In last week's All-22 article, the focus was one Achilles heel that could upend each division leader. But now that the playoffs have started, everyone's 0-0, and everything's hunky-dory, it's time to flip the narrative to the positive to take a look at one player on each wild-card team who could surprise in the first round. We started with the AFC's sleeper players, and here are four potential difference-makers to watch on the NFC wild-card side.
The Packers come into the playoffs with a problem. Even though they're hosting the San Francisco 49ers, Dom Capers' defense seems singularly ill-equipped to deal with Jim Harbaugh's power running game and the shot plays it creates in the passing game. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick has faced the Packers twice in his career -- in the first, in the 2012 playoffs, he ran for 181 yards (a record for an NFL quarterback) as the 49ers trounced Green Bay 45-31 in the divisional round. And in Week 1 of this season, he threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns as the Packers' cornerbacks sold out their man coverage responsibilities to read Kaepernick as the primary running threat.
Clearly, pass pressure will help Green Bay's case. But Clay Matthews is out of this game with a thumb injury, so that will have to come from other players. One guy to watch out for is defensive lineman Mike Daniels, the second-year man from Iowa who ranks second behind Matthews with 6.5 sacks to Matthews' 7.5. Not only does Daniels know how to create quarterback takedowns, but also he's quite adept at providing pressure in a general sense with six quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries this season. This is made all the more impressive because Daniels frequently does this as an inside lineman in nickel and dime packages, and he's often facing double teams.
In his most impressive game this season, Daniels racked up two sacks against the Minnesota Vikings in a 44-31 win on Oct. 27. He probably would have had three ... were it not for the creative, illegal, and uncalled armbar put upon him by Minnesota left guard Charlie Johnson. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was credited with a four-yard scramble on this play with two minutes left in the first half.
Undaunted, Daniels kept harassing Ponder and the Vikings' offensive line. With 1:23 left in the first half, Daniels came through that line as the three-tech tackle in a four-man front from the Minnesota 23-yard line. Johnson engaaged him first, and center John Sullivan soon joined the party. Sullivan would soon wish that he hadn't. As Johnson peeled off, Daniels simply bulled Sullivan back into Ponder, embarrassing the veteran center by lifting him completely off his base.
Daniels was back at it with 5:26 left in the third quarter. The Vikings had third-and-9 from their own 21-yard line, and Daniels got around Johnson with a rip move, crossing his face and pushing him out of the picture.
"I got two, and that was cute," Daniels said a few days after that performance. "But I really feel that I left about three more out there. So I'm continuing to work on my game to make sure I improve every week."
Akeim Hicks, DL, New Orleans Saints
Akeim Hicks took an interesting path to the NFL. He was a star at Sacramento City College, but was not able to reach his dream of playing at LSU after recruiting controversies got in the way. Hicks had to head north to the University of Regina in Saskatchewan to finish out his collegiate resume, and he was taken in the third round of the 2012 draft by a Saints team whose draft that year had been laid to waste by the aftereffects of the Bounty scandal. So it seemed that Hicks had found his perfect outlet. He was a bit player in his rookie season for a squad that gave up the most yards in a single season of any team in league history, but Hicks -- like most Saints defenders -- has benefited greatly from the switch in defensive coordinators from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan.
In Ryan's defense, the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Hicks plays left end most of the time, moving inside when Ryan calls dime defenses, which he does as much or more than any other NFL coach. Hicks has been very effective in that role, amassing 4.5 sacks and 40 total stops in 2013. He isn't a sack artist at Daniels' level just yet, but he can push a pile and create havoc -- and that includes quarterback hits and hurries. like the four he put up against the Carolina Panthers in a 31-3 Week 14 win. Outside linebacker Junior Galette had three sacks in the game, but Hicks created a lot of the chaos in Galette's first sack with 9:12 left in the first quarter.
On this play, Galette was zooming past right tackle Byron Bell (77), while Hicks locked on to left guard Travelle Wharton. Hicks displayed impressive strength and agility by wrestling Wharton to the side, putting a spin move on Wharton with more speed than a man his size should have, and getting to Cam Newton just a hair after Galette did.
