The NFL is all about matchups and weaknesses, and this is even more true come playoff time.
Once those weaknesses are diagnosed, exploiting them is the next step, then doing so relentlessly until the opponent makes a tactical or personnel change to help cure what ails it. Of course, such changes expose another weakness, as no team is perfect.
With eight teams left in the NFL's postseason tournament, here's a look at one player from each team that is his club's weakest link -- a player that the opponent will try to exploit this weekend.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Considering Kaepernick is one of the game's most talented and athletic young quarterbacks, and has somewhat quietly had a very good season, including him here might seem a little odd. But I have to think the Panthers' plan will be to make him beat them as a pocket passer.
That's not so much a slight to Kaepernick as it is a compliment to the rest of the Niners' team. The Niners are among the most difficult rushing offenses to deal with for 60 minutes; not only is Frank Gore a great player -- and Kaepernick an obvious threat as a runner -- but they are also highly diverse in terms of personnel groupings and formations.
The shortcoming has been in the passing game this season, particularly without Michael Crabtree, who missed most of the season due to injury. When I watch Kaepernick on film, I see him particularly struggling in the red zone. This is because defenses will try to bottle him up, the field becomes smaller and his options are more limited due to the lack of space. Decisions have to be made quicker and the ball has to be more accurate in the red zone, which are things the young quarterback continues to struggle with. Red-zone woes almost derailed the 49ers' postseason hopes last week, and in a 10-9 Week 10 loss to Carolina, San Francisco could manage just three field goals as Kaepernick threw for a measly 91 yards.
The Panthers' red-zone defense ranked third in the NFL during the regular season. To that end, I could see the Panthers trying to force Kaepernick into making quicker decisions, especially in the red zone. And they may not even have to blitz to do it. The Panthers were highly effective getting to Kaepernick and forcing him to hurry in their first meeting, using four rushers much of the time. Doing so again is likely their best shot to slow down the team in the NFL with the fewest weaknesses.
Brandon LaFell, WR, Carolina Panthers
Quite simply, more is needed from LaFell. The 34-year-old Steve Smith is battling a knee injury, and his status for this game is presently up in the air. And if he does play, which seems probable, it seems unlikely that he will be as effective as usual. Even with a healthy Smith, the Panthers are a little light on difference-making receivers. Greg Olsen is an above-average receiving tight end, but not one of the more threatening players at his position, or a true No. 1 option in a passing game.
LaFell has been up and down and Ted Ginn has shown up here and there with some huge plays, but neither excel at getting away from man coverage, which the Panthers will see frequently against the 49ers, whose base coverage is "2 Man." With Cam Newton being such a dangerous runner, San Francisco might employ more zone looks or have one of its outstanding inside linebackers spy Newton, but overall, it could be a long day for the Panthers' receiving corps.
LaFell has the prerequisite size and speed for the position, but he is an average route-runner without a discernible trait that sets him apart, and he hasn't improved dramatically since entering the league. Also, while Newton is ultra-talented and is a superb playmaker, he remains inconsistent as a passer, and should be under quite a bit of pressure against San Francisco. Both teams are very strong on defense and will stay dedicated to their running games, while each quarterback makes big plays through the air and with his legs. It could come down to which team has the superior playmakers, which favors San Francisco.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson's play dropped off quite a bit during the final four weeks of the regular season, a stretch in which Seattle went 2-2, with Wilson averaging a meager 171 passing yards per game. His protection has been problematic for much of the season, but with his outstanding pocket presence and mobility, he was often able to make up for it. However, Wilson has been light on weapons of late.
The return of Percy Harvin could be exactly the kick-start this passing game needs, which would make Golden Tate a quality second option instead of being Wilson's No. 1. And while Baldwin is reliable and does the little things well, he is truly suited for less playing time. If Harvin proves ineffective, the Saints can put Keenan Lewis on Tate and dare Wilson to feed Baldwin against lesser cover men. Baldwin is capable of exploiting such coverage, but would that be enough to outscore Drew Brees & Co.? I have my doubts.
Marshawn Lynch remains the foundation of this offense. But led by an excellent and underrated defensive line, the Saints did a great job of limiting LeSean McCoy last week. Lynch might have some tough sledding this weekend. The passing game needs to step up.
Roman Harper, S, New Orleans Saints
As noted above, the Seahawks' passing game has been quite pedestrian of late. A week's rest and Harvin's return could spark it to rebound in a big way, as could some holes in the back end of New Orleans' defense.
