Thursday January 12th, 2012

He doesn't have the eye-catching numbers of other defensive linemen, but Justin Smith has had a banner year. (Getty Images)

We already took a look at the best offensive players left in the NFL playoff field. Now, it's the defense's turn. Long story short: The eight remaining teams are loaded with talent on that side of the ball, maybe even more so than on offense -- which is saying something given that the Packers, Saints, Patriots and Giants' explosive attacks all remain.

Let's take a look at the best of the best on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive line

1. Justin Smith, 49ers: The guy was just flat-out dominant this season, even if his raw numbers don't match up with Jason Pierre-Paul, No. 2 on this list. Smith was arguably the best player on one of the NFL's best defenses.

2. Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants: Nothing like a 16.5-sack season to jump into the conversation as one of the league's best linemen. Pierre-Paul was simply unblockable at times and usually found a way to make his presence felt in every game.

3. Haloti Ngata, Ravens: Baltimore handed Ngata a huge contract extension, and he repaid that faith. He was constantly in opposing backfields, and he was equally good against the run and pass.

4. Vince Wilfork, Patriots: New England's workhorse in the center of the line, Wilfork does what a good DT should -- eats up space and often requires attention from multiple blockers.

5. Elvis Dumervil, Broncos: Another 9.5 sacks this season gives Dumervil 52.5 in his five years in Denver. With he and Von Miller charging into opposing backfields on a regular basis, the Broncos' pass rush has become one of the NFL's best.

Outside linebacker

1. Terrell Suggs, Ravens: Possibly the NFL's defensive player of the year, the 29-year-old Suggs just keeps getting better after nine seasons. He had 70 tackles, 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and made offenses account for him on every single snap.

2. Clay Matthews, Packers: His numbers fell off this season, as he dropped from 13.5 sacks to six. But he also broke up nine passes, intercepted three and forced three fumbles. There are few defensive players in the NFL more dangerous than Matthews.

3. Von Miller, Broncos: Miller and the next man up here, Aldon Smith of the 49ers, could flip-flop spots and not many people would argue. Both had tremendous rookie years, but Miller's emergence completely changed the way Denver played defense.

4. Aldon Smith, 49ers: A huge part of the reason Justin Smith was so successful this season (and vice versa), Aldon Smith chalked up 14 sacks in his first NFL season. Just ask the Steelers how good this guy is -- he almost single-handedly beat Pittsburgh on Dec. 19.

5. Rob Ninkovich, Patriots: You easily could slot New York's Mathias Kiwanuka, Baltimore's Jarret Johnson or even Ninkovich's teammate, Jerod Mayo, in here. Ninkovich, though, had six sacks and a whopping 28 QB pressures this season. He also was terrific against the run on a New England defense that has struggled this year.

Inside linebacker

1. Patrick Willis, 49ers: He missed a chunk of this season, but when he's healthy, he has an incredible array of abilities. Don't believe it? Just watch him cover Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, plus fly to the line against run plays when San Francisco plays New Orleans.

2. Brian Cushing, Texans: You could make the argument that he's the most irreplaceable member of the Houston roster. Cushing had 114 tackles this season and is a major part of the reason why the Texans' pass-rushers can pin their ears back and go after the QB -- they know Cushing is right behind them.

3. Ray Lewis, Ravens: Lewis could claim the No. 1 spot here, and it would be darned near impossible to argue. He's lost a step or two but continues to be a force -- even missing four games, the longtime standout racked up 97 tackles. He's hinted that he might retire if the Ravens win the Super Bowl, which would be a shame, because he has plenty left in the tank.

4. NaVorro Bowman, 49ers: With 142 tackles, Bowman blew up in his second season in the NFL. He played even better when Willis was out due to injury, and that duo has the potential to be one of the league's best in a long, long time.

5. DeMeco Ryans, Texans: There's a bit of a drop-off at this position from the top four, though there are a few solid players -- Joe Mays, Desmond Bishop and Brandon Spikes, to name a few. Ryans has fallen off since four straight 100-plus-tackle seasons from 2006-09, but he's still a major part of Houston's defense.

Cornerback

1. Charles Woodson, Packers: If you want to argue that Woodson gets away with a few penalties or gives up too many big plays gambling, go ahead. The truth is that you won't find many players better at coming up with game-changing plays than the Green Bay vet.

2. Carlos Rogers, 49ers: Rogers will have his hands full Saturday against New Orleans' vaunted passing attack, but he's been up to the challenge most of the time this season. His six interceptions were easily a career best.

3. Lardarius Webb, Ravens: One of the more underrated players on Baltimore's team and a player frequently overlooked when people talk about that defense. Webb was one of the better cover men in the league this season and doesn't allow much after the catch.

4. Johnathan Joseph, Texans: Houston paid up to land Joseph this past offseason, and he's helped stabilize a secondary that's had its issues. The Texans would love to see him force more turnovers, but Joseph has been very solid this season.

5. Corey Webster, Giants: Like most of the Giants' secondary, Webster had a few very good games and a few rough outings. Still, with 11 pass breakups and six interceptions, he will make QBs pay if he gets the chance.

Safety

1. Ed Reed, Ravens: Throw in Reed's direction at your own risk -- not only did he have three picks this season, he continues to be one of the NFL's hardest-hitting and most intimidating players.

2. Donte Whitner, 49ers: How the 49ers will use Whitner against New Orleans speaks volumes to his ability. He can drop and help in deep coverage, but he'll also be asked to step up and defend Jimmy Graham at times. His size and speed give him the ability to do both.

3. Kenny Phillips, Giants: He's not exactly Troy Polamalu when it comes to stepping up and stopping the rush, but Phillips is a versatile defender who actually may be better than his numbers bare out.

4. Bernard Pollard, Ravens: He gets the benefit of lining up next to Reed every play, but Pollard had a strong season in his own right. He'll be especially motivated this weekend, playing against his old team -- Pollard had two very good years with Houston before signing with Baltimore this summer.

5. Roman Harper, Saints: Far from your prototypical safety, Harper led New Orleans in tackles with 95 and in sacks with 7.5 -- both evidence of how the Saints use him to attack the line, far more than most "safeties" do. Harper was twice named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week in 2011.

Kicker

1. David Akers, 49ers: San Francisco's offense had trouble scoring TDs this season, which gave Akers the opportunity to set a new single-season record for most field goals. He enters the postseason having hit 41 of 46 attempts.

2. Mason Crosby, Packers: Playing out in the elements of Green Bay doesn't help Crosby. Nor does the fact that his team's offense constantly scores touchdowns. Still, he has a huge leg and continues to be very accurate -- 25 of 28 this year.

3. Neil Rackers, Texans: He's been steady for the Texans for two years now. He struggled from 40-49 yards out this year (4 of 8) but hit 4 of 5 from beyond that distance and 24 of 25 inside.

4. Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots: He's in a similar situation to Crosby, in that he doesn't get a ton of chances and has to deal with some tricky weather. But the Patriots would be fine giving him a chance to win one late. 5. Matt Prater, Broncos: He was just 17 of 23 this season, so accuracy is an issue. His two long field goals stole a game against the Bears, though, and showed what he's capable of doing.

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