The NFL has the wildest postseason in American sports, and it’s all due to one unique feature—you only have to beat your opponents once.
The NBA, MLB and NHL all decide their champions based on multiple seven-game series, while individual sports are often even more grueling: NASCAR caps off its nine-month-long season with a playoff consisting of 10 races in 10 weeks, PGA golfers are in direct competition with each other at every major event and tennis, why it turns every single game into a best-of-five affair, now doesn’t it?
Not the NFL.
No sir, every single team that advances to the NFL playoffs has a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing every year, and considering each of them also has a superstar situated somewhere on their roster, sometimes the entire tournament comes down to the performance of just one player.
Examples abound throughout playoff history but have become increasingly common in recent years.
Perhaps the most notable case came in 2008, when wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald helped the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals become arguably the most unlikely Super Bowl participant in NFL history by putting together an historic four-game stretch with 30 receptions, 546 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to his credit.
Even though the Cards lost Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers at the end of that run, they never would have had the chance to compete for a title in the first place had it not been for Fitzgerald’s record-setting feat.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the most recent star to single-handedly shake up an entire playoff landscape (last year, the seventh-year quarterback took the No. 6 seed Green Bay Packers all the way to their first Super Bowl title in 14 seasons by completing over 68 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns).
With the Pack now 13-1 some 10 months after that convincing Super Bowl victory, Rodgers is clearly the front-runner to play the hero again when the 2011 version gets underway just a few weeks from now.
Rodgers is not alone, however, and now that the other postseason participants not named the Packers are finally starting to emerge, it’s quickly becoming clear which NFL studs are going to be present and which, if any, have the potential to be the difference-maker we’ll still remember after the party’s over.
Here are the 10 most likely candidates to fill that role this postseason, 10 proven superstars whose upcoming performances will probably determine who makes it to Lucas Oil Stadium come February and who goes home early.
Don’t be too bummed if your favorite team’s playmaker isn’t on the list, however—as history has shown us all time and time again, after all, anything’s possible when it comes to the NFL playoffs.