While the Saints rush the passer very well and should have success pressuring Wilson in this contest, injuries have done a number on their secondary. Lewis has been an exceptional addition via free agency, but after he left last week's game with a concussion, DeSean Jackson came to life. Lewis could return this weekend, but the Saints are stuck with Harper, who is a very good blitzer and is effective in the run game, but consistently gets exploited the farther away from the line of scrimmage he gets. He is a liability even against an average tight end like Zach Miller, who led the Seahawks in receiving when these teams met during the regular season.
Corey White and Rod Sweeting also are not equipped to handle a high number of snaps at the cornerback position, but could be forced to do so, which would tilt the advantage further toward Seattle.
Chris Jones, DT, New England Patriots
By no fault of his own, Jones has been thrust into a prominent role in the decimated middle of the Patriots' defense. The great Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kellyand now Brandon Spikes are all on injured reserve.
Spikes was a liability in coverage, but might be the best interior run-stuffer in the NFL. Jones simply isn't very talented. He struggles to handle a double-team, often gets overpowered in the run game and offers very little as a pass-rusher on the interior. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they don't have great alternatives. Jones' counterpart on the interior, Joe Vellano, offers little more. Isaac Sopoaga has a pedigree in this league as an interior presence, but he has been underwhelming since New England traded for him.
Ideally, the Colts would love to attack the interior of this defense with a power back like Trent Richardson to shorten the game and force New England's worst defensive players to make play after play. But it will be Donald Brown getting the bulk of the carries, and do the Colts have the interior offensive linemen to make that happen? That brings us to ...
Mike McGlynn, OG, Indianapolis Colts
When the Colts have the ball, it will be very interesting to watch the interior line battles, as it is truly a matchup of "weakness versus weakness."
We know that Bill Belichick's defensive philosophy is to take away whatever the offense does best, which in this case means trying to eliminate T.Y. Hilton. You would think that would lead to great rushing opportunities, but the interior of Indianapolis' offensive line is a mess.
At left guard, Hugh Thornton hasn't played well, but he is a rookie with some upside, while center Samson Satele is what he is at this point, which is a very average all-around player. But it is McGlynn that has hurt this line the most. Best suited to play center, the big-bodied but heavy-footed McGlynn has been consistently beaten in one-on-one matchups, especially in the run game, where he is often seen bending at the waist and overextending to try to reach his target.
Donald Brown is sure to get the majority of the rushing attempts, and it will be interesting to see how successful he might be, especially in terms of sustainability on interior runs for four quarters. Protection for Andrew Luck will also be a question mark.
Wesley Woodyard, LB, Denver Broncos
Von Miller is out for the year, and while Danny Trevathan and Woodyard have very good speed, this linebacking unit (along with safety Duke Ihenacho) has struggled quite a bit in coverage against running backs out of the backfield as well as tight ends. Well, it just so happens that San Diego has backs and tight ends that can do plenty of damage.
The venerable Antonio Gates remains a very solid contributor, while his successor, Ladarius Green, is dripping with upside. Woodyard isn't a bad player but struggles against the size of such tight ends, which can be especially problematic in the end zone. Ronnie Brown is an accomplished, but not dynamic, receiving option and Ryan Mathews has improved in this area as well. But this could be a big Danny Woodhead game, as he has a massive advantage over the middle of Denver's defense, and Woodyard in particular.
It would not be surprising to see Woodhead operating out of the slot quite a bit or even out wide, where he could draw a linebacker out with him in man coverage.
Shareece Wright, CB, San Diego Chargers
The Chargers' defense was awful for much of the season. But after allowing just 10 points last week -- and making A.J. Green nearly invisible -- the Chargers average just over 16 points allowed over their past six games, winning five in a row while John Pagano has incorporated more creative blitz packages and a wide variety of coverages very effectively. Pagano's unpredictability has been a great asset for a defense that lacks high-end talent, especially in the secondary.
Such tactics caused the Broncos' offense major problems in the most recent meeting between these two teams, but San Diego's cornerbacks remain a huge concern, and this is one of the worst overall coverage units in the NFL. Starters Richard Marshall and Wright have been liabilities, and the depth behind them is poor, although things have improved once Marshall was inserted as the starter over Derek Cox. Safety Eric Weddle is the only member of this secondary who can be considered above average, and the Chargers will align him all over the defense.
Of course, Peyton Manning will learn from the last meeting and should target Wright without relent, as well San Diego's depth cover men.