Top 10 Players to Watch in NFL Conference Championships

David McCracken@crackemcFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2016

Top 10 Players to Watch in NFL Conference Championships

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The conference championships are upon us, and the Super Bowl is right around the corner.

    The Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are the final four teams left standing, and some of the best players in the league will dictate whether or not their teams will have an opportunity to compete in the Big Game.

    This list counts down the top 10 players left in the playoffs who will create the biggest impact for their teams. This isn't to say that these are the 10 best players playing this weekend—Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren't on this list—but they each have the opportunity to be difference-makers. 

    Let's get started. 

10. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Malcolm Butler has elevated his game to another level this season as the Patriots' shutdown corner. He will likely be tasked with covering Demaryius Thomas, which leaves Emmanuel Sanders left as the Broncos' X-factor on offense.  

    At 5'11", 180 pounds, Sanders is the smaller of the two, but he is more explosive than Thomas at the wide receiver position. Peyton Manning can spread the ball around as good as anyone when healthy, but it would be wise to focus on delivering the ball to Sanders on a consistent basis. 

    What is likely to happen, however, is that Sanders will begin dominating his matchup down the field, which will force Butler to move over to cover him. If this happens, then it falls on Sanders to give Butler fits and on Thomas to get open. 

    Prediction: Six catches for 70 yards 

9. Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    It's been a bizarre week for Chandler Jones. From his synthetic weed drama to his fitness ahead of the conference championship, Jones just needs to get back to football. 

    Because that's what he does best.

    Jones is one the NFL's best pass-rushers and proved it this season with 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and even an interception, which came against the Denver Broncos back in November. Jones missed two games this season, and injuries have hampered his production so far into his career, as he has played a total of 55 games out of a possible 64.

    Jones would be higher on this list if it was certain that he would play against the Broncos as he nurses abdominal and toe injuries, according to the Patriots' injury report. If he plays, he will be able to disrupt the Broncos' offensive game plan. If he can't, it would make Manning's job a little easier. 

    Prediction: One sack and four total tackles

8. Kurt Coleman, S, Carolina Panthers

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Kurt Coleman has quietly put together one of the best seasons by a defender this year.  

    He recorded seven interceptions this season and has been the last line of safety for the Panthers defense. In addition to his turnovers, Coleman also had 90 tackles during the regular season and eight in the divisional round against the Seattle Seahawks.  

    Coleman, just like any playmaking safety, takes a lot of chances that sometimes pay off and sometimes don't. It's difficult to judge a safety's performance if he continues to give up the big play. Going up against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offense, Coleman's performance will either make or break the Panthers' chances at reaching the Super Bowl.  

    Prediction: Six tackles and one interception

7. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Larry Fitzgerald has had a renaissance season for the Arizona Cardinals.  

    He played the game of his life against the Green Bay Packers last week, catching eight passes for 176 yards and a game-winning touchdown.  

    This week will be different for Fitzgerald, however, as he goes up against Josh Norman and the Carolina Panthers. Norman has been one of the best cover corners, if not the very best, in the league this year, but it is unlikely he will move around the field to follow Fitzgerald all game long since the Cardinals use him in so many ways—he plays the slot and is one of the better run-blocking receivers in the NFL.  

    Carolina's defense is not one to be messed with, but if Norman is preoccupied with the likes of Michael Floyd and John Brown, then Fitzgerald may find some open space downfield.  

    Prediction: Five catches for 40 yards and a touchdown

6. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    David Johnson may be a rookie, but he has played some great football this season for the Cardinals.

    With Chris Johnson on short-term injured reserve, the responsibility fell on Johnson and the rest of the Cardinals offense to pick up his production. Johnson finished the season with 12 total touchdowns (eight rushing, four receiving) and has racked up 1,038 yards (581 rush, 457 receiving). 

    He didn't have a great game against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, so he needs to step up in a big way against the Panthers and their elite linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. 

