There are some players who just plain belong in the Super Bowl. You know, players like the Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgerses of the world. They just have a way of gravitating towards the biggest stage in American sports.
Then again, it would be nice if the Super Bowl wasn't all about superstars, the vast majority of whom happen to be quarterbacks. There are a lot of players around the NFL who don't get the credit they deserve, and it would be just plain to cool to see them under the bright lights at the Super Bowl.
There are currently eight teams still alive in the NFL playoffs, and a couple of them have under-appreciated players like these. In an effort to give them their due, I have it in mind to count down five players that truly deserve Super Bowl exposure.
5. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Rice is a star, but it would be a stretch to call him a superstar. As far as running backs go, Rice just doesn't get the same billing as players like Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy.
However, you could make the argument that Rice is the best running back in the NFL right now. He finished second in the league in rushing behind Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011, and he also had 76 receptions for 704 yards. He's a true do-it-all running back.
Yet somehow, Rice manages to fly under the radar. This has a lot to do with how humble he is, as he's just not the type to go seeking attention. You can't say the same about other running backs around the league.
If the Ravens make it to the Super Bowl, they would invariably charge Rice with the task of generating the bulk of their offense. That's more or less par for the course for him, so there would be no reason to think he wouldn't be up to the task.
In the event Rice makes good on his responsibilities in the Super Bowl, he would finally be granted Super Bowl status.
4. Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints
Honestly, how can you not be a fan of Darren Sproles? You could easily lose sight of him in a crowded area, but he's easily one of the best and most versatile players in the NFL.
Sproles was always something of a niche player when he was with the San Diego Chargers, but the Saints decided to make him a star in his first season with the team in 2011. He ran the ball, caught it, and returned kicks and punts. By the time he was finished, Sproles had gained 2,696 all-purpose yards.
That, of course, would be a new single-season record.
Not bad for a guy who stands tall at 5'6" and weighs in at less than 200 pounds.
If the Saints make it to the Super Bowl (a legit possibility), Sproles would be asked to do what he usually does. If things go his way, the smallest player on the field could end up being the game's biggest star.
3. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
Football fans who are in the know will tell you all about how good Patrick Willis is. He's the best linebacker in the NFL right now, and it's not even close.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the country remains in the dark when it comes to Willis. This is largely because the 49ers don't get that much national press, but you can also chalk it up to Willis' demeanor. He might be as good as Ray Lewis was in his prime, but Willis' personality is the exact opposite of Lewis'.
If the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl, it will be because Willis showed up in a big way. He's a lock for about 10 tackles per game, and he's also a threat to hit the quarterback and force turnovers.
In keeping with the Ray Lewis comparisons, it's worth noting that Lewis was the last linebacker to win the Super Bowl MVP award. If the 49ers make it and win, Willis could very well be the next.
2. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
I mentioned above how you could argue that Ray Rice is the best running back in the NFL right now. Well, Arian Foster is in that discussion too.
Despite missing some time with a bad hamstring early in the season, Foster still managed to rush for over 1,200 yards. He also had over 600 yards receiving. Totals like these are becoming par for the course.
In his very first playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Foster excelled, rushing for 153 yards and two touchdowns. His 42-yard touchdown run late in the game was a thing of beauty.
Most NFL fans know and appreciate Foster for the things he's done in the last two seasons, but he's a guy that deserves even more exposure. In addition to being one of the NFL's best players, he's one of the league's best citizens. You'll be hard pressed to find a more intelligent and honest player in the league's ranks than Foster.
If he never makes it to the Super Bowl, it will be a damn shame.
1. Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos
Last year, Charles Woodson finally got a ring. He had to toil for over a decade before he got it, but he finally got it.
This year, it would be cool to see Champ Bailey get one. He's one of the very best cornerbacks to ever suit up in the NFL, and the window is closing on his career.
Bailey has come close to going to the Super Bowl once, as he and the Broncos reached the AFC Championship Game in 2005. But for the bulk of his career, he's been the lone bright spot on a few too many bad teams.
Bailey's older now, but he's still a bright spot. He was selected to his 11th Pro Bowl, extending his own NFL record for cornerbacks. It was no fluke either, as Bailey had a great season.
The Broncos are going to need all the help they can get from Bailey to make it to the Super Bowl. Their Tim Tebow-led offense is a little too unpredictable, and their defense would be a wreck without him.
If there's one guy up to a challenge like this, though, it's Bailey.