The outcome of a game often turns on the performance of a single player. Can the star running back take control, or will the defense figure out a way to hold him down? Can the embattled quarterback brush off criticism -- and the other team's pass rush? Can the underrated defensive back knock the air out of the much-hyped, high-flying aerial attack?
To get you ready for Week 15, I've looked at six big matchups and identified the key player -- the guy who could single-handedly determine who wins and who loses.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Much of the criticism of former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron revolved around his lack of creativity in running what has the potential to be an explosive Ray Rice-led offense. Rice's impact in this contest is not just about how many carries he gets; it's about the threat of what he can do in the quick-pass or screen game. Denver obviously is going to try to apply pressure off the edge with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil; new Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell can help his offensive line by keeping them running sideline to sideline. He will call quick-hitting plays on the outside in an effort to force both ends to turn and run in pursuit, making them spend their energy chasing plays rather than rushing upfield. When he does run, look for Rice to go right at the speed rushers on either side, forcing them to stay true to their defensive assignments. If Dumervil and Miller have to hold the point of attack in the running game, they won't get the jump on the speed rush that they usually get in obvious passing situations.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans have won nine of their last 11 games within the AFC South, and a lot of that has to do with the success of Arian Foster. Foster has done extraordinarily well against the Indianapolis Colts in his career, averaging 163.7 yards on the ground in three games. Indianapolis, meanwhile, has been surprisingly good this year, but the Colts have needed some miraculous fourth-quarter comebacks to earn their 9-4 record. If the Texans can jump out to an early lead, they likely will play ball-control offense, in an effort to keep Andrew Luck off the field for as much of the second half as possible. Expect a steady dose of Foster, as well as a fair amount of touches for Ben Tate. Foster needs just 52 more rushing yards to reach 1,200 for the third consecutive season. At first glance, that shouldn't be too tall an order against a defense that is giving up more than 120 rushing yards per game. But the Colts are steadily improving in that area, having held opposing running backs under the century mark in two consecutive contests.
Thomas DeCoud, S, Atlanta Falcons
Though the New York Giants have big-name playmaking receivers on the outside (Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks), tight end Martellus Bennett has been their most consistent scoring threat over the past two games. The Falcons will have Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson match up with Cruz and Nicks, but they will need their talented safeties to shut down the middle of the field. Atlanta is the only team in the NFL with two safeties who each have four or more interceptions on the season; DeCoud leads the way with five, while William Moore has four. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has been mistake-prone lately, having thrown more than one pick in two of his past four games. The Falcons will be disguising coverages with their amoeba defensive package, so as not to tip their hand before the snap. This will allow for more ball-hawking by DeCoud, who could be the game changer for Atlanta.
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler was knocked out of last Sunday's game in the fourth quarter with a neck injury, but all indications point to him suiting up against the Green Bay Packers. Since joining the Bears, Cutler is just 1-6 against Green Bay, but he's also 9-2 over his last 11 starts at home. Something has to give on Sunday; it might depend on how many of the Packers' starting defenders are able to play. The Packers have been without Clay Matthews for four weeks and without Charles Woodson since Week 7. Even with the time he's missed, Matthews still leads the team with nine sacks, while Woodson has the second-most career interceptions among all active players with 55, trailing only Ed Reed. The Packers announced Wednesday that Woodson will miss this game, but if Green Bay gets Matthews back, Cutler could be in for a rough day -- one that he can't afford to have. The Bears are 8-2 this season when Cutler throws for at least 150 yards, but 0-2 when he doesn't.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
For all the criticism Tony Romo has endured as the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback, his stats are actually very similar to those of Cowboys legend Troy Aikman. Sure, the NFL is more of a pass-happy league right now, but Romo doesn't have the help of guys like Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, either. Romo has led the resurgent Cowboys to four wins in their past five games, and is closing in on yet another 4,000-yard season. Romo will look to take advantage of an injury-riddled Steelers defense that is still ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total yards (262.4 per game) and passing yards (169.2 per game) allowed. Pittsburgh has, however, given up five touchdown passes in the past three games. If Romo can minimize his mistakes and take what the defense gives him, he has the firepower to keep Dallas in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.
Justin Smith, DT, San Francisco 49ers
Aldon Smith's 33.5 career sacks are the most by a player in his first two seasons in NFL history. Not to take any credit away from him, but he benefits greatly from the presence of another Mizzou product, Justin Smith. Justin has just three sacks on the season, but he's already posted 64 tackles, six more than his total last year and just 17 fewer than his career high. While Aldon wreaks havoc along the edges, the 49ers will move Justin all over the defensive front. The pressure he provides up the middle collapses the pocket, forcing opposing quarterbacks to run right into Aldon's waiting arms. The Patriots are at their best when they get their running game rolling. Stevan Ridley has 10 touchdowns, tied for second in the NFL, and he has accounted for at least one rushing touchdown in six consecutive games. Justin Smith plays the run just as well as the pass. Not only does he consume double-teams, but he gets off blocks and makes stops that other defensive linemen in the NFL could only dream about making.