Everywhere you look there are narratives left, right and center throughout this NFL playoffs series. The Patriots seemingly had this Super Bowl in the bag, but fast forward 4 losses in 6 and all of a sudden the other contenders smell blood in the water. No one rates Carolina or Kansas despite the fact they’re winning games for fun. The Steelers and Seahawks are dangerous opposition and the Redskins and Vikings will see this as a chance to shock football.
But put all of that aside. This game is about the players. Some of them may have a Super Bowl to look back on, some might even have multiple Super Bowls. Once you have a taste for it, that is all you want. Don’t think for a moment Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski won’t have a point to prove post Deflategate. How does Russell Wilson and Seattle respond after that finish to last season? How does AJ McCarron fill the sizeable boots of Andy Dalton? The pressure is immense because this is life and death for pro footballers.
We’ve seen how ruthless team owners are when it comes to falling short of the playoff barrier. From the Dolphins to Buccaneers, Giants, Browns, 49ers, Eagles and whoever else is about to get the chop before post season is over, the expectation to make your NFL side a winning brand is paramount. When we boil down the collective pressure, the weight ultimately falls on the key players of every franchise.
32 teams started 2015 and only 12 remain. Not all of them had visions of a Super Bowl win, they weren’t naïve enough to think they could get to the big dance. But all of them had the hope of competing for a playoff berth and once you’re there, anything can happen. So this is it guys – careers and reputations are on the line because this is what they practice for, this is what they get up for every day.
Here are the top 15 players playing for their lives this NFL playoff series in 2016.
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15 Cam Newton
The favorite to take out the MVP of the entire league, Cam Newton is the star quarterback of the best team in the competition over the regular season. But does anybody seriously consider the Carolina Panthers a genuine shot at the Super Bowl in 2016? If you listen to commentators and analysts across the country then many will say the North Carolina franchise doesn’t have the offensive weapons to do it, putting all of the hopes of the team to win their inaugural title on Cam’s shoulders. If Newton doesn’t guide the Panthers to the Super Bowl now, after dropping just the one game all season, then he may never be back again if he stays with the franchise.
14 Carson Palmer
This is a great time to be an Arizona Cardinals fan. The team is ticking over beautifully, going under the radar in many respects, and one of the key cogs in that machine is the form of Carson Palmer. The QB has a lot of weapons in his armory, but this is a campaign he cannot let go by without a Super Bowl. At 36 the 2003 number 1 draft pick has a lot of personal accolades and College victories, yet at the NFL during his time with the Bengals, Raiders and now Cardinals he hasn’t enjoyed the ultimate level of success.
13 Eddie Lacy
The Packers are in for a brutal battle against the Washington Redskins on the road this weekend. The NFC North outfit are regulars in post season football, but their 20-13 loss against bitter rivals Minnesota in the final week of the regular season should have Packers fans worried about the teams hopes. Time and time again they threw to 25-year old running back Eddie Lacy, a man who has struggled to keep a healthy playing weight but is arguably the most reliable man Aaron Rodgers can use as an offensive weapon. If defensive coordinators find a way to shut him down, then Packer Nation has no hope.
12 Alex Smith
Few teams will fancy their chances on the road like the Kansas City Chiefs away at Houston on Saturday night. 10 wins on the bounce has the team in incredible form, having blown away the Ravens, Raiders, Chargers, Lions and even the Broncos. 31-year old quarterback Alex Smith is at the heart of all this as the boy from Bremerton, Washington looks to take the Chiefs to the promised land for the first time since 1969. Smith was warming the bench when he was with the 49ers for their latest Super Bowl, so this is his time to shine.
11 Aqib Talib
Is Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib a bad luck charm or what? The decorated 3 time Pro Bowl player started at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008 for 4 seasons only 6 years after the Florida outfit lifted the Super Bowl. A switch to the New England Patriots from 2012-13 came to a quick end and as soon as he was cut, guess what – the Pats win a title. Now at Denver, the Orange Crush is desperate to add to their glory days in 1997 and 1998. Should the Broncos fall short, the temptation to sack Talib might be too much if the people at Denver HQ are superstitious.
10 Larry Fitzgerald
Will Larry Fitzgerald ever get a better time to lift that first ever Super Bowl title? The 32-year old wide receiver is far closer to retirement than when he started as a rookie, as the unbelievable record of 9 Pro Bowls means little when you can’t enjoy the pinnacle of the sport as a collective. Aside from the Cardinals spanking at the hands of Seattle last week, Arizona is as well positioned to win on the last Sunday as they have ever been. So much will depend upon Fitzgerald playing to his optimum to achieve that.
