Senior NFL Columnist

Keys to the playoffs: QBs, pass rushers and big-play threats

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It used to be run the ball and play good run defense would be the key factors in the playoffs.

Now it's all about throwing it, sacking the thrower and don't turn the damn thing over.

So as we ready for the start of the NFL playoffs this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to rank the 12 teams in five key categories that I think will decide the champion.

They are quarterbacks, big-play threats, elite pass rushers, overall pass rush and turnover ratio.

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The only glitch you might see is that I have Adrian Peterson ranked first on the big-play list as a running back. Hey, he's had a special season and earned it.

So dive in, take a look, complain and moan, but I guarantee you these five categories are far more important than running the football and run defense.

Rank the QBs

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: He has surprisingly been ignored for much of the season, but he's still the best in the league.

2. Peyton Manning, Broncos: It's amazing how he's come back from his injury issues. He's the same guy he was in Indianapolis.

3. Tom Brady, Patriots: How do you go against him in the playoffs? Does he have enough speed around him?

4. Matt Ryan, Falcons: He's had a big-time season but has to prove he can get it done in the playoffs. The move to more vertical passing helps.

5. Robert Griffin III, Redskins: He is dinged up, so that will impact his ability to run some. He has to throw it better from the pocket if that's the case.

6. Joe Flacco, Ravens: The season to prove he's elite hasn't happened, but he can change some minds in the playoffs.

7. Andrew Luck, Colts: He's had a magical rookie season at times, but he has to cut down on the turnovers in the playoffs.

8. Matt Schaub, Texans: He will be playing in his first playoff game this season and hasn't had the type of season many expected. Can he turn it on?

9. Andy Dalton. Bengals: He needs to be better than he has been in the past month or so. He needs to spread the ball more.

10. Russell Wilson, Seahawks: He's been amazing at home but will have to do it on the road. That's tough for a rookie in the playoffs.

11. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: He might be the most scrutinized quarterback in the playoffs. The move to start him over Alex Smith will be judged by the postseason.

12. Christian Ponder, Vikings: He really struggled for much of the season, but he was very good last week. Needs to let it go more.

Big-play threats

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings: He ran for more than 2,000 yards and averaged 6.0 per carry in a passing league.

2. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans: He averaged 14.7 per catch on his 112 grabs.

3. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals: He had 97 catches and 11 touchdowns, even though he saw a lot of double teams. 4. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos: He averaged 15.3 on his 94 catches. He is big and fast.

5. Roddy White, WR, Falcons: Julio Jones might be going to the Pro Bowl but it was White who had the better year.

6. Rob Gronkowski, TE Patriots: He averaged 14.4 per catch and had 10 touchdown catches, despite playing in just 11 games.

7. Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens: He averaged more than 17 yards per catch. He needs to get the football more.

8. Randall Cobb, WR-KR Packers: He can catch it, run it and return it. He can flip the field in a hurry.

9. T.Y. Hilton, WR-KR, Colts: He averaged 17.1 yards on his 50 catches and had seven touchdown receptions.

10. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks: He averaged 5.3 per touch for an offense that lacks a big-play outside threat.

11. Pierre Garcon, WR, Redskins: Washington is a different team when his speed is in the lineup.

12. Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers: He averaged 12.9 yards per catch, but really came on late.

Sack-fumble-game-over guy

1. J.J. Watt, Texans: He has been a force rushing the passer all season. He moves around some, which makes it even tougher to block him.

2. Von Miller, Broncos: He is an explosive edge rushers who can change a game with one play.

3. Aldon Smith, 49ers: He has been explosive off the edge, but he needs Justin Smith to be truly effective.

4. Clay Matthews, Packers: He missed time with injuries, but now that he's back healthy he will be a pass-rush nightmare.

5. Geno Atkins, Bengals: He has 13 sacks as a tackle, which is truly impressive. His ability to get pressure inside helps free up the outside rushers.

6. John Abraham, Falcons: He has the knack for turning it on in big games. That's playoff time. He did ding his ankle Sunday, so that's a concern.

7. Jared Allen, Vikings: His sack numbers weren't as good as expected, but he is still capable of getting them in bunches.

8. Chris Clemons, Seahawks: He is one of the more underrated pass rushers in the game. All he does is get double-digit sacks every year.

9. Robert Mathis, Colts: He is now the best pass rusher on the Colts, taking that from Dwight Freeney. He made the move to outside linebacker better than Freeney did.

10. Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins: He is the only real outside threat on the Washington defense, which is why the Redskins blitz so much.

11. Terrell Suggs, Ravens: He missed so much time with the torn Achilles and has never looked to regain his explosive ways. Maybe it comes playoff time.

12. Chandler Jones, Patriots: He was on his way to being in the Defensive Rookie of the Year talk before he was slowed by injuries.

Ranking the total pass rush

1. Denver Broncos: They have Miller, Elvis Dumerviil off the edges and coordinator Jack Del Rio throws some nice schemes at quarterbacks.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: They get sacks in bunches. In addition to Atkins inside, they have Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson coming from the outside.

3. Green Bay Packers: It's all about Matthews. They don't get a lot of pass rush from others unless they are blitzing, which Dom Capers likes to do.

4. San Francisco 49ers: They get after it with Aldon Smith off the edge, but he hasn't been the same player without Justin Smith.

5. Houston Texans: Their pass rush is all about J.J. Watt. But they need to get more from Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin in the playoffs.

6. Seattle Seahawks: Their speedy defense can get pressure outside with Clemons and Bruce Irvin. It helps their corners are such good cover players.

7. Minnesota Vikings: It's not just Allen. Brian Robison does a nice job at the other end, and Everson Griffin has flashed as well.

8. New England Patriots: It's all on Chandler Jones to get back playing at a high level. He is their top edge rusher.

9. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens haven't been good with their pass rush this season. They just don't have the same explosiveness.

10. Atlanta Falcons: Coordinator Mike Nolan does a great job of disguising the things he does. He also has a good outside rusher in Abraham.

11. Indianapolis Colts: Freeney is getting up in the years, and it shows. Mathis can still get after the quarterback.

12. Washington Redskins: It's too bad they don't have Brian Orakpo. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has to get creative to get pressure.

Takeaway-giveaway ratio

1. New England: They led the NFL with a plus-25 ratio. They turned it over just 16 times.

2. Washington: They were third in the NFL in ratio at plus-17, which is amazing for a team with a rookie quarterback.

3. Atlanta: They finished tied for fifth with a plus-13, but they tied the Texans for the fewest lost fumbles with four.

4. Seattle: They tied Atlanta with plus-13, and they had 31 takeaways.

5. Houston: The Texans had a plus-12 ratio, but it was hurt late in the season.

6. Baltimore: They tied the 49ers with a plus-9 ratio.

7. San Francisco: They were at plus-9, but they threw only eight interceptions on the season.

8. Green Bay: They had a plus-7 ratio, but had just five fumble recoveries on the season.

9. Cincinnati: At plus-4, their ratio would be higher but they threw 16 interceptions on the season.

10. Denver: It's surprising to see the Broncos at minus-1, but they lost 14 fumbles.

11. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings tied Denver at minus-1, but had the fewest interceptions of the playoff teams with 10.

12. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts are minus-12, which isn't good. They had just 15 takeaways all season, the third fewest in the league.


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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