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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Under the radar: They're not stars, but could play key role in playoffs


Kyle Love will try to get after Tim Tebow, but his main job will be to stop Willis McGahee. (Getty Images)  
Kyle Love will try to get after Tim Tebow, but his main job will be to stop Willis McGahee. (Getty Images)  

You know the MVP candidates, the passers with the glitzy numbers, the pass rushers, some who make guarantees, and even the big-play tight ends who have helped glamorize the position.

But while those players will go a long way in deciding the four NFL Divisional Playoff games this weekend, there are many other players who have to do their jobs -- and do them well -- for their teams to have a real chance.

You might not know many of their names outside their cities, but here are eight players, one from each team, that could be key to their teams advancing to the respective conference championships.

None would ever be labeled a star, but you can bet their coaches know what they mean to their teams.

Watching them on tape all year, I know I do.


Free safety Morgan Burnett -- In the first meeting between the teams, Eli Manning threw for 360 yards. The Packers have good corners, but the Giants receivers are good against man coverage. They also like to throw to the tight ends in the middle of the field. That's where Burnett will have to play big. He has to be good helping the corners, but he also will have to play well in man coverage when he's on the tight ends. At times this season, he has blown coverage because of bad communication. That can't happen against Manning.

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Defensive end Ray McDonald -- Every time you turn on the tape, this kid makes plays. He doesn't get the proper due in large part because Justin Smith, the other end, gets all the attention. Smith is damn good, but McDonald is right there with him. McDonald plays hard, and he's tough against the run and improved as a pass rusher. The 49ers move him over the nose some in passing situations, even standing him up at times over the center. He can do a lot of things. The 49ers made the right decision to re-sign him as a free agent last summer, rather than keeping nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who will be on the other sideline with the Saints.


Fullback Jed Collins -- The Saints need to be able to run the ball against the 49ers, which isn't easy to do. That means the inside people have to get push, but it also means Collins has to be able to take on talented inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Those two are both going to the Pro Bowl and they are tough in one-on-one battles. The collisions between those two and Collins might be heard in the upper deck. Collins is a big reason why the Saints ran the ball the way they did last week against the Lions.


Middle linebacker Chase Blackburn -- He was considering a career in teaching when he didn't sign with any team this summer. But after 12 games, the Giants called back a player who had been on their roster when they won a Super Bowl in 2007. When injuries hit, he was back starting. He had nine tackles last week against the Falcons, and in the first meeting against Green Bay he intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass. He has to play big this week in the middle of the Giants defense.


Nose tackle/defensive tackle Kyle Love -- You might be familiar with Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' best interior player. But when the Patriots go to a 3-4 defense, it is Love who plays on the nose. He is a wide body who has one of those bellies, like Wilfork, that hangs over the belt. But he has made some nice improvements this season. If the Broncos are going to be shut down running Willis McGahee inside, Love has to be stout.


Strong safety Bernard Pollard -- He was with the Texans the past two years, so this is a chance to get back at his old team. Houston loves to run the football, especially with a rookie quarterback, so you can expect the Ravens to drop Pollard down in a lot of eight-man fronts. That plays to his strong point. He isn't great in coverage, which is why the Texans didn't bring him back, but he is a good tackler. He will have to be if the Ravens are going to limit Arian Foster's long runs.


Nose tackle Shaun Cody -- He is the veteran of the defense, a 12-year player who still plays at a high level. At just over 300 pounds, he isn't big for his position, but he is a relentless player. He moves better than some nose tackles, which could cause some problems for Ravens center Matt Birk. There were games I watched this season where Cody handled the inside, which helped choke off the opposition's running game. He doesn't look imposing, but he plays to a high level.


Nickel corner Chris Harris -- He was not drafted out of Kansas, even though he was a quality starting safety. He didn't even get invited to the combine. The Broncos signed him and he has proved to be a big part of their improvement on defense. He can cover receivers, but he's also physical enough to cover tight ends. I would imagine he will spend a lot of time on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski this week, like he did in the first meeting. Harris didn't play as well in that game as he has in others. But he has to come up big here if the Broncos are to slow down Tom Brady at all.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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