With three weeks remaining in the NFL's regular season, here's a list of 10 players who figure to have a huge impact on the playoff picture. For obvious reasons, quarterbacks were excluded from this list:
[ Related: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
1. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace: With the Steelers, Ravens, Patriots and Texans tied atop the AFC at 10-3, the jockeying for position is obvious. Sure, home-field advantage isn't always crucial to making the Super Bowl, but it doesn't hurt. And going on the road – where line communication is more difficult – could be problematic for a Steelers team with a banged-up O-line. If Pittsburgh is going to win in San Francisco on Monday night, Wallace is going to have to play exceptionally well because the Steelers have become a pass-first team with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If the Steelers win, they're eyeing a 13-3 record as they finish with St. Louis and Cleveland. Any slip by Baltimore could give the Steelers the AFC North crown and likely one of the top two seeds in the AFC. But the AFC picture isn't the only thing Wallace can impact. The 49ers are desperately trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The 49ers are tied with the Saints at 10-3 and having to go on the road to New Orleans in the second round could be brutal for them.
2. Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice: As much as people talk about the Baltimore defense and quarterback Joe Flacco, getting Rice involved is paramount to the Ravens' success. Baltimore is 9-0 this season when Rice carries the ball 18 times or more. When he's below that, the Ravens are 1-3. During Baltimore's current season-high four-game winning streak, Rice has had at least 20 carries in each game, has rushed for at least 100 yards in three of four games and is coming off the first back-to-back 100-yard games of his career. Expect the Ravens to keep feeding Rice against the desperate San Diego Chargers this weekend as they try to protect their division lead (by virtue of a sweep of Pittsburgh this season). Even more may be asked of the running back in the season finale as the Cincinnati Bengals conceivably fight for their playoff lives.
3. New York Giants WR Hakeem Nicks: Over the past three games, Nicks has re-established himself as the team's best receiver after some inconsistencies and injuries earlier this season. Nicks has 22 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns over that span and appears to be as trusted by quarterback Eli Manning as any receiver Manning has ever had. Nicks nearly led the Giants to a comeback win over the Green Bay Packers with those two scores, then followed that up by gaining a career-high 163 yards in the comeback win at Dallas. But this isn't simply about whether the Giants will be able to outlast Dallas in the NFC East (the teams play one more time on New Year's Day). The Giants also face the cross-Jersey rival Jets on Christmas Eve in the game that could impact whether the Jets make the playoffs. Fantastic stuff.
4. New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis: Speaking of the Jets and their quest for the playoffs, they not only have the Giants in the way, but a really interesting game against the Eagles this Sunday. Look for Revis, who always asks to handle the best opposing receiver, to cover Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson all game long before he takes on Nicks the following week. Those aren't just cool matchups, but integral to whether the Jets will hold off the likes of Cincinnati and the Tennessee Titans for what could be the last playoff spot in the AFC.
5. Denver Broncos LB Von Miller: The likely NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year isn't just an extraordinary pass rusher (12 sacks in 12 games) for a guy his age, he's also good in coverage. Miller has four passes defensed, which is the most on the Broncos for non-defensive backs. Yeah, you've probably heard more about that guy named Tebow – and he has had some great moments – but the consistent element of the Broncos is the defense. In four of the past five games, Denver has limited opponents to 13 points or less. The one exception was the game vs. the Vikings that Miller missed because of injury. Now, Miller's performances don't just potentially impact Denver and the AFC West. With the game this Sunday against New England, Miller and the Broncos could impact what happens at the top of the AFC seedings.
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6. Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh: If Suh is really going to become a leader, he's going to have to get himself under control and lead the Lions through a treacherous run of games to protect their playoff berth. That starts at Oakland on Sunday, where Suh and the Lions can pretty much put the reeling Raiders out of their misery. Then Detroit plays host to San Diego, which may be hanging on for dear life to the playoffs. Finally, the Lions go to Green Bay for the season finale in a game they might have to win. Even if they're not in a must-win situation, beating the Packers would give Detroit a shot of confidence going forward. Likewise, after his two-game suspension and a regression statistically (Suh has just three sacks and 31 tackles this season after posting 10 and 66, respectively, as a rookie in 2009), Suh could use a little jolt, too.
7. Philadelphia Eagles WR DeSean Jackson: Not far behind Suh on the "Need for Redemption" list is Jackson, who has basically made a mockery of his free-agent walk year. With three games remaining, Jackson has only 47 catches, 757 yards and three touchdown receptions – below the pace in yardage and TDs from the previous two seasons. He has been petulant, getting benched for one game for missing a meeting and getting a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a critical game against the Giants. Despite all of that, Jackson not only still has some faint hope of leading the Eagles to the playoffs, but he has games against the Jets and the Dallas Cowboys that could impact what happens in both conferences.
8. New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham: Supremely talented Graham has become the centerpiece of the Saints' attack. He has been held to less than five catches on three occasions. The Saints are 1-2 in those games. They are 9-1 when he catches five or more. Luckily for the Saints, they have three consecutive dome games to finish and need to run the table. If there is one team in the NFC that has the best chance to knock off 13-0 Green Bay on the way to the Super Bowl, it is clearly New Orleans. To do that, the Saints need to avoid having to go on the road twice, which is likely what would happen if they don't overtake San Francisco for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. At No. 3, the Saints would get a home game and then have to play at the 49ers in the second round, assuming they win. The slow track at Candlestick Park is just the kind of situation the Saints hate.
9. Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch: If Lynch doesn't get an endorsement contract from Skittles at the end of the season, both sides are missing a serious opportunity. That said, Lynch not only has a chance to post the best season of his career, but he and the Seahawks could play havoc with the NFC playoff picture. Not so much for themselves (Seattle is a long shot for the playoffs, at best), but they play both Chicago, which is trying to hang on, and San Francisco, which is trying to prevent a late-season slump that could ruin the great strides it made. Lynch has truly been a beast of late, rushing for at least 100 yards in five of the past six games. Seattle has won four of those. Overall, when Lynch has rushed for 70 yards or more, the Seahawks are 6-2. They are 0-5 in all other games.
10. Jared Allen DE Minnesota Vikings: Allen has a serious chance to duplicate the ignominious feat of former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy by being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year while playing for a truly awful team. In 1992, Seattle finished 2-14, but Kennedy won the award. Allen may be even more deserving by the end of the season. With 18 sacks, he has a reasonable chance of breaking Michael Strahan's record of 22 in 2001. However, Allen has a chance to do something important by impacting the playoff race over the final three weeks. The 2-11 Vikings face both New Orleans and Chicago over the final three weeks. That's spoiler city in an otherwise spoiled season.
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