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.
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.
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.