Playoffs' most important players

T.Y. Hilton

There's no doubt that the NFL is driven by quarterbacks, perhaps the most important position in sports, but the playoffs have to be more than a one-man operation. While the signal-callers will lead the way, and each one is a three-game hot stretch away from a championship, we'll likely look back at the playoffs and pinpoint one of his top playmakers or perhaps a defensive teammate who played a major role in the team's Super Bowl run. With quarterbacks removed from the equation, here's a look at the most indispensable players for the remaining playoff teams.

Indianapolis Colts

Just one week removed from a dominant performance by T.Y. Hilton, it's fairly obvious that he is quarterback Andrew Luck's favorite, and most important, target. He caught 13 passes for 224 yards in the wild-card round against the Kansas City Chiefs just a week after catching 11 passes for 155 yards in the regular-season finale. Perhaps most important is his ability to fill a variety of roles within the Colts' offense. When dependable wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down to injury in Week 7, Luck lost his slot receiver and most trusted target, but Hilton has been able to fill a portion of Wayne's role by lining up in the slot 56 percent of the time since he was hurt.

It's rare to find a receiver who is capable of working in a move-the-chains role while doubling as an outside deep threat, but that's exactly what Hilton has done, as evidenced by his 64-yard, game-winning touchdown a week ago. For the season, Hilton ranks 18th in the league with 2.03 yards/route run overall, and that number jumps to 2.20 while in the slot, good for third in the league. Beyond Hilton, the Colts are thin at the position with the inexperienced but promising LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers rounding out the depth chart. So look for Hilton to be leaned on heavily if the Colts expect to advance this week and beyond.

New England Patriots

It's been a tale of two seasons for cornerback Aqib Talib in 2013. But his dominance in the first half of the season proved his worth for the New England secondary. His plus-8.2 grade through six games was among the best in the league, but he has appeared in only seven games since and graded at minus-8.5. He has clearly been a shell of his early-season self, but a return to the dominance that saw him take on the likes of Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham and A.J. Green will give the Patriots a major weapon on the back end of the defense. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is not usually one to flip his cornerbacks in order to match up with the opponent's top receiver, but Talib's skills have prompted Belichick to use the tactic since last year's regular-season matchup against the Houston Texans and Andre Johnson. If Talib is back to the health that saw him surrender only 39.3 percent of passes into his coverage at 5.6 yards/attempt as opposed to his 65.7 percent and 10.8 yards/attempt in the season's second half, this could be the most dangerous defense the Patriots have brought to the playoffs in years.

San Diego Chargers

It was a rocky start for the Chargers' defense, but the team's late-season surge has coincided with improvement on that side of the ball. The undisputed leader is free safety Eric Weddle, who has taken on a multitude of roles this year. In addition to being San Diego's highest-graded defensive player at plus-11.3, Weddle has played all over the field this season after being deployed mostly in a traditional free safety role last year. He has played 44.7 percent of his snaps at free safety, 44.3 percent at strong safety and 10.0 percent covering the slot after aligning at free safety 76.0 percent of the time with limited time in other roles in 2012.

What does this mean for the Chargers' defense? Weddle provides as much range as any safety in the league when playing deep, but he brings linebacker-like skills when playing in the box while also showing the ability to match up with tight ends and slot receivers. His plus-9.5 coverage grade ranks seventh, but San Diego will also blitz him quite a bit; his 50 pass rushes rank fourth. He has gotten home, as well, notching a sack, two hits and eight hurries. Weddle is a rare talent who is comfortable playing deep or in the box, and his performance will be instrumental to San Diego's playoff chances.

Denver Broncos

With QB Peyton Manning leading the offense, it's hard to find anyone more indispensable than him, but the key to the Broncos' depleted defense is the stability provided by CB Chris Harris. While he generally lines up over the slot, Harris has taken on a much bigger role on the outside since Week 8 on his way to leading the Broncos with 1,059 defensive snaps. His plus-10.9 overall grade ranks ninth among cornerbacks, and he shows well both in coverage (plus-7.3) and against the run (plus-1.9). When lined up over the slot, he has surrendered only 1.10 yards/cover snap, and opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating of only 65.6 when throwing into his slot coverage.

Denver's defense took a major blow when it lost All-Pro linebacker Von Miller to a season-ending knee injury, but Harris may be the next-most-important player on that side of the ball. With players like Hilton, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Eddie Royal manning the slot for the AFC's remaining teams, Harris will be challenged to maintain his status as one of the league's best slot cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers

A loaded 49ers defense should have the depth to handle any attrition it may encounter, but the offense has had its ups and downs throughout the season and WR Anquan Boldin is one of the keys to making it tick. It could easily be argued that WR Michael Crabtree is the 49ers' best wide receiver as he's quarterback Colin Kaepernick's favorite target, and Crabtree certainly creates separation as well as any wideout in the league, but we don't have to travel back far in time to see just how valuable Boldin is to a playoff offense. He was QB Joe Flacco's top target during the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl run last year, making big-time, contested catches throughout the playoffs. So while Crabtree is the best at getting open, Boldin makes the difficult plays when everyone is covered, and he's a necessary outlet for Kaepernick.

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

Even with QB Drew Brees at the helm and a number of respectable receiving targets, TE Jimmy Graham is one of the league's most difficult matchups and the biggest key to New Orleans' offense. Coach Sean Payton does a great job of moving Graham around the formation to dictate matchups against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs. He led all tight ends with a plus-19.8 receiving grade while also topping the position with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. No other tight end came close to his production this season.

Graham pairs with running back Darren Sproles as two movable chess pieces who must be accounted for by opposing defenses. Both players are as efficient in their more traditional positioning as they are out wide or in the slot, making game-planning a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. Graham's ability in the red zone could be the X factor for New Orleans, as the Saints will often split him out wide with an option to run a slant or a fade that is nearly impossible to defend. While Brees is one of the league's best at spreading the ball around to his many options, Graham is clearly his favorite and most important target.

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