In the modern sports lexicon, the word playmaker can mean lots of things, but the most important caveat is that playmakers are someone or something that either changes or influences the outcome of a game, whether it is a clutch grab on third down or making a sensational interception.
A playmaker is the true meaning of the word x-factor.
This slide show will feature the top 25 playmakers to watch in the upcoming NFL playoffs. And although this is a projected list based on teams that are slated to be in the NFL playoffs, these 25 individuals, both offensively and defensively will have a big say in determining who will be playing down in North Texas come February.
Currently the second leading receiver in the NFL with 1,140 yards receiving, the smooth and very fluid Roddy White is having a true breakout year for the Falcons this year.
White has emerged as an NFL MVP candidate, Falcons QB Matt Ryan's go-to guy and has produced seven touchdowns and a 12.5 yards per catch average. He is without question Atlanta's home-run threat in the passing game.
With Atlanta being set in the running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling along with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, look for the Ryan-White connection to be a common theme in the NFC playoffs and for White to continue his breakout year.
A truly dangerous player in the passing and running game, Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew is a true double threat.
While Jones-Drew currently has 1,144 yards rushing for four touchdowns, he also has 276 yards receiving and two touchdowns on the season.
Jones-Drew is truly one of the hardest players in the NFL to account for because of his diminutive size at 5'7, but he is also a solid 208 lbs. of muscle that has explosive speed on the edge.
For the Jaguars to make a run in the playoffs they will utilize Jones-Drew as early and as often as possible.
The current NFL leader in receiving touchdowns with 14, Kansas City Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe has blossomed into one of the premier wideouts in the league. Bowe also has 885 yards receiving.
Bowe, the fourth-year player from LSU has clearly become QB Matt Cassel's primary weapon in the passing game along with tight end Tony Moeaki. The Chiefs offense also features All-Pro running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones to produce a truly multi-faceted attack.
If the Chiefs are going to go far in the AFC playoffs look for them to spread it around, but look deep to Bowe.
If the Patriots are going to go deep into the AFC playoffs, then they will need to be more than one-dimensional. While the Pats have Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch, they don't have a consistent ground game to keep defenses honest.
Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis could be the solution to that problem as he has emerged as the Pats feature back. After his 72-yard, two touchdown performance in a 45-3 demolition of the New York Jets on Monday Night, Green-Ellis may be the missing piece in the Pats offense.
Currently, Green-Ellis has rushed for 699 yards and 11 touchdowns. Look for Green-Ellis to take pressure off of Brady deep in the postseason.
Lightning-quick and a dual threat as a receiver out of the backfield, Kansas City Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles gives the Chiefs offense a truly explosive dimension.
Currently leading the league with a 6.2 yards per average, Charles has rushed for 1,137 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 379 yards receiving for one touchdown.
The Chiefs have the best running back tandem in the league with both Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles. If they hope to make a deep run, look for them to lean heavily on Charles.
The heart and soul of the Chicago Bears defense, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is one of the main reason why the Bears are on top of the NFC North at 9-3.
The Bears defense is playing its usual tough, physical and unbending style, and Urlacher's unit has helped contain the likes of elite QBs Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers in wins this season.
Urlacher leads the Bears in tackles with 94 including 71 total tackles.
If the Bears can hold off Green Bay in Lambeau, then Urlacher and the Bears are going to be tough to beat.
If there is one bright spot for the 6-6 Colts, it has been the spectacular play of wideout Reggie Wayne. He has helped an inconsistent Peyton Manning.
Wayne currently leads the Colts in receiving with 1,107 yards receiving and five touchdowns. He has really stepped up his play to cover the slack of losing TE Dallas Clark and fellow wideout Antonio Gonzalez to injuries.
If Indy is to sneak into the AFC Wild Card, then Wayne's play is a big reason why.
Despite a tough 13-10 loss to the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco has shown that he has truly established himself as one of the borderline top-tier elite QBs in the NFL.
