2012 NFL Playoffs: Identifying the 10 Biggest Heroes So Far

Nick ButterworthContributor IJanuary 27, 2012

2012 NFL Playoffs: Identifying the 10 Biggest Heroes So Far

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    After two pulsating contests in the NFL conference championships, much of the postgame media glare shone on villains rather than heroes.

    Poor Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams. Neither will forgive themselves for letting their teams down in the white heat of competition. Talented as they may be, the scars they now carry may never fully heal.

    Although fumbles and missed field goals make for dramatic stories, they can overshadow the plays that made games great in the first place.

    I wanted to take a positive spin on the playoffs by looking at the 10 biggest heroes of the postseason so far. As you'll see, there are plenty of deserving candidates.

Vince Wilfork

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    The New England defense is undergoing something of a transformation in the playoffs, forcing three-and-outs and key turnovers on their way to a seventh Super Bowl appearance.

    At the center of their resurgence is man-mountain defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who is entering the form of his life at just the right time.

    Whether lined up on the nose or end in the 3-4, or as a conventional pocket-collapsing 4-3 interior tackle, Wilfork is versatile enough to do it all at the highest level. Only Haloti Ngata and Ndamukong Suh compare favorably for athleticism and strength across the league.

    Against the Baltimore Ravens, Wilfork was practically unblockable, stuffing Ray Rice at the line of scrimmage and coming up with a tone-setting sack in the first quarter, manhandling guard Ben Grubbs in the process with ease.

    The 30-year-old is one of the seven survivors from the Patriots' 2007 roster that were moments away from an undefeated season, and the sting from the loss in Super Bowl XLII has motivated Wilfork to step his game up to new levels.

    With 2.5 sacks so far in the postseason, expect Big Vince to play a big part in the destination of the Lombardi Trophy next week.

Vernon Davis

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    From his infamous sideline argument with Mike Singletary to playoff hero in a little over three years, Vernon Davis is unrecognisable from his early bust-tagged days as a Niner.

    If the emotional scenes that followed "The Grab" in the divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints felt like redemption for the gifted tight end, his response in the NFC Championship game was one of a man unburdened by past performances.

    On San Francisco's second possession of the game, Davis took advantage of a miscommunication between the Giants' Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant to run in a 73-yard score, burning a flat-footed Rolle at the Niners' 40-yard line.

    He then produced an encore on a go route, flying past safety Kenny Phillips for a 28-yard grab to regain the lead in the third quarter.

    By producing both touchdowns in a 20-17 losing effort, in wet and wild conditions, Davis enhanced his reputation every bit as much as the clutch play to beat the Saints the week before.

    Somewhere, Mike Singletary will have watched his efforts with a rueful smile. Vernon Davis has arrived.

Hakeem Nicks

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    Victor Cruz has been grabbing the headlines as a zero-to-hero story, going from an undrafted rookie in 2010 to a 142-yard performance in the NFC Championship game just a year later.

    But Hakeem Nicks is the real story of the playoffs, and with 335 receiving yards and four touchdowns he leads the way in both categories.

    As a receiver known primarily as a deep threat, he showed his versatility in the 37-20 upset over the Green Bay Packers on a 66-yard catch and run.

    On an intermediate crossing route, Nicks collected the ball at halfway, showed strength by bouncing off a big hit from Charlie Peprah, before taking it to the house—untouched—inside the left pylon.

    Nicks can beat you any number of ways, and with defenses forced to respect the threat of Cruz and Mario Manningham, he receives more favorable matchups than ever before.

    If I was forced to pick my poison in the Super Bowl, I'd choose Nicks. The Patriots have no chance of stopping both receivers for 60 minutes, but given the damage the third-year wideout can create in the open field, his home-run threat must be planned for by defensive coordinators.

Lardarius Webb

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    Is Lardarius Webb the most underrated cornerback in the NFL today?

    Thrust into a full-time starting role this season, the former third-round pick has impressed with five regular-season interceptions (one returned for a score) and a punt return for a touchdown.

    But his performances in the postseason have brought his work to a larger audience, and as a restricted free agent this offseason, his rising stock should secure him a rich long-term deal.

    Webb displayed his athleticism in a full-stretch catch in the AFC Championship game. Brady underthrew a floating long pass to Julian Edelman in the first quarter, leaving Webb in place to make a diving grab.

    It was a great play in that Webb was out of position, but his speed and soft hands ensured he still came down with the ball.

    Coupled with two picks off T.J. Yates throws in the divisional round victory over the Houston Texans, Webb has made his name as one of the league's top cover corners along with Johnathan Joseph, Darrelle Revis, Brent Grimes and Carlos Rogers.