9 Rob Gronkowski
This superstar tight end is such a key weapon for Patriots, he is almost on a parallel to Tom Brady for importance of a single position on the New England roster. When he sat out due to injury this season, the favorites suffered significantly, even dropping a game to the Miami Dolphins of all teams! If the 26-year old missile on legs isn’t in the devastating form we’ve seen him destroy defenses before, then it’s almost impossible to see the Pats go back-to-back. He’s just that important.
8 Adrian Peterson
No one outside of Minnesota has ever got giddy over the Vikings in the NFL. They’ve never blown anyone away because they’re a fiercely tribal bunch who represent their turf well, but not much else. So now they’ve conquered their divisional rivals in the form of the Packers and face a home clash with the Seahawks. It’s expected to be freezing cold, but the pressure will be red hot. So much rests on Adrian Peterson to tick off the yards to kill Seattle play by play. After the child abuse controversy which put his name on front and back pages for all the wrong reasons, this is his moment to at least redeem himself on the football field. Many will hate him regardless, but at 30 this could be his final shot.
7 Russell Wilson
If the Vikings defensive line isn’t ready to play on Sunday, then Russell Wilson will carve Minnesota to shreds. However, if they blitz the quarterback and put the Seahawks off their game, Seattle has enormous problems. Wilson is the poster boy of the franchise so the 27-year old is central to all of Pete Carroll’s plans. Should he add to his 2013 Super Bowl, Wilson will have to bury the demons of last season where it all fell apart spectacularly on a single play call. There is only one tonic to righting that wrong.
6 DeAngelo Williams
The short term news isn’t reassuring for DeAngelo Williams and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dreaded running back is recovering from an ankle injury and if the team falls to bitter rivals Cincinnati this weekend, we won’t see any Williams in the playoffs. The 32-year old was a big star in Carolina, but couldn’t lift the franchise beyond mediocrity. How could he cover if they go all the way shortly after letting him go? The Steelers need his dynamism if they seriously want to contend for February, that’s just a fact.
5 Kirk Cousins
Oh we do like that Kirk! The Redskins quarterback became an internet sensation after that outburst towards the press, telling anyone who would listen that he’s the man to take the franchise to playoff glory as RG3 sits out. Going into the season as one of the most maligned franchises in the sport, one on account of the controversy over their name and again for having a mediocre roster, all of a sudden they finish top of the NFC East and have a home game against the Packers. Cousins now runs the show, so if he wants people to keep “liking that,” then he has to deliver the goods.
4 JJ Watt
He’s a future Hall of Fame inductee waiting to happen, but as good as JJ Watt is, he’s playing in an ordinary football team. Even that description feels generous given their performances this season because the team that was followed on Hard Knocks in 2015 limped to the AFC South division at 9-7 beating out a horrible collection of the Colts, Jags and Titans. Houston will be desperate for their star 26-year old defensive end to shut down one of the hottest offenses in the sport in the form of the Chiefs this weekend. JJ will take all of the personal accolades and awards from now until retirement, but a big upset run towards the Super Bowl in 2016 would surpass it all.
3 AJ McCarron
Andy Dalton leaves an enormous void in the Bengals lineup, although some observers think the ginger QB buckles under the pressure of playoff football. That’s a fair assumption to make given the fact Cincinnati haven’t tasted a post season win in decades. The 25-year old replacement quarterback is slotting into a team full of talent but void of experience in winning at this time of the year. The kid can throw a touchdown pass as good as anyone right now, yet the gravity of leading this side could hit McCarron like a ton of bricks once he realizes the pressure of the situation.
2 Tom Brady
Regardless of whether Tom Brady puts a helmet on ever again, the decorated QB will still be in the discussion of the greatest players of all time. For all his success gone before, this might be the 38-year olds final shot at a Super Bowl because time waits for no man. After Deflategate, the game changed. People saw the man and the franchise in a different light so the idea that Brady will come into this playoff series like it’s just another set of games is fanciful.
1 Peyton Manning
The word is in – Peyton Manning is starting at quarterback for the Denver Broncos for the divisional round next weekend. The will-he won’t-he choice between him and Brock Osweiler is apparently settled, at least in the short term. But considering where Peyton is at, written off by many in sundry as a has-been and recovering from a public accusation over a drug scandal, then the picture for Manning is a complicated one. At 39 he appears stubborn to go on so this might not be the last time we see him. Given the history of football though, this looks like Peyton’s final chance at glory.
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