Flacco became the first rookie to ever win his first two road playoff games, and despite losing to the Steelers in 2008, Flacco has taken a even bigger leap this year with the added weapons of wide-outs Anquan Boldin, T.J Houshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth.
Flacco has the running game to take pressure off of him with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Don't forget about veteran tight end Todd Heap.
Look for Flacco to lead the Ravens deep into the playoffs again.
The leader of the explosive wide receiver corps in Green Bay, Packers wideout Greg Jennings is one of the most underrated players in the game.
Jennings leads all Green Bay wide receivers with 11 touchdowns and 944 yards receiving, and has truly established a real rapport with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Look for Jennings to have a big postseason if the Packers go deep into the NFC playoffs.
The definition of a do-it-all wide receiver who is also clutch, New England Patriots wideout Wes Welker is maybe the second most important player on offense in New England after franchise QB Tom Brady.
Welker, who happens to lead the Patriots in receiving with 672 yards and seven touchdowns, is a truly dangerous open field player who is also lethal from all parts of the field.
Welker is Brady's go-to safety blanket for third downs and has proven to a clutch possession receiver in the playoffs.
Watch for Welker to once again lead the Pats potent aerial attack deep into the playoffs.
It just seems that Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews III was just bred for football, as he comes from a football family.
Matthews' father, Clay Matthews Jr., played the third most games in NFL history (278) over 19 seasons as a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons while earning four Pro Bowl selections.
Matthews' uncle, Bruce Matthews, played 19 years for the Titans/Oilers franchise after being drafted out of USC in 1983.
Matthews, currently leads the Packers with 11.1 sacks and has brought a real energy and attitude to Titletown, emerging as one of the best up-and-coming young talents in the NFL.
Matthews has become a true defensive foe as he also has 46 total tackles include four assists.
If the Packers and their defense lead them to Super Bowl XLI, then Matthews will be a big reason why.
Welcome to Revis Island!
That is what the Jets' cornerback surely tells opposing WRs who have the misfortune of lining up against him. And while he has missed some time due to a highly publicized contract hold-out and a pulled hamstring, Revis is still considered one of the top-tier shutdown corners in the league.
If I'm an opposing offense that has to play the Jets blitz-happy defense I would not be too thrilled to have my No. 1 receiver lined up opposite of Revis, who has shut down the likes of Titans' wideout Randy Moss and Houston's wideout Andre Johnson.
While the Jets may have been blasted 45-3 in New England against the Patriots, look for them to be in the thick of things come playoffs and count on Revis to clamp down on any No. 1 wide receivers that he will face.
Simply one of the best clutch wide receivers in recent memory, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a truly special type of player.
Traditionally, wide receivers are not known for being tough and willing to do the "dirty work" such as helping in run blocking or even help with downfield blocks. Clearly, the savvy veteran Hines Ward is the exception to the diva wide receiver stereotype.
The Super Bowl XL MVP, Ward has consistently been called on to make the tough catch or convert a first down and be Ben Roethlisberger's safety blanket if a play breaks down.
Look for Ward to be called upon in the AFC playoffs and for Big Ben to find him in the clutch.
It seems that Mark Sanchez has finally found a true go-to wide receiver in former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes.
Holmes, who always seems to come alive during the postseason, has really emerged as New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez's favorite wide receiver, leading the "Cardiac Jets" to a string of last second victories.
Holmes' career will forever be defined by his tip-toe catch in the final seconds against the Arizona cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Holmes is also becoming known for being a last-second hero with clutch grabs in wins over Detroit and a 37-yard touchdown reception to defeat the Cleveland Browns in overtime.
If the Jets are to go deep in the playoffs, look for Sanchez to rely on the clutch and sure-handed Holmes.
As previously mentioned in the above slide, Pittsburgh Steelers wide out Mike Wallace can lay a legitimate claim as the best deep threat in the NFL.