    The unique aspect of Johnson's game is that he isn't just a running back who can catch passes out of the backfield. He can also line up as a wide receiver and run routes. Johnson is questionable to play but was a participant in practice Wednesday.  

    Prediction: 13 rushes for 54 yards, four catches for 30 yards

5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Arguably the best defensive player in the league, Luke Kuechly is at the epicenter of the Panthers' success on defense. 

    You name it, Kuechly can do it. 

    His abilities in pass coverage are second to none among linebackers in the NFL. His speed and ability to read an offense are what make him a tackling machine, and even though he missed three games this season due to a concussion, he still managed to rack up 118 total tackles. 

    Arizona doesn't have any threatening tight ends on its roster, but it has talented wideouts and Johnson at running back, who can catch out of the backfield and in the slot. However, Kuechly can keep up with receivers and will neutralize the Cardinals backfield. 

    Prediction: 13 tackles and one interception 

4. Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots aren't the same team without Julian Edelman. 

    Edelman is Tom Brady's safety blanket like Wes Welker used to be. Except that Edelman, who hauled in 10 receptions for 100 yards on 16 targets in the divisional round in his first game back from injury, is even more dynamic than Welker ever was during his time in New England.  

    Edelman is a better receiver, runner and return man than Welker and has been huge for the Patriots this season. Those seven games he missed exposed the Patriots' offensive line issues, lack of downfield threats outside of Rob Gronkowski and the inconsistent run game.  

    The Broncos are going to go after Brady with everything they have. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will try to collapse the pocket and set the edge, giving Brady little time to find someone open. Edelman is that receiver who can create separation, and his impact on the game will decide if New England finds itself in the Super Bowl. 

    Prediction: Seven catches for 80 yards and a touchdown

3. T.J. Ward, S, Denver Broncos

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    T.J. Ward and Gronkowski have a history, and that's why he's so high on this list. 

    Ward is a great safety, but Gronkowksi is one of the best tight ends in NFL history. Hitting him low won't change that. But what Ward can do is make life difficult for No. 87. It would be a surprise if the Broncos allowed Ward to be on an island alone with Gronkowski for extended periods of the game, but if Ward can play at the line of scrimmage and get physical with Gronk, then that could make things interesting. 

    The Broncos are a blitz-happy defense, and perhaps no safety in the league hits harder than Ward. After all, he did take out Gronkowski back in 2013, effectively ending his season with a torn ACL and MCL.

    Ward vs. Gronkowski is must-see T.V. this weekend. 

    Prediction: Eight tackles and one forced fumble

2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Gronkowski has been mentioned a couple of times already for good reason: He's that good.

    He's the best tight end in the NFL and has been Brady's No. 1 option for most of the season, especially with Edelman and Danny Amendola out. Gronkowski caught 72 catches for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season. 

    But perhaps the biggest impact Gronkowski had came last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, as he scored two touchdowns on seven catches for 83 yards. He and Edelman are back healthy for the Patriots at the right time, and Gronkowski received even more motivation this past week when Chris Harris Jr. of the Broncos told SportsCenter the best way to tackle Gronkowski is to hit him low at the knees. 

    Unfortunately for Harris and the Broncos, it might be Gronkowski who has the last laugh. 

    Prediction: Nine catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns

1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    It wouldn't be a proper ranking list without Cam Newton at No. 1.

    Newton is the most dynamic football player in the NFL and is the front-runner for MVP honors. He is the outspoken leader for the Panthers and seems to take it all in stride with a smile on his face. Newton didn't have a great game against the Seahawks, but he did enough to put the Panthers in contention for their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003. 

    Newton threw for 3,837 yards and ran for another 636 yards on top of 45 total touchdowns (35 pass, 10 rush) during the regular season. While the Cardinals defense is an aggressive unit and will challenge Newton in the pocket, he has shown he can escape pressure and still make plays down the field.

    Prediction: 300 passing yards, 40 rushing yards, three total touchdowns and one interception