BASN NFL Playoff Preview: AFC Players To Watch

By Tony McClean
Updated: January 2, 2007

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — With the NFL playoffs set to begin in earnest this weekend, BASN over the next two days will take a brief look at the 12 remaining teams. We’ll put our spotlight on the player (or players) on each team that will be vital to his team’s playoff life.

Most times, it won’t be the most obvious choice. As is with any and every postseason, some playoff heroes can come from out of nowhere. What we’ll try and do is pick out someone we feel that can and should rise from out of the pack and emerge as a force.
Today: The AFC.
Not since Ray Lewis during Baltimore’s Super Bowl run back in 2000 has there been a defensive player that has faced as much media scrutiny entering the postseason as the ex-Maryland standout. His four-game suspension due to steroid use and the subsequent backlash surrounding his selection to the Pro Bowl has put the “Lights Out” defender under a heavy microscope. Despite the suspension, Merriman still led the league in sacks (17) and was the stalwart of the Bolts’ defense. Will he be able to deal with even more slings and arrows as San Diego get closer to a trip to Miami? One of the many tattoos he wears says “Finish Strong”. Just that phrase alone makes it appear that Merriman is ready for the challenge.
So far, “Air” has done exactly what the Ravens thought he’d do when they acquired from Tennessee in June. While the numbers may not very gaudy (16 TDs, 3,050 yards, 12 interceptions), it’s the attitude and leadership that he’s brought to the huddle that has Baltimore sitting with the second best record in the conference. He along gives the Ravens a chance to get back to a Super Bowl. We all remember how McNair’s first and only Super Bowl appearance ended. With a solid defense and several offensive weapons, McNair’s chance at a ring may not fall “one yard short” this time.
At times, being the best player on the Colts’ defense is akin to being the world’s tallest midget. However, despite a drop in sacks (5.5 compared to 11 in 2005), Freeney is still one of the league’s best defensive players. For Indy to make another Super Bowl run, Freeney and his partner in crime Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks in 2006) will have to be relentless on the ball. They’ll get an immediate challenge from the Chiefs and Larry Johnson in Saturday’s first game of Wild Card Weekend. Get by them and either the Patriots, Chargers, Jets, or Ravens will be waiting.
The former Charger was the unofficial leader (61 catches, 4 TDs) of the Patriots’ air game this past season. Even though rookie Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon will make up the bulk of New England’s offensive attack, Caldwell and others will have to step it up a notch for them to make some noise in the postseason. Ironically, Caldwell’s best game of the season came in the Pats’ last meeting with the Jets (a 17-10 loss back in Week 10 at Foxboro). Don’t be surprised if you see Tom Brady lean on No. 87 a little bit more in the playoffs, especially on Saturday.
After making the adjustment from Donnie Henderson’s 4-3 to Eric Mangini’s 3-4 this season, Vilma has risen to the occasion and remained the leader of Gang Green’s defensive corps. While he didn’t lead the league in tackles again (169 to 113 in 2006), the former Miami Hurricane still was a force for the Cinderella Jets especially down the stretch. In a short time, Vilma has become a forceful leader of a still relatively young squad. If the Jets are to make a serious Super Bowl run, it will be because of Vilma and his defensive cohorts.
He set an NFL record this season, but not the one most folks thought he would break entering 2006. But most importantly, LJ is taking his record 418 carries into the postseason. His 1,718 rushing yards on the year are only second to some guy in San Diego whose name escapes me right now. Finally, Johnson will get a chance to display his wears on a grander stage where the scrutiny may be higher, but the payoff couldn’t be grander. If there’s a playoff run in K.C., it will likely be on the strength of LJ’s legs.
Tommorrow: The NFC.