The Saints are missing defensive backs Jabari Greer and Kenny Vacarro in their wild-card matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving them potentially handicapped against Chip Kelly's spread-motion concepts. New Orleans' front seven will have to play with as much aggression and discipline as it possibly can. It's a talented unit from front to back, and Hicks has graduated to a level that makes him a key part of the equation.
“It’s our scheme, our players,” Hicks recently said. “The approach that we’ve had during preparation, especially these past two weeks, has been outstanding, some of the best practices that we’ve had all year. We definitely look forward to coming out and playing the same way that we’ve been playing.”
Brandon Boykin, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
One of the many things that makes the Philadelphia Eagles a very dangerous out in the 2013 postseason is a defense that has improved exponentially in recent weeks. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, Philly's defense under first-year coordinator Billy Davis ranked 30th in the league for weeks 1-9, but has trended up to 12th since Week 10. And one of the main instigators in that improvement is cornerback Brandon Boykin, the second-year player from Georgia who has far outplayed the fourth-round designation he received in the 2012 draft.
Boykin plays well outside, but his primary impact has been as a slot corner in Davis' nickel and dime packages -- per Pro Football Focus' game charting, he's been in on 353 passing snaps in the slot, and has been targeted 75 times. That hasn't generally been a good idea, as he's allowed a 57.8 passer rating (only Cincinnati's Chris Crocker has a lower rating allowed, on about 80 fewer snaps), and picked off six passes to just two touchdowns allowed.
Boykin's most recent interception, of course, was his most important -- he picked off Dallas Cowboys quarterback Kyle Orton with 1:49 left in the Eagles' 24-22 victory that gave then the NFC East. The Cowboys had started a drive from their own 32-yard line, and Boykin finished it just as quickly.
“It looked like the ball was behind Miles,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after the game. “Probably Kyle saw a little color in front — they had some guys up at the line of scrimmage in kind of a pressure look, and then they dropped those guys out. He didn’t really cut it loose and throw it in front of Miles. It looked from my vantage point like Miles won on the route, and the ball was just behind.”
Orton was hurried by the Eagles' overload blitz to his front side, and Davis' call was to combine pressure and coverage with a cluster blitz look inside, leaving Boykin and his defensive backfield mates to take their assignments one-on-one.
"Just how hard he works in practice and kind of what you see on Sundays, is what we see every day in practice," head coach Chip Kelly said of Boykin on Wednesday. "That's kind of what we preach around here, is that you don't rise to the occasion; you sink to your level of training, and he trains at a very high level every day he's out there and that's evident to us and as a staff. And what you see on Sundays is what we see every day during the week."
NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have a lot of defensive stars, but when it comes to impact versus recognition, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman may be the most underrated player on that team. In fact, he could be the most underrated defender in football, through that's starting to change. He was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month for a December in which he amassed 45 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, and three passes defensed. It was a bit of well-deserved praise for a guy who had lived in the shadows of Patrick Willis for a long time. Bowman's first-team All-Pro nod this year is entirely appropriate.
Bowman's 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16 was his splash play of the season, and it's worth a closer look. Not because he picked Matt Ryan and scored, but because he had to make an unbelievable effort to be in that position in the first place.
With 1:31 left in the game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a quick pass to receiver Harry Douglas from the San Francisco 10-yard line, and cornerback Tramaine Brock established tight coverage. The ball bobbled, and Bowman returned it 89 yards for the touchdown that put the game out of reach in a 34-24 victory.
On Dec. 26, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said that the call was for a "mat-zero" blitz, which the team had called maybe three times all season. It was clearly an all-out concept, and if everyone involved didn't do their jobs, the results could have been fairly disastrous. Safety Eric Reid had to crash through and pressure Ryan to upset the timing of the quick-in to Douglas, which he did. Brock had to sight-adjust Douglas' route and buzz it, which he did. Finally, Bowman had to somehow bail out of that A-gap blitz to hit the flat in time to take the ball from Brock ... and I still have no idea how he did that.
“Like I said, he was one of the 11 that were doing their jobs exactly correct and we got the desired result," Fangio said. "Now, obviously to get a pick six is far-fetched, but we had a good down.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who said right after the game that the play made him as happy as anything he could remember, was asked what makes Bowman great.