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.
If he shines: Then it will elevate the play of the entire Baltimore defense and make this team as dangerous as any in the AFC.
In games where the veteran safety records an interception, for example, the Ravens are 37-13 over his entire career.
That’s a 74 percent chance of victory, and that’s only factoring in times when Reed’s brilliance is evident enough to also appear on the stat sheet.
If Reed shows up in January, it might not matter how high-powered any of the offenses he faces may happen to be, and even though it might make for a pretty boring postseason to watch, the 2011 Championship may be Baltimore’s to win.
If he slumps: Then the rest of the defense will probably slump too, and the added pressure on Baltimore’s unreliable offense will probably translate to another early exit from the playoffs.
In their three losses this season, the Ravens have averaged just 12 points per game, the exact same total they’ve averaged in their six playoff losses since 2001.
That’s not going to cut it this postseason, with all but nine teams in the league averaging more than 20 points per game, and if Baltimore expects to keep their playoff matchups winnable, it’s going to take a whole lot of help from their defense, especially Reed.
If he shines: Then it’s game over.
Everyone in the world knows Tebow is 7-2 as a starter this season despite doing the bare minimum necessary for success (he’s averaging only 23 pass attempts per game right now and completing less than half of them).
If Tebow somehow breaks out in the postseason and starts putting up numbers more consistent with that of a starting NFL quarterback, the Broncos won’t have to just scrape by to win anymore and, shocking as it may have seemed when the second-year quarterback first took over back in October, they may even start dominating.
The Tebow train will have to keep rolling for the Broncos to even make the playoffs (they’re currently clinging to a one-game lead in the AFC West), but they are on pace to do it, they have plenty of momentum on their side and if they do get there, Tebow already looks like an NFL playoffs legend in the making with five fourth-quarter comebacks to his credit so far this season.
If he slumps: Then the argument about whether or not Tim Tebow really is a “franchise quarterback” will rage on for another eight months of relentless, round-the-clock analysis.
Actually, Tebow is such a unique player, we’d first have to define exactly what a “slump” means for him before we could really say.
You could easily call the majority of Tebow’s performances this season slumps, as he’s been statistically deceiving in several games he’s played, but the Broncos have still managed to win almost all of those contests regardless so, in that regard, a typical Tebow “slump” probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.
What should be considered a slump for this quarterback and would definitely decide the fate of the Broncos in the postseason, however, is a failure on his part to win games that his teammates have kept within reach.
That’s what's been fueling Tebow Mania more than anything else all season long, and if he’s unable to recreate that late-game magic we’ve come to expect from him later this year, Denver will probably falter right along with him come playoff time.
If he shines: The Jets will be able to hang with anyone—assuming they finish the season strong enough to make the playoffs in the first place, that is.
Burress’ potential to shake up the postseason is two-fold.
For one thing, the guy is a matchup nightmare.
At 6’5", he towers over the competition and is one of those guys we love to describe as having the ability to “go get” the ball.
That’s an important ability to have when your quarterback is as inconsistent as Mark Sanchez, and it’s an ability you still have to trust in the guy, even though he’s now 34 years old and, yes, even though he did once famously suffer a self-inflicted gunshot wound to one of his legs.
Secondly (and most importantly for our purposes here), Burress is a candidate to decide the playoffs because he’s done it before, or he at least did so that one time in the biggest game of his life.
After blowing up for 11 catches and more than 150 yards in the 2007 NFC Championship game, Burress had a relatively quiet performance two weeks later in Super Bowl XLII: two catches for 27 yards.
That second catch of his happened to be the game-winning touchdown, however, a dagger that did in the previously undefeated New England Patriots in the kind of unforgettable play on which playoff legacies will forever be built.
Plaxico has shown glimpses of that greatness at times this season, and if he gets the opportunity to do so in the playoffs, we know he has the ability to display it then, too.
If he slumps: Then Mark Sanchez is probably slumping too, and that spells bad news for the New York Jets.
The Jets are used to struggling offensively, and the addition of Burress this past offseason is only their most recent attempt to address those concerns.
Burress isn’t even the only former Super Bowl hero they’ve added to their receiving corps in recent years, in fact, as Santonio Holmes joined their ranks last season, a year after he scored a game-winning touchdown of his own in Super Bowl XLIII.
In last year’s playoffs, however, Holmes caught just nine passes in three games for only 127 yards, and even though he did score two touchdowns, the Jets lost the AFC Championship for their second consecutive year.
Could Burress provide the offensive boost this team has been missing in their last two playoff runs?
Only time will tell.
If he shines: Then Dallas might finally make some significant progress this year toward improving that pitiful 1-6 playoff record they’ve recorded over the last 13 seasons.
Romo is one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the league, but even his harshest critics can’t argue that when he gets rolling, he’s as effective as anyone.
He has eight touchdowns in his last two games, and in his most recent outing against Tampa Bay last Saturday, he completed over 75 percent of his passes for the second time this season.
