5 Players Who Mean the Most to a Carolina Panthers Playoff Run

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5 Panthers Who Need To Step Up

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers got a total gift this weekend when the New Orleans Saints lost to the St Louis Rams 26-17. That game put the two teams back into a tie for the division lead and almost certain second seed in the playoffs. This just makes the upcoming game between the two teams all the more enticing.

They are playing the best football we have seen from them since they were Super Bowl contenders back in 2008. They went on a steady decline after that until they hit rock bottom and got the No. 1 overall pick two seasons ago. Since then they have had two straight rookie of the years (one on offense one on defense).

This season they have wins over some pretty intense competition. They beat the New England Patriots in very controversial fashion. They took out the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. They ended any hopes that either New York team had, one with a win that knocked them out of the playoffs and another when they kicked the New York Giants in the teeth when they thought they could salvage their season. At one point, they had an eight-game winning streak.

They have won many of their games on defense. They are currently ranked second in the league in total defense. For those of you who like to look at points allowed as a way to judge a defense, they also rank second in the league in that stat. Although the offense gets all the love, it is the defense that has put this team where it is.

These five players are the most crucial for the last two games of the season and beyond. If they don't show up, they could ruin this perfect opportunity that has been given to them.

Nick Villano is the New Jersey Devils writer for Rant Sports. He also adds content for their NFL, MLB and NBA pages. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Cam Newton

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Let's start with the obvious player. Cam Newton may be this team's most important player. That isn't much of a stretch being the quarterback and all. He has cut down his fumbling, which is crucial to his performance. It isn't as bad as last year when he was the team's leading rusher, but he is still a key contributor to the rushing offense. He is still a little raw, but has shown this season that he is capable of carrying a team to the top of the standings. He still has some of those dud games. That is something he needs to avoid at all costs in the next two games, and especially in the playoffs.

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Luke Kuechly

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Luke Kuechly is on his way to being the best defensive player in the league. He already has 122 tackles on the season. He is great in coverage with three interceptions so far this season. He will be remembered for his last play coverage on Rob Gronkowski earlier in the year, but beyond that he has been one of the best players on the field. He has also deflected six passes. He is the captain on this newly reformed Carolina defense. He will be a key for this team for the next decade (hopefully). These next two games he will have his hands full with Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.

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Greg Hardy

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Playing Drew Brees and Matt Ryan these next two weeks will provide a big test for this Panthers defense. The pass rush will have the biggest challenge. Getting these two elite quarterbacks rattled is the key to beating them. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have carried the team in sacks with eight and nine respectively. Hardy is the breakout player who causes mismatches for offensive lines. Now teams have no idea who to double team. If they can get to Brees and sack him this weekend, then he is going to give his team a very good chance to win this game.

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Mike Mitchell

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Mike Mitchell may have the most important job of anyone these next two weekends, and that is to cover Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez on many routes. These two players are the most consistent receivers on their respective teams. They provide mismatches across the board. Mitchell leads the Panthers with four interceptions on the season. If he could pick off Brees on Sunday that could be the turning point that they need to keep them in that game. He is going to have to read one of the most complicated offenses in the game today. Sunday may be Mitchell's hardest day of the entire season.

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DeAngelo Williams

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

DeAngelo Williams has not been able to have the same success that warranted him to get a $43 million deal back in 2011. Even so, he has still been important for this Panthers team. He is a rare breed in that he is just as much of a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as he is rushing the ball. He has more yards in 13 games this season than he did in 16 last season. He is averaging less per carry than is desired, but it isn't awful at 4.3. He is especially necessary when you remember that Jonathan Stewart cannot stay on the field for them.

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