Ranking the top offensive talent left in NFL's playoff field
Ray Rice was already a threat on multiple fronts, but he added goal-line carries to his repertoire this year, making him more dangerous. (Getty Images)
The amount of elite talent still alive in the NFL playoffs is staggering, and you can find it all over the field.
Who are the best players remaining in the postseason field? Here's a breakdown of how the talent ranks on offense, with the defensive rankings to follow tomorrow:
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: Not only is Rodgers a defending Super Bowl champ and likely MVP, his numbers this season were just plain silly. He set the NFL single-season mark for highest QB rating at 122.5, threw for 4,643 yards and had a 45-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio. There is not a player in the NFL operating at a higher frequency right now.
2. Drew Brees, Saints: All Brees did this season was set the record for most yards passing (5,476). He had eight more interceptions than Rodgers but also threw 155 more passes. Brees is also red hot -- he finished the season with 14 TD passes over his final three regular season games, then put up 466 yards and three scores vs. Detroit.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots: Given his sensational career, having Brady come in third on any list seems somewhat absurd, but that gives you some indication the talent level at this position around the league. Brady also broke Dan Marino's long-standing single-season passing yards mark in 2011, though he finished a little more than 200 yards behind Brees. When the game's on the line, few have been better in NFL history.
4. Eli Manning, Giants: Even though it often feels like he can do no right in the home fans' eyes, Manning continues to get better and better. He might be just good enough to give the Giants a chance in Green Bay on Sunday.
5. Joe Flacco, Ravens: What?! No Tim Tebow?! To be fair, this fifth spot came down to Flacco and Tebow, with the deciding factor being Flacco's run of success over four seasons, compared to Tebow's recent burst. Still, this is a big postseason for Flacco, who needs to prove he can get Baltimore over the top.
1. Ray Rice, Ravens: Rice is an absolute marvel to watch. Not only has he topped 1,200 yards each of the past three seasons, he's averaged 72 catches per year. Rice is an amazing dual-threat player, and the Ravens entrusted him with more goal-line carries this season, leading to a career-high 12 touchdowns.
2. Arian Foster, Texans: Everything Rice is to the Ravens, Foster is to the Texans. One year after leading the NFL in rushing, Foster piled up 1,224 yards this season, plus 53 receptions for 617 yards. He's a perfect fit for Houston's unique blocking schemes.
3. Frank Gore, 49ers: When he's healthy -- and, compared to previous seasons, he was in tip-top shape in 2011 -- there are few backs that run with the combination of speed and power that Gore does. After six seasons languishing on mediocre teams, he's finally getting his moment in the limelight.
4. Darren Sproles, Saints: He's far from a typical running back, but Sproles is as explosive a weapon -- as a runner, receiver and return man -- as there is in the NFL. He had 87 carries this season for 603 yards and 86 receptions for 710 yards, proving how difficult he is for defenses to account for within New Orleans' dynamic attack.
5. Willis McGahee, Broncos: This time it's a Bronco bumping someone out of the top five -- McGahee gets the nod, barely, over New York's Ahmad Bradshaw. Why? Well, after three ho-hum seasons in Baltimore, McGahee revived his career with a 1,199-yard performance in Denver, providing the help Tim Tebow needed out of the backfield.
1. Andre Johnson, Texans: People may have forgotten about Johnson after his injury-riddled 2011 season. When he's healthy, though, Johnson is right up there with Detroit's Calvin Johnson as the league's most-unguardable threats.
2. Wes Welker, Patriots: Another 100-plus catches and nearly 1,600 yards for Welker in 2011. Even with New England's tight ends emerging as steady targets for Brady, Welker continues to carve out a major role in the Patriots' attack.
3. Greg Jennings, Packers: The leader of a loaded group, Jennings simply makes every other receiver on Green Bay better when he's on the field and drawing defensive attention. You could make an argument that Jordy Nelson has surpassed him -- and the stats would back you up, to some extent -- but Jennings is option No. 1 when he's healthy.
4. Marques Colston, Saints: Like Jennings, the most talented member of a ridiculous receiving unit. Colston can go over the middle, burn defenders deep and turn in highlight-reel catches. His numbers would be even bigger if Brees didn't have about a dozen guys to throw to.
5. Victor Cruz, Giants: Talk about a breakthrough season. Cruz came out of nowhere in 2011 to turn the NFC East on its head. Without him the Giants would not have won the division or been in the playoffs.
1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: The NFL's new record holder for single-season yards receiving by a tight end, Gronkowski blew up so much in 2011 that some pundits threw his name into the MVP discussion, alongside Rodgers and Brees.
2. Jimmy Graham, Saints: At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Graham is an athletic marvel. Go ahead and try to defend him -- he's too fast for linebackers to stay with and too big for most safeties. Oh yea, and he'll pop you in the run game, too, if you're not paying attention.
3. Vernon Davis, 49ers: His numbers aren't as eye-popping as some others at this position, but Davis remains a significant threat for the San Francisco passing attack.
4. Owen Daniels, Texans: The guy simply cannot stay healthy. Which is a shame, because there are not a lot of tight ends capable of stretching the field down the middle like Daniels is.
5. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots: Robin to Gronkowski's Batman this season -- though he stole the starring role on more than one occasion. His future is extremely bright.
1. Carl Nicks, Saints: Nicks was joined on the All-Pro first team by his fellow starting guard, Jahri Evans, but if you had to pick one of the two Saints, this is the guy. Brees and the New Orleans passing game steal the headlines, but Nicks is an elite interior lineman.
2. Marshal Yanda, Ravens: What, you didn't think Rice was getting all those yards rushing on his own, did you? Yanda's a rock at right guard, and his performance was actually better than most realize -- on plenty of occasions, he helped cover up Michael Oher's struggles at right tackle.
3. Chris Myers, Texans: Duane Brown was the lone Texans lineman named to the All-Pro roster -- he made it as a second-teamer. But Myers, Houston's center, led the way for the team's run game all season. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the league's best center for the 2011 regular season.
4. Brian Waters, Patriots: This may have been the best free-agent signing no one really talked about last summer. Waters, playing guard on a New England line that could not stay healthy, had a tremendous year, especially as a pass blocker for Brady. 5. Scott Wells, Packers: The Packers' O-line isn't necessarily considered a huge strength, but between Wells at center, Josh Sitton at guard and Bryan Bulaga at tackle, there are at least three exceptionally talented pieces. Wells is an athletic player, who may do his best work when Green Bay runs the ball.