He has 29 touchdown passes on the year so far but has thrown just nine interceptions, he’s had five games so far with three or more touchdowns, and thanks to his elevated play over the second half of the season (especially over his last two games), he’s now on pace to post career highs in both completions and passer rating.
If he keeps this pace up heading into January, the Cowboys will retain their lead in the NFC East, they’ll make their third postseason appearance since 2006 and they just might have what it takes to sneak up on an unsuspecting playoff opponent or two when the time finally comes.
If he slumps: Then Romo’s job will suddenly be in jeopardy, and Jerry Jones will have a mob of angry Cowboys fans to answer to in the offseason.
Romo has yet to establish himself as a winner in the playoffs and this year, assuming Dallas doesn’t blow its chance at reaching the postseason with tough games remaining against the Eagles and the Giants, he’ll be attempting to rebound from one of his worst performances ever, a three-point, 198-yard clunker against Minnesota in 2009 in which he threw an interception and failed to record a touchdown for the first time in 13 games.
Romo was excellent in the one postseason win he’s accumulated so far (244 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) but he’s been awful in his three losses (averaging 196 yards and just 13 points per game).
If he stinks it up again, the Cowboys will be one of the easiest playoff teams to defeat this postseason, and Jerry Jones may have to again consider parting ways with the three-time Pro Bowler after six roller-coaster seasons as his starter.
If he shines: Then any team but the Packers is in serious trouble.
When Polamalu is on his game, few opposing offenses can function.
Though he just had his first interception of the season two weeks ago against Cleveland, Polamalu has been the anchor of this ferocious Pittsburgh defense for years, and with the unpredictability of fellow anchor James Harrison (LB)—who just became the first NFL player to ever be suspended for a tackle—Polalamu is the star this unit will have to rely on once the playoffs begin.
Last postseason, the Steelers scored 27 points per game, made it to the Super Bowl and lost their shot at a third championship in six seasons by just six points.
This year, the offense is averaging just under 22 points per game so far but has looked explosive at times, and if the defense keeps playing the way it has (they’re allowing only 15.6 points per game and have held eight opponents to 17 or less), they might get away with scoring even less than that.
It’s up to Polamalu to ensure that’s the case.
If he slumps: Then this offense will find itself in a setting it very much dislikes: a postseason shootout.
The last time the Steelers gave up more than 24 points in a playoff game and still won was 2002, and in the four playoff losses they’ve suffered since that game, they’ve allowed more than 30 points every time.
If Polamalu can’t do his part to keep games low-scoring, the Steelers offense doesn’t have the versatility to bail him out (not for a full 60 minutes against elite competition, anyway).
If he gets beat, the Steelers get beat.
If he shines: Then several elite defenses will probably be humbled in front of huge national television audiences.
When Arian Foster has a good game, defenses look incapable of challenging him.
Three times this season, Foster has stepped off the field as a game’s leading rusher and receiver.
On October 23 against the Titans, Foster had arguably the most dominant performance of the 2011 season with 115 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
That’s what this ferocious third-year phenom is capable of, and that’s what everybody in Houston prays they see from him this postseason, especially now that starting quarterback Matt Schaub has been officially ruled out of participating and No. 1 receiver Andre Johnson continues to struggle with hamstring injuries.
If their prayers are answered, the sky’s the limit.
If he slumps: Then the Texans will only have to work that much harder and will probably reach their breaking point.
Backup Ben Tate has been exceptional filling in for Foster virtually every time we’ve seen him this season, but Tate is still a rookie—these are still the playoffs we’re talking about here, and how those elements will factor into his performance when the stakes are highest is still anybody’s guess at this point.
This offense is already in trouble heading into the postseason without its starting quarterback and with the health of its marquee player in jeopardy.
One ill-timed bust from Foster could be the blow that finally sinks this ship.
If he shines: Then opposing defenses might as well just give up.
No non-quarterback has the potential to single-handedly decide a game the way Johnson does, and even few of them have the ability to exploit a defensive mismatch the way Megatron has all season.
Johnson has been the scorer in almost 35 percent of his offense’s touchdowns this season.
He has 14 of them so far—four more than any other receiver in the league—and he’s scored at least one of them in nine of the 14 games the Lions have played.
He’s scored them against good defenders, bad defenders, multiple defenders and no defenders.
And if he’s able to score them in the postseason with the same ease he has during the regular season, the Lions will be a very tough team to beat.
If he slumps: Then for the 500th season in a row, this won’t be the Lions’ year.
As Megatron goes, so go the Lions.
In Detroit’s nine victories, Calvin Johnson averages 101 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game. In their five losses, he averages 85 yards and 0.4 touchdowns.
The Lions rely on Johnson’s big plays far too much to function offensively without him.
In their losses, they’ve scored only 16 points on average and never produced more than 19 in any single game.
In their wins, they’re a completely different team, blowing up for 35 points per game, including three trips over the 45-point mark.