Rob Gronkowski

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    What more can you say about Rob Gronkowski?

    In just two seasons, Gronk has become the heart and soul of the Patriots' high-powered offense, and after a record-breaking season for touchdowns (17) and yards (1,327) for a tight end, the stage was set for a dominant postseason.

    Despite limping off with a gruesome-looking ankle injury against Baltimore last Sunday, Gronk had already managed 232 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs. His presence had been well and truly felt.

    The Denver Broncos had no answer to his unique blend of size, strength and speed, and the image of defensive backs hanging off a Gronkowski thigh as he drags a would-be tackler down the field has become an increasingly frequent sighting.

    Regardless of the opponent, Gronk finds ways to gain separation from his coverage. An overthrown Tom Brady pass early in Sunday's matchup cost him another postseason score, having found the soft spot in the Ravens' zone coverage.

    His production has become so integral to the Patriots' Tiger personnel grouping (two tight ends, two wideouts, one running back) that Bill O'Brien will be forced to change the play calls if Gronk is limited in Indianapolis next week.

    That alone is a measure of his importance.

Eli Manning

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    Many observers—myself included—laughed this offseason when Eli Manning declared that he was an elite quarterback, in the same class as Tom Brady.

    By cutting out the interceptions that marred his 2010 campaign, the Super Bowl XLII champion has backed up his words with remarkable production in 2011. Allied by his reputation for fourth-quarter coolness, he has silenced the doubters in style.

    His playoff numbers—923 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception and a 103.1 passer rating—would be fit for any quarterback in the league.

    In choosing a favorite performance, I'm torn between his masterclass at Lambeau Field, dominating the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round with 330 yards and three scores and the 58 pass attempts in a rain storm in San Francisco a week later.

    What we do know is that the 2010 Manning—or any other vintage, for that matter—would have been incapable of carrying the team on his shoulders in the manner he has achieved this postseason.

    He is blessed with a talented receiving corps, but Manning's improvement has taken their efforts to new heights.

Justin Smith

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    NFL defensive ends and outside linebackers make their fame off the back of sack totals.

    Players like Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware take all the plaudits for their constant production in the pass-rushing game, leaving all-around linemen like Justin Smith trailing in their wake.

    Therefore it was nice to see attention turned to Smith after the divisional round playoffs; he last reached the postseason in 2005 with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Taking one huge play as our example, Smith manhandled the Saints' Jermon Bushrod, marching the offensive lineman back into his own quarterback, before Smith laid a hand on Brees, dragging both men to the ground and forcing the incompletion.

    Smith is a relentless player, and while pocket-collapsing skills are more difficult to identify and appreciate, the viewing public certainly sat up and took notice of his skill set with that single display of power.

    He may be watching the Super Bowl on television this year, but after a sack in each of his playoff games, he deserved so much more.

Osi Umenyiora

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    With Jason Pierre-Paul receiving comparisons to his predecessor Michael Strahan, the New York Giants are blessed with a rich pass-rushing lineage that stretches all the way back to the days of Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

    One of the often-overlooked members of the Big Blue front four is Osi Umenyiora, who, by collecting 3.5 postseason sacks, leads the NFL along with the Texans' Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt.

    As the oldest member of the pass-rushing stable, his contributions include a mentoring role to the raw Pierre-Paul, and his experience of the 2007 playoffs appears to help him to rise up in key spots this year.

    Two sacks in the winner-takes-all division clash with the Dallas Cowboys helped the Giants to clinch the NFC East, before getting after the quarterback in all three postseason matchups so far.

    The Giants own the blueprint on pressuring Tom Brady with a standard four-man rush, and Umenyiora figures to be a key piece in the Super Bowl puzzle for the second time in four years.

Demaryius Thomas

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    Demaryius Thomas provided the single best—and perhaps most dramatic—play of the postseason so far, ending the Pittsburgh Steelers' hopes with a touchdown strike on the first play of overtime in the Denver Broncos' wild-card matchup.

    Thomas is second in the playoff receiving charts with 297 yards, 80 of which came on the final play of the Steelers contest.

    Dick LeBeau's play-calling for the Pittsburgh defense was as curious as it was stubborn. By playing man coverage with a single high safety, the Steelers were daring Tim Tebow to beat them with his arm. So far, so sensible.

    But after the Broncos had proven themselves more than capable of taking advantage of the formation, to persist with the same plan was a recipe for disaster.

    The Steelers bit on a play-action, before a Tebow strike to Thomas was collected at the Denver 38. A stiff-arm saw off Ike Taylor and a