Everybody has been talking about Manning versus Brady and Kaepernick versus Wilson. Unbeknownst to ESPN there are 10 other guys on the field. As entertaining as a gladiatorial contest between quarterbacks would be – I would take Kaepernick and Brady in those – I think there will be other players who will play important roles in this weekends title games.
Mike Iupati, Alex Boone and Frank Gore, San Francisco offensive guards and running back
You could call this The Frank Gore running trio. The games where I have seen San Francisco struggle in the past have been when they have not run the ball well. Seattle’s defense, especially run stopping force Michael Bennett, is excellent at exploiting the holes created by pulling lineman to get into the backfield. If the 49rs guards can get push and put San Fran in comfortable third down situations, the game leans heavily in the favor of the Bay Area.
Richard Sherman, Seattle cornerback
So NFL pundits have rushed to the Kaepernick bandwagon late in the season because of his improved play. It just so happened that Kaep improved right as Michael Crabtree returned. Crab is Kaepernick’s favorite target, but expect Sherman, who is the best corner in the NFL to take him away.
Vernon Davis, San Francisco tight end
It may just be me, but I feel like it’s been a long time since Vernon Davis has had one of those ridiculous all world games. The monstrous tight end is one of the fastest players in the league, thus one of its toughest covers. How Davis plays may dictate how well the 49rs function on offense.
Earl Thomas, Seattle safety
The figurehead of the Seahawk’s excellent corps of defensive backs, Thomas may end up covering Davis the most often. If he can shut Davis down, and make a few plays here or there in the run game, Seattle has a very good chance of winning the game.
Percy Harvin, Seattle wide receiver
If I’m the 49rs, this is the only Seahawk wide receiver that scares me. Goal number one will be shutting down Marshawn Lynch in the running game. Goal number two should be to make Harvin’s life a living Hell. If I were Seattle’s offensive coordinator, I would try all types of things to get Harvin in space: line him up in the backfield, throw him multiple screens, and run him on reverses. If Harvin does not play at all, it leaves big shoes to fill for Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate.
Justin Smith, San Francisco defensive end
Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are linked, with Justin’s ability at the line of scrimmage freeing up the swifter Aldon to get sacks and tackles for a loss. If Aldon goes off, expect that Justin has had an unseen hand in the action.
Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins, New England guards
All the credit for the Patriots running game success last weekend went to LaGarrette Blount, with a sprinkling of praise going to Tom Brady for being so unselfish letting other players shine. The Patriots running backs, with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, are all good and interchangeable. The credit for last week’s domination should go to the Patriots offensive line, specifically the guards for creating huge holes to run through. Those guys dominate again, keeping Denver from having the ball, and the Patriots win.
Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, New England wide receivers
All of that said someone in the Patriots receiving corps is going to have to make some plays. This pack of no names should make Brady long for the days of Troy Brown and David Patten as his go-to wide outs. Regardless, they are going to need to make some tough conversions to keep Denver honest and loading up against the run.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Duke Ihenacho, Denver defensive backs
Two of the men assigned to shut down the Patriots passing attack will be Rodgers-Cromartie and Ihenacho. The corner and safety, respectively, have been two of Denver’s best players down the stretch.
Shaun Phillips, Denver defensive end
The injury to Von Miller has been the catalyst for a career renaissance for the former San Diego linebacker. If Phillips, and his defensive line mates, can routinely shed blocks and camp in the Patriot backfield, Tom Brady will have a very long day.
Aqib Talib, Patriots cornerback
Someone has to shut down Denver’s vaunted passing attack for the Patriots to win. Talib is just returning from a hip injury but is one of the best corners in the game when healthy. Likely Talib will be tasked with shutting down beastly wide out Demaryius Thomas.
Rod Ninkovich, Patriots defensive end
The other key to stopping the Broncos is creating pressure. What the Patriots have accomplished this season with this ragtag group of defenders is amazing. Ninkovich is one of the few remaining recognizable names
Eric Decker, Denver wide receiver
I feel like Decker has been the forgotten man in Denver’s record-breaking passing season. Demaryius Thomas makes flashier player, tight end Julius Thomas has had a break out season, and Wes Welker is lauded for his past success with the Patriots. For this reason, I think Decker will emerge as the big play man on Sunday, and he is more than capable.
Knowshon Moreno, Denver running back
Moreno will have to play well for Denver to win. Now, that could mean that he has a great day picking up blitzes or he picks up a couple key first downs or he scores three touchdowns – any of those efforts would be sufficient.