Playoffs' most important players

For the season, Boldin's plus-20.3 receiving grade ranked third among wide receivers; he caught 85 passes for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. Though he wasn't as sure-handed as last season, when he dropped only two of 67 catchable passes for a league-best drop rate of 2.99 percent, he still ranked 13th in 2013 with six drops on 91 attempts. Boldin does a lot of his damage in the slot, where he lines up 48 percent of the time, as his 2.88 yards/route run leads the league. While Kaepernick has two other strong targets in Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, Boldin may be the best chain-mover of the bunch and will be relied on heavily throughout the rest of the playoffs.

Carolina Panthers

It's difficult to pinpoint just one standout from the Panthers' defense, and while LB Luke Kuechly is certainly the quarterback of one of the league's top units, it's DE Greg Hardy's pass-rushing that might be most important to Carolina's success this postseason. His plus-27.0 grade tops the defense and ranks third among 4-3 defensive ends, and he has shown well both as a pass-rusher at plus-15.4 and as a run-stopper at plus-12.6. While he has been one of Carolina's most consistent performers all season, he took his game to a new level the last two weeks of the regular season to help the Panthers ensure their first-round bye. He graded at plus-12.0 over his last two games with seven sacks, five QB hits and 10 hurries to lead the Panthers to two important victories.

While he's primarily a defensive end, Hardy is capable of rushing from a number of places along the defensive line, often lining up inside, where he has recorded 24 of his 82 pressures this season. His ability to move allows fellow defensive end Charles Johnson to stay at his more natural left end spot, where he's also one of the league's best off the edge. The Panthers' front seven is as formidable as any in the league and Hardy has been their top performer this season.

Seattle Seahawks

Is there really an indispensable player on the league's most loaded defense? It's difficult to find a player or two whose loss would hurt Seattle's chances more than others, but the first two that come to mind are CB Richard Sherman and FS Earl Thomas. While both are among the best players at their respective positions, given the injuries the Seahawks have faced at cornerback, Sherman's presence may be more vital to ensure Seattle's success. He locks down one side of the Seahawks' defense, rarely straying from his perch at left cornerback, so while opposing quarterbacks know exactly where he's going to be, they've still had the audacity to challenge him 58 times this season -- with eight interceptions to show for it. His plus-8.8 coverage grade ranks sixth among cornerbacks, and he has surrendered only 0.77 yards/cover snap, good for second in the league.

While Sherman isn't deployed in the same manner as other top cornerbacks who track opposing top wide receivers, his presence on the left side allows Thomas to make best use of his freelancing style. Both the Seahawks and their opponents know the left side is well-manned by Sherman, and sometimes we don't even see much of Seattle's top defensive player if opposing quarterbacks choose to avoid him altogether.

New Orleans Saints

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