If the Lions earn a spot in the playoffs but Calvin Johnson fails to make the trip, that low-scoring version is bound to make an appearance, and another playoffs failure for Detroit will be all but guaranteed.
If he shines: Then we should be in store for one extremely exciting postseason.
Brees has been the catalyst of a dominant Saints offense that has exploded this season for outputs of 40, 42, 49 and an astonishing 62 points.
The only time New Orleans has scored more than 21 points and lost was in Week 1 against the defending Super Bowl Champions, Green Bay, who went on to win their next 12 games in a row after that.
They have quality wins against top-tier competition like Houston, Chicago (while Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were both healthy), Atlanta, Detroit and the Giants, and they won those games on average by more than 13 points.
If Brees is hot, the points are going to start piling up fast, and every opponent New Orleans faces will be forced to decide—either start scoring fast or go home early.
If he slumps: Then the Saints will probably lose decidedly.
It’s really hard to imagine that happening, as the Saints have scored at least 20 points in every game all season, and it’s really hard to picture what it would look like if it did, as Brees will probably have thrown for more passing yards this season than anyone ever has by the time the playoffs kick off.
But if it does, New Orleans will probably struggle, too.
The Saints have allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the league. Aaron Rodgers, an opponent New Orleans will likely face if it advances far enough in the playoffs, already torched them for 312 yards and three touchdowns earlier this season.
In last year’s playoffs, the Saints lost even after Brees gave them 400 yards and two touchdowns against the 9-7 Seahawks and, were it not for another of the quarterback’s patented All-Pro performances, that game probably would’ve gone down as a bona fide blowout.
Without a generous boost from Brees, the Saints don’t have a chance.
If he shines: Then we know exactly what’s going to happen, because we’ve seen it time and time again—the Patriots will go to the Super Bowl.
Shining in the playoffs is just what Brady does.
It’s his calling card. His specialty. His claim to fame.
If he gets hot this winter, he’ll be in position to make his fifth career Super Bowl appearance (only John Elway has started in as many) and, if he gets really hot, he just might win his fourth in 11 seasons, which would tie the all-time record currently shared by only Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
There’s no reason to expect that Tom Terrific won’t have a fantastic postseason this year, either.
He’s having one of his best statistical regular seasons ever right now—which means a lot for a quarterback as ridiculously accomplished as Brady—and he’s on pace for a career high in both yards and completions.
If he slumps: Then the Patriots will have trouble keeping up with the fine-tuned offenses they’ll inevitably face in the playoffs.
This is not one of those times.
New England is allowing more passing yards and total yards per game than any team in the league this season.
That’s right—statistically they’re the worst of the worst, and even though they have the best record in their conference, offenses they would normally devour have been taking advantage of the Patriots defense all season long.
Jason Campbell threw for almost 350 yards against them in Week 4. Dan Orlovsky passed the 350-mark when he played this defense in Week 13, and that was after Vince Young had just ripped them apart for 400 yards one week prior.
So far, this glaring weakness has been little more than a frustrating side note to yet another successful regular season, but you have to figure it will come back to bite them in the playoffs at some point, as the competition they’ll face will be consistently stiff and the offenses racking up all those yards against them will be much more efficient at converting them to points (despite allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game, New England has only allowed 21 points per game on average this year).
This D will need Tom Brady’s magnificence in order to survive this postseason.
If they don’t get it, the Pats are toast.
If he shines: Then this will probably be remembered as the most predictable postseason in NFL history.
When Aaron Rodgers is playing football at his best, it’s like watching Michelangelo paint a portrait.
It’s indefensible. Mistake-free. Awe-inspiring.
And the really crazy part?
We’ve been seeing it from the quarterback in almost every single game he’s played for nearly a year and a half now.
What will happen if Aaron Rodgers shines this postseason?
The same thing that happened when Aaron Rodgers shined last postseason, and earlier this season, and in all but one of the last 20 meaningful games the soon-to-be All-Pro has played in—the Green Bay Packers will walk away victorious.
Count on it.
If he slumps: Then last week’s puzzling collapse against Kansas City will be remembered as more than just a minor blemish on an otherwise dominant season.
Aaron Rodgers was invisible against the Chiefs.
He set or tied season lows for completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and passer rating that day, and it was the first time all year that the man has looked remotely human.
Fortunately for the Packers, even after that surprising loss, there’s still no reason to assume the quarterback is any less capable of victimizing opponents today than he was a week ago.
Still, if either of the Packers’ remaining opponents are able to duplicate the kind of success KC had against A-Rodge on Sunday, that all could change in an instant.
When you have the top-rated quarterback in all of football, you need him to execute in order to succeed. Your team becomes accustomed to that generous little cushion, and it struggles to perform well when it doesn’t have it (see: 2011 Indianapolis Colts).
When Aaron Rodgers plays well, the Green Bay Packers are a level above every other team.
When he doesn’t, anything’s possible.
Like it wasn’t already.
Follow me on Twitter: @RussPunt