NFL Playoffs 2013: Key Player in Each Wild-Card Weekend Matchup

Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 09:  Quarterback Christian Ponder #7 of the Minnesota Vikings throws against the Chicago Bears at Mall of America Field on December 9, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Each Wild Card Weekend matchup will come down to a few key decisions, plays and players.

There are no more cupcake games. Every team in the NFL playoffs is talented and eager to claim this year's Super Bowl trophy.

Eight teams begin that path on Saturday and Sunday. Their chance to move on will come down to one player's ability to thrive on the big stage.

Let's take a look at the key player in each Wild Card Weekend matchup.


Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have talented wide receivers, a capable offensive line and an underrated defense. Beating the Houston Texans comes down to Andy Dalton.

Dalton has been very good at times this season, but he did have 16 interceptions. He tends to make bad decisions at times, frustrating fans because he shows flashes of franchise-caliber play.

Houston is going to present a challenge for Dalton by sending a consistent amount of exotic blitzes in his direction. The Texans can also lock A.J. Green and Co. down on the outside, so Dalton's ability to run through his progressions under pressure will be tested.

If Dalton turns the ball over, the Bengals won't advance to the divisional round. But, if he can keep his head on straight and play smart, Cincinnati has a very good chance of sending Houston home early.


Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings

No one has to worry about Adrian Peterson and what he will provide on the ground versus the Green Bay Packers. He made that very obvious in Week 17.

But Ponder is a different story. It's not that he's a terrible quarterback, but he doesn't provide any sort of big-play threat. Part of that has to do with his receiving corps, but a lot of that also has to do with his arm strength and thought process.

He has 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the season. He's averaging just over six yards per completion though, which tends to handcuff Minnesota's offense at times.

The Vikings will have to score to beat the Packers because Aaron Rodgers won't be completely shut down.

Peterson is going to do his part, but Ponder must contribute a few big plays of his own if Minnesota wants to advance.


Vick Ballard, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck, even as a rookie, will be expected to perform well on Wild Card Weekend. Vick Ballard doesn't carry the same expectations, but he's another important rookie in the Colts offense.

Ballard only has two touchdowns this season, but he racked up over 800 yards while splitting carries with Donald Brown. Indianapolis' rushing offense is only ranked 22nd in the NFL, but that doesn't mean it's not effective.

The Baltimore Ravens have struggled against the run this season, and Ballard will present a challenge. He's a strong, north-south runner who knows how to keep his legs churning after contact.

It's not pretty, but he gets the job done.

For the Colts to score a big win on the road, the offense must stay balanced. Baltimore will adjust to stopping Luck sooner or later, using its playoff experience to its advantage, but Ballard can keep the defense on their heels.

If he can do that, the Colts have a great chance at pulling the upset.


Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington Redskins

The Seattle Seahawks and the Redskins have each caught fire at the right time, but only one team will advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.

Seattle knows that its defense is the key to everything, and that starts with the cornerback play on the outside. Richard Sherman and Co. will be a tough matchup for every Redskins receiver, leaving the slot as the only vulnerable spot on the field.

That's where Garcon comes in. Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan will have their hands full on the perimeter, so Garcon must find the creases underneath the Seahawks defense.

Garcon has battled injuries this season, but he's still a trusted target. He finished the year with 600-plus yards and four touchdowns.

Washington will have to find ways to move the ball, and Garcon's ability to run after the catch will come in handy.

If he can break a few big plays, the Redskins' hot streak should continue.