The most important player on the field when the Carolina Panthers travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons and determine the NFC South champions will be one of the least heralded.
When these two teams meet, it would take an average fan some time before naming Panthers cornerback Josh Norman as one of the most vital players on the field.
The conversation would likely start with the quarterbacks, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly would certainly be mentioned. And the Falcons' Julio Jones is always on the tip of everyone's tongue as one of the NFL's best receivers.
However, it will be the man covering Jones who will be crucial if the Panthers plan on making the playoffs this season despite a sub-.500 record.
Norman already developed a healthy respect for the Falcons' top target, per ESPN.com's David Newton:
Oh man, Julio, that's the manimal. That's a man-animal. He is at the top right now. He is classified as one of the best, ultimate competitor. I would put him up there with the likes of [Detroit Lions wide receiver] Calvin Johnson, if not over the top. We know we have a huge challenge in that guy and what he brings and how he imposes his will on defenders.
A year ago, it was unlikely that Norman would ever get the opportunity to become the Panthers' version of a lockdown cornerback.
It's been a circuitous trek for Norman after being a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. The Panthers selected the cornerback 143rd overall in the 2012 draft. The former Chanticleer contributed right away during his rookie season, though.
As a neophyte cover corner out of a FCS-level program, Norman started 12 games for the Panthers in 2012. The rookie was on the field for 88 percent of the total snaps Carolina's defense faced.
Like any first-year player making a giant leap from his previous competition, Norman struggled. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the cornerback graded negatively in six games and received an overall grade of minus-6.6, which ranked 96th out of 113 cornerbacks in the league that year.
Norman showed some promise as a rookie, but it wasn't enough for the Panthers to move forward with him as one of their starters.
During his second season, Norman only played in seven games and was inactive for five more. As the Panthers ascended to become the league's second-best defense, veterans Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence as well as rookie Melvin White received the lion's share of work as the team's top three cornerbacks.
When the team battled salary-cap issues this offseason, Munnerlyn wasn't re-signed, nor was the 33-year-old Florence. Still, Norman wasn't the team's initial answer opposite White.
The organization instead signed Antoine Cason to a one-year deal during the offseason to take over starting duties. The Cason experience didn't go as planned, though. The team abruptly released the seventh-year veteran after a Week 13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
By the time Cason was released, Norman already worked his way back into the starting lineup and assumed primary coverage responsibilities. He's even flourished as Carolina's No. 1 cornerback.
Black & Blue Review illustrated just how effective Norman has been over the second half of the season:
The previous tweet doesn't even include the performance of the Panthers secondary against Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin. Maclin currently ranks eighth among receivers with 1,269 receiving yards. Carolina held the Missouri product to three catches for 38 yards.
When Norman needed to step up his game this season, he excelled.
What makes the young cornerback so effective is threefold. First, Norman has the requisite size and length to be effective against the NFL's top wide receivers. At 6'0" tall with 32.75-inch arms, Norman is considered a big cornerback by league standards. He may not be as big as some of the league's taller targets, but his overall size and length can cause receivers fits.
Norman also uses his size to his advantage. He's a physical cornerback who can win at the line of scrimmage with his jam or be a force on the edge against the run. Norman isn't afraid to blast a receiver or running back when an opportunity presents itself.
Finally, the third-year veteran presents enough athleticism to close ground and still make plays on the ball, even when he's beat. Norman's interception Sunday against the Cleveland Browns was a wonderful example of the cornerback's dropping into zone coverage, recognizing the coverage had been beaten deep, still locating the football and then making a circus catch to secure an interception (see below).
Norman's season will now come full circle with another matchup against Jones.
Despite holding Jones to only six receptions for 59 yards nearly six weeks ago, the second go-round will be a far more difficult assignment.
The Falcons' top target has been playing as well as any wide receiver in the NFL in his last three outings. Jones caught 28 passes for 555 yards in that time. Only a hip injury slowed him in recent weeks, costing him a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, Jones continues to shatter Falcons' receiving records this season and could claim another franchise record against Norman as the Falcons attempt to take the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons football communications coordinator Matt Haley revealed Jones' latest individual goal:
The Falcons wide receiver can be a force of nature when he's on top of his game. It's Norman's job to slow down Jones during their second meeting of the season.
If the cornerback can't perform his duties, it will be a long afternoon for the Panthers defense. A big day from Jones would likely result in a Panthers loss and an unfortunate trip home for the holidays.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.