The second year player from Ole Miss has emerged as one of the premier threats in the NFL, averaging 21.2 yards per catch.
And for a Steelers offense that already has a prolific core of QB Ben Roethlisberger, running back, Rashard Mendenhall and veteran wide receiver Hines Ward, Wallace has truly benefited by burning opposing secondaries with his amazing 4.36 speed.
Chances are if you see Roethlisberger go deep in a AFC playoff game, Wallace will most likely be on the receiving end of it.
Explosive, fast and versatile...those are the words that can best describe the deep home-run threat WR for the Philadelphia Eagles, DeSean Jackson.
While not as complete as his solid and sturdy counterpart, Jeremy Maclin, Jackson is truly one of the premier home-run threats in the NFL.
His combination of speed, skill and yards after catch are simply something to behold as he and Maclin have teamed up with Vick to from one of the most formidable wide receiver duos in the NFL.
Jackson maybe be the best deep ball receiver in the league not named Mike Wallace.
The undisputed leader of the high flying New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees has his team back to contention with his recent solid play.
Brees has at his disposal an arsenal consisting of Pro Bowl wide out Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey and running back Pierre Thomas, but what really sets Brees apart is his decision-making and pinpoint accuracy.
The Brees-led Saints are a team that no one would want to face.
The former Brett Favre protege is quietly having a MVP-like season for the Green Bay Packers, as he has single-handedly carried the Pack.
With no true running game and a bevy of wide receivers, Rodgers leads one of the most pass-happy and prolific offenses in the NFL.
Currently, Rodgers has thrown for 3,243 yards and 23 touchdowns. He is also the second leading rusher on the Packers behind fill-in running back. Brandon Jackson. Rodgers has rushed for 284 yards and four touchdowns.
Much like Michael Vick in Philadelphia, Rodgers' arms and legs will determine how far the Pack go in the postseason.
Another controversial and polarizing sports figure, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison is becoming more known for the fines he has accumulated than his actual play on the field.
Harrison, the leading tackler on the No. 1 ranked run defense in the NFL has been fined a grand total of $125,000 for flagrant hits to Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, Buffalo Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cleveland Browns wide receivers Mohamed Massaqoui and Joshua Cribbs.
The hits heard and seen around the league have seemingly painted a bull's eye on Harrison, but it still has not deterred the former Kent State walk-on who was actually cut by the Steelers back in 2003.
Harrison has a real mean streak to go along with a ferocious bull-rush and a variety of power moves that have overwhelmed even the best linemen in the NFL.
Harrison leads the Steelers with 10 sacks and has also caused four fumbles to go along with two interceptions.
For opposing AFC teams to stop the Steelers from going deep into the playoffs and even the Super Bowl, they will need to keep an eye on the disruptive and powerful Harrison.
When sports fans talk about the Baltimore Ravens, you can certainly be sure that Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis is in the same sentence.
As the emotional and vocal leader of the hard-hitting Baltimore Ravens defense, Ray Lewis is a combination of power, strength, speed and instincts that cannot be matched and his on-field intensity leads the hard-charging Baltimore defense.
The 35 year old Lewis currently leads the Ravens in total tackles with 108, 84 of which are solo.
If any offense is going to contend with the Ravens in the NFL playoffs they must find a way to contain "Ray Ray".
Atlanta Falcons' QB Matt Ryan may be the best QB in the league not named Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger. Ryan has quietly put together a MVP-like season in leading the NFL best Atlanta Falcons to a 10-2 record.
"Matty Ice" is living up to his moniker by making cool plays in the clutch such as the game-winning touchdowns to beat Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
Ryan is aided by one of the best running games in the NFL led by running back Michael Turner.
It is looking like the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC is going to go through Georgia.
Look for Ryan to continue to build on a solid season and garner serious NFL MVP consideration.
