By Steve Silverman
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Many experts tend to oversimplify and focus their attention on the quarterback matchups in playoff games. There’s no argument that the play of Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning will go a long way in determining their teams’ success, but there is a slew of key players who don’t take snaps from center that will play major roles in the outcome of the divisional playoffs.
Some of them are obvious, but several others tend to get overlooked because they don’t score touchdowns or dominate the highlight films.
Here’s a look at the non-quarterbacks who are likely to have impact roles in the NFL’s divisional playoffs.
Baltimore at New England
Baltimore OG Marshal Yanda – He may be the best run-blocking guard in the NFL. If you want to know why Justin Forsett went from a journeyman backup running back to a star this year, the primary reason may be Yanda. He is a sharp and aggressive blocker, and if he is on top of his game Saturday the Ravens will have a running game against the New England Patriots.
Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – Mosley is not an unknown, but he hasn’t gotten anywhere near the publicity he deserves. He led the Ravens with 133 tackles and has rapidly become the heart and soul of the Ravens’ defense. Athletic and fast, Mosley is excellent in the passing game as well as a legitimate run stuffer.
New England RBs Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount – The focus is always on Brady, but if Gray and Blount can give the Patriots a few big running plays early in the game, that could take the heart right out of the Baltimore defense. The return of Haloti Ngata makes it difficult to run between the tackles against the Ravens, but Gray and Blount both have beastly tendencies and will attempt to impose their will.
New England CB Darrelle Revis – You can’t overstate how much Revis means to the Patriots. It’s not that Revis is going to make so many big plays against the Ravens; it’s that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is going to want to avoid confronting Revis on a regular basis. Baltimore wideouts Torrey Smith and Steve Smith Sr. are both game warriors, but neither will do well against Revis.
Carolina at Seattle
Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart – Perhaps no player has a tougher assignment in the divisional playoffs than Stewart, because he has to give the Panthers a running game against the top-rated Seattle defense. That may be impossible, but Stewart comes into this game with a head of steam after rushing for 123 yards vs. Arizona in the wild-card round.
Carolina LB Thomas Davis – When the Chicago Bears were playing marauding defense several years ago, linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs were the key players. Carolina’s most impactful defensive players are Davis and MLB Luke Kuechly. Davis is by far the most underrated of the two, and he is a lights-out hitter who almost never gets fooled. He will have his hands filled trying to slow down Marshawn Lynch.
Seattle WR Doug Baldwin – On the surface, Baldwin does not look like a big-time receiver who can turn a game around. However, Baldwin was the Seahawks’ leading receiver after catching 66 passes for 825 yards and three touchdowns this season. Baldwin does not have All-Pro numbers, but he will catch the ball in traffic, take the hit and run after the catch. He keeps drives going for Pete Carroll.
Seattle LB Bobby Wagner – Why were the Seahawks an ordinary defensive team at midseason, but the league’s best by the end of the year? Because Wagner was healthy at the end of the season and he returned to the lineup. Wagner is a throwback player who could have starred in any generation. He had 104 tackles in 11 games, three fewer than team leader K.J. Wright, who played in all 16 games. Wagner simply doesn’t miss, and he excels at stopping drives with his aggressive hitting.
Dallas at Green Bay
Dallas OLT Tyron Smith – The Cowboys needed to establish the running game this year so they could win the time-of-possession battle and keep from overworking their defense. Smith is the best run blocker in the NFL, and he also excels at pass blocking. He has excellent technique and a nasty streak that allows him to finish his blocks by putting defensive linemen on their backs.
Dallas SS Barry Church – He led the Cowboys in tackles with 97 stops, but Church is more like a captain in the secondary. He does an excellent job of positioning the other defensive backs, and then supporting them as much as possible. Church has excellent range, and he may look like he is out of a play, but he finds a way to make the tackle.
Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy – Lacy has emerged as a major force in the Packers’ offense over the last years, and with Rodgers battling a calf injury, he’ll take on an even greater role in this game. The more the Packers can do on the ground, the better off Rodgers and the Packers’ offense will be.
Green Bay LB Julius Peppers – Clay Matthews is the star of the Packers’ defense, and his ability to get to the quarterback is vital. However, Peppers has been a playmaker throughout his career. The Packers need him to get to Romo, bat down passes, force fumbles and recover them to give Green Bay the edge it needs.
Indianapolis at Denver
Indianapolis RB Dan “Boom” Herron – The Colts have come to the conclusion that Trent Richardson is a bust at the running back slot, but they have hope that Herron can get the job done. Herron ran for 56 yards and a touchdown in the wild-card win over the Bengals, and he averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He’s a legitimate threat, but he must prove to be a game-changing factor against the Denver defense.
Indianapolis OLB Bjoern Werner – The Colts don’t have a game-changing pass rusher. Werner had just 4.0 sacks during the regular season, but he has the speed to turn the corner. Chuck Pagano needs him to put pressure on Manning if the Colts are going to have a legitimate chance.
Denver RB C.J. Anderson – He may be the most underrated player in the postseason. Manning struggled down the stretch, and he may or may not be limited as the Broncos begin their playoff run. However, the Broncos want to run the ball during the postseason, and Anderson ran for 849 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Anderson finishes his runs with authority, and he can deliver big plays.
Denver CB Aqib Talib – Talib has been one of the best cover corners in the league, but he is not in the same category as Revis. He can make big plays, but he can also get beaten. He needs to be at his sharpest if the Broncos are going to have a long run.
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