As we draw closer to the 2011 NFL postseason, the playoff picture continues to become clearer and clearer.
We are seeing the elite teams separate themselves from the pack and the bottom feeders of the league preparing their draft boards. Every team still in the playoff picture has a player or several players driving their success at this point.
These are the players that are coming through in the clutch down the stretch assuring that their team not only makes the NFL postseason, but they get the best seed possible. We all know how important home-field advantage can be in the playoffs.
While some players on these teams seem like they can't be playing any better, there are some that are just getting started.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a prime example. He is a seasoned playoff quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings under his belt. He knows full well that the Patriots will need him to be hot during the postseason if they plan on a deep run.
Brady is just one example, but here are four other names you can expect to step it up in the postseason.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is coming off a solid performance against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football.
Brady put up 234 yards and two touchdowns against a weak Chiefs defense. Some were expecting more out of the MVP candidate, but there are reports coming out now that he may be battling an elbow injury. Despite Brady responding to these reports saying he is "feeling great," the rumor of the elbow injury will temper expectations.
The Patriots have one of the weakest schedules heading down the final stretch of the season. They are already sitting on top of the AFC so it is likely that they could land the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Injury or not, you can expect Brady to be on the top of his game once the postseason comes. He is one of the best playoff quarterbacks in the history of the game despite his recent struggles.
Brady is going to be facing a string of weak defenses in the final weeks of the regular season, but that won't stop him from coming prepared to every single game.
Regardless of what has happened in recent years, expect Tom Brady to bring his A-game come playoff time.
Has there been a point this season where Aaron Rodgers hasn't been on fire?
The current runaway favorite for the MVP award has torn up every defense that has been put in front of him this season. Rodgers is currently on pace to break several single-season records in what could be the greatest quarterback season of all time.
Rodgers has made every Packers fan forget about Brett Favre and become the new deity of Green Bay. There hasn't been another quarterback this season that has been able to match Rodgers' level of play.
The Packers are essentially a lock for the postseason. The real question for them is whether or not they will be heading into the playoffs undefeated or not. That debate is for another article.
Rodgers is going to still be slinging touchdown passes come playoff time, undefeated or not.
Rodgers is playoff-tested and a proven champion. He knows what it takes to be a big-time NFL quarterback. He is proving it to us week in and week out.
I don't think anyone should expect him to slow down come playoff time. No one has found the formula to slow him down yet and I am not putting much faith in NFC defensive coordinators to do so anytime soon.
I have been one of Tony Romo's toughest critics, but there is no denying that he is playing at an elite level right now.
The NFC East is a tough division regardless of what the records say. Tony Romo has turned it on in November to get the Cowboys on top of the NFC East with the New York Giants on their heels.
Don't expect them to go away anytime soon.
The Cowboys are notorious for their inconsistency, but they have a pretty soft schedule down the final stretch of the season. Even with a close call on Thanksgiving against the Miami Dolphins, Dallas appears to be playoff-bound.
This is the perfect time for Romo to be heating up.
Romo has become an easy target for the critics to jump on with his inconsistency and mistakes in big situations. However, his focus seems to be renewed and he has a solid running game with the emergence of DeMarco Murray to support him.
He should be getting Miles Austin back soon to line up along with Dez Bryant. If the Cowboys can stay healthy down the stretch, I expect big things from them in the playoffs.
These big things can't happen without Tony Romo playing his best football.
Even though he started off injured and slow, Arian Foster has turned into the back we saw all of last year.
The Texans will need Foster more than ever down the stretch and into the playoffs now that quarterback Matt Schaub went down with a season-ending injury. Houston turns to Matt Leinart to be their starter.
Leinart has yet to show any of the skills that he had at USC. He is a huge question mark and can't be expected to play at the level Schaub would.
This will only make Foster's performances more important.
It is likely the Texans will be looking to pound the rock with their three talented running backs. However, it is clear that Foster is the main show and should be looked to for the big performances. He is showing so far that he can get it done on his own.
We will see how the lack of a passing threat will impact his running lanes, but I expect him to get plenty of opportunities.
If the Texans plan to go anywhere in the playoffs, they will need the Arian Foster of 2010 carrying the ball.
There is no doubting that Ray Rice is the most talented player on the Baltimore Ravens offense.
Yes, we have seen Joe Flacco and a variety of receivers step up at certain points this season. However, for that Ravens offense to succeed week in and week out, they will need Ray Rice playing at the top of his game.
Rice is not only a monster on the ground, but a threat in the passing game. He is a great safety net for Flacco and someone that the Delaware product should turn to often come playoff time.
Rice's stat sheet from Thanksgiving against the San Francisco 49ers wasn't eye-popping.
Just remember that he was facing one of the toughest defenses in the league. The 49ers are brutal against the run, but Rice still managed to put together 83 all-purpose yards. That was one of the best offensive performances on either team.
The Ravens cannot get away from their real identity as a ground-and-pound team. To be successful come playoff time, the Ravens need to play great defense and control the ball on offense.
That ball control will come from pounding the ball with Ray Rice.
Despite his size, Rice has the ability to run the ball right up gut 20 times a game. At the same time he brings the threat of breaking one off for a huge gain at any point on the field.
I expect the Ravens to put the offensive load on Rice's shoulders come playoff time and I have no doubts that he will carry it successfully.