Love him or hate him, you cannot help but grudgingly admire Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
He may take a sack, he may make a bad throw or even appear to be on the ropes, be you simply cannot bet against "Big Ben" when all the cards are on the table. Period.
We all know of his clutch plays, such as the amazing throw to Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl, or even his ability to extend plays a la John Elway. Roethlisberger is a rare combination of size, strength and overall guts at the QB position.
At the age of 28, he has already won two Super Bowls. He also has the fourth highest career winning percentage (.702) as a starter in the regular season among quarterbacks with a minimum of 90 starts.
Roethlisberger is maybe the most difficult playmaker to face in the upcoming NFL playoffs because of his knack for pure improvisation.
Electrifying, deadly and elusive are not enough words to describe the MVP-like play of Philadelphia Eagles' QB Michael Vick. He has not only led the Eagles to the top of the NFC East, but quite possibly to the enviable role of deadly sleeper.
Vick has seemingly revived his career in Philly by finally maturing into the dual-threat QB that Atlanta visualized when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001.
Currently the second leading passer in the league behind New England Patriots' QB Tom Brady, Vick will give NFC teams issues with his arm and his feet.
Vick has thrown for 2,245 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has also rushed for six touchdowns and is the second leading rusher behind Eagles' running back LeSean McCoy with 467 yards.
Philadelphia will go as far as Michael Vick's arms and feet can carry them.
There are not enough superlatives to describe the living legend known as Tom Brady. I'll just sum it up in one word. Winner.
Tom Brady is this generation's version of Joe Montana and is actually only one Super Bowl behind the boyhood idol that he grew up watching in his native San Mateo, California.
We are all aware of his three Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs, an NFL MVP and the record for most touchdowns with 50 in 2007, but the one true stat that defines Tom Brady's greatness is his record. Brady has a record of 111-34 (.765) in regular season and playoff games. It is the best record of any NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl Era (since 1966) with at least 100 starts.
Brady also enters 2010 with a 14-4 (.778) playoff record, the second best in NFL history behind Bart Starr (9-1, .900). His 14 total playoff wins are tied for the second most in NFL history behind Joe Montana (16).
As I said, Tom Brady is this generation's version of Joe Montana and makes the Patriots the team to beat in the AFC.
When playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are a number of things that keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night, and the top cause of insomnia when going against the Pittsburgh Steelers is not Ben Roethlisberger or even hard-hitting LB James Harrison, but the soft-spoken and very humble strong safety out of USC, Troy Polamalu.
He is the single biggest X-factor in the NFL not only because of his amazing cover ability and his ability in providing run support or creating havoc, but also his unique knack for making a key tackle or coming up with an amazing interception.
All you have to do is look back at his amazing sack-strip of Ravens' QB Joe Flacco on Sunday Night Football if you need any more proof.
All teams in the playoffs that are playing Pittsburgh must account for Polamalu at all times.
And this is not coming from a life-long Steelers fan, but from a life-long Browns fan who has nothing but respect for quite possibly the best strong safety of this generation.
To conclude this slide show, this is a early projection of the top 25 playmakers based on the teams that would be in the playoffs if they were to start today.
And as much as it would have been easy to add fellow players such as San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, New York Giants QB Eli Manning or San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, I strongly feel that the players featured are the true definition of playmakers as they have the ability to make us all cheer with an awesome last-second throw, awe-inspiring interception or bone-crushing hit.
It was a tough choice to choose Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Troy Polamalu over New England QB Tom Brady, but this is a playmakers slide, and after having the pleasure of watching Polamalu play here in Pittsburgh, he has the ability by himself to influence an offensive game plan and confuse a QB.
Just look at how much the Steelers defense was last year once he injured his knee and the difference this year. See what I mean?
And while Brady has defeated Polamalu's side six times in their careers, I still feel that Polamalu is the best playmaker in the NFL today.
And this is coming from a Cleveland Browns fan.
The NFL playoffs are going to be fun, enjoy!