Who's going to step up on Sunday in the AFC Championship? Everybody will be focusing on the major stars for the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, but it's the unsung heroes who could decide the game.
Quite a few players come into the game with a chip on their shoulder, looking to silence whatever doubts fans may have about their talent.
For some, Peyton Manning is one of those players, which is crazy. While No. 18 doesn't have as many Super Bowl rings as Tom Brady, he's one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and nothing that happens in the AFC Championship will hurt that.
Others aren't so lucky.
While they may not have the same kind of legacy as Manning, questions abound as to whether they can be called upon to help lead their teams on to victory.
Among that group of players, these four players stand out.
New England Patriots
There isn't enough you can say about LeGarrette Blount's performance in the divisional round. He bulldozed the Indianapolis Colts defense en route to 166 yards and four touchdowns. That's more than he had all of 2012.
If New England wants to advance to the Super Bowl, Blount doesn't have to match those numbers, but he must at least have a strong game.
The MMQB's Greg A. Bedard wrote how the Patriots' last three playoff losses can be tied to how well they established the running game:
The Patriots attempted to run the ball, but couldn’t do it effectively enough to pull the defenses out of playing coverage. They averaged 3.5 yards per attempt in the first half of those games. Since the defenses felt no need to drop a safety down into the box—or swap a linebacker for a defensive back—to help against the run, Brady had a tough time finding players open. He completed 60 percent of his passes in those losses and was knocked around by the pass rush, which had time to get there.
Denver doesn't have a great defense—so the less it respects the running game, the more it can sit back and defend the pass. Brady is a legendary quarterback, but that passing game isn't good enough to where he can single-handedly push the Patriots through.
He'll need Blount to establish a steady presence.
Nobody on the New England defense performed better last week than Jamie Collins. He had six total tackles—two of which were for a loss and one sack. His interception in the fourth quarter exemplified everything he did so well against the Colts. The way he jumped in front of Coby Fleener was masterful. One second he looked out of the play, the next he's wreaking havoc in the secondary.
Bob Socci, play-by-play man for the Pats on 98.5 FM in Boston, was impressed with Collins and felt his importance has been demonstrated in the absence of Brandon Spikes, per CBS Boston:
I thought Jamie Collins was fantastic Saturday night – not only in pass coverage, but with his explosiveness he got to the quarterback with the sack and he defended the run very well. Having a guy like Jamie Collins and seeing him mature in his rookie season helped offset the loss of Brandon Spikes.
Collins will be called upon to blanket the field again and help to cut off Manning's supply lines over the middle. The more he's able to do that, the more the Broncos will be forced to look downfield, and that could be a problem if the conditions turn cold and windy.
Just a rookie, Collins could become a star on Sunday.
Wes Welker has had a decorated NFL career, but his struggles in the playoffs continue to be a giant monkey on his back.
It's not a completely fair narrative, as Welker has 75 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns in 10 career postseason games.
But whether it was the poor performance in Super Bowl XLVI that caused Gisele Bundchen to lash out in frustration, or the drop in last year's AFC Championship that proved so critical for the Patriots, Welker, much like Manning, has plenty of fans wondering whether he's the kind of player you can rely on in crunch time.
Of course, as ESPN.com's Jeffri Chadiha said, for the longest time, the veteran receiver was able to avoid any sort of major criticism:
Welker has managed to escape such scrutiny on a national level because he's usually played in the shadows of bigger names. When he arrived in New England, Randy Moss was the receiver who dominated the headlines. When Welker started going to Pro Bowls (he's been to five), he was the undrafted underdog who made good on his opportunity to shine. And when the Patriots couldn't win Super Bowls in either the 2007 or 2011 season, it was Brady and coach Bill Belichick who caught the bulk of the blame.
Welker was brought into Denver with a lot of hype, and the expectation was that he'd play a major role in the Broncos' potential Super Bowl run. So far, he's largely lived up to the hype.
But, there won't be anywhere to hide in the event he lays another egg in an AFC Championship.
Chris Harris' Replacement
It's hard to pin down one player here, because John Fox is playing his cards close to the chest.
This much we know: Chris Harris tore his ACL and is out for the playoffs, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What we don't know is how the Broncos will go about replacing him. Fox hasn't come to a final decision, and nobody will know what that decision is until game time. The Denver coach said, "It's a long list. If I knew right now, I wouldn't say anyway," per Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com.
The likely candidates appear to be Quentin Jammer, Tony Carter and Kayvon Webster, and none of the three is assuring for Broncos fans. Champ Bailey is going to get more snaps, but one of those three will have to accept a larger role and perform up to expectations.
It's no secret that the Broncos have struggled against the pass this year, and there are enough weapons in the New England passing game that Denver could have a long day in the event Jammer, Carter or Webster don't emerge as a reliable replacement.
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