 catches during the regular campaign and another six in last weekend's divisional-round victory over Indianapolis.
But not everyone believes Edelman is Welker's equal, including Broncos safety Mike Adams, who said this when comparing the two, via Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com:
I can’t compare the two because Wes is— he’s something special. He can jive up the ball and then speed out and have you off balance. Edelman, he doesn’t do that. He’s a one-speed guy. He doesn’t have the same ability or the quickness that Wes has in the slot. I guess that is the main difference between them. But I don’t know if they use him the same as they used Wes because they’re totally different players.
While Edelman might not be the player that Welker is, he's still fantastic, and his impact on the Patriots offense is undeniable.
The Patriots have been a run-first team as of late, but with Broncos cornerback Chris Harris sidelined with a torn ACL, they may be more apt to air it out. If that's the case, you can bet your bottom dollar that quarterback Tom Brady will be looking Edelman's way early and often.
And if the Broncos put up an avalanche of points behind quarterback Peyton Manning, Edelman will be instrumental in getting the Patriots back into the game. No matter what series of events unfolds, it seems inevitable that Edelman will make a significant impact on the AFC Championship Game.
When the Denver Broncos lost linebacker Von Miller for the season with a torn ACL in Week 16, it was widely assumed that their pass rush would greatly suffer. But fellow linebacker Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 10 sacks in the regular season, made sure that didn't happen in the divisional round, when he sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers twice as the Broncos triumphed.
Miller was outstanding in Denver's Week 12 loss in Foxborough, sacking Patriots quarterback Tom Brady twice and returning a fumble for a touchdown. Phillips will need to pick up the slack on Sunday.
Phillips enters the AFC Championship Game as the Broncos' top pass-rushing threat and must make an impact if they're to win. The Patriots have run the ball extremely effectively over the last month, but it'd be foolish to assume that quarterback Tom Brady won't have to air it out at some point.
And when he does, it'll be up to Phillips to terrorize him and help the Broncos claim the AFC title.
NaVorro Bowman. Patrick Willis.
Those are the names that usually come to mind when one thinks of the San Francisco 49ers' outstanding linebackers.
But there's another name that needs to be mentioned along with Bowman and Willis: Ahmad Brooks. He's criminally underrated because he plays next to two All-Pros, but he's a tremendous player in his own right.
In last Sunday's divisional-round win over Carolina, Brooks was a one-man wrecking ball, sacking Panthers quarterback Cam Newton 2.5 times and keying several goal-line stops that buoyed the 49ers to victory.
And of course, he produced one of the funniest penalties in recent memory, flying over the Panthers offensive line for an epic offside penalty.
So while Bowman and Willis get all the attention, Brooks' play will be critical to the 49ers claiming their second consecutive NFC title.
Earlier in this piece, I propped up 49ers running back Frank Gore as one of the most important players on Championship Sunday and how important it is for San Francisco to establish an effective ground game.
On the flip side, the Seahawks defense simply must shut down Gore and the 49ers' rushing attack if they're to move on to Super Bowl XLVIII, and the centerpiece of that operation is linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Over the past five games, Wagner has keyed a rush defense that has been spectacular. The Seahawks allowed only 77 yards per game on the ground during that stretch, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is well aware of how valuable Wagner has been to the cause, telling Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:
Bobby Wagner is instrumental in what we do. And in the run game, you really have a sense that there’s even another level to go to from understanding in terms of the technique and what we want to play. That’s really the constant challenge that we put on the guys. Can you get better again? Can you now work your skills even harder? He’s one of the players that we’ve recognized as a guy, can he take it up to even another spot and keep working and keep working? (He was one) that we tried to identify to say can you pick it up and get even sharper in that area, and he certainly has.
Wagner compiled nine tackles in the divisional-round win over New Orleans and must play well if the Seahawks are to shut down the 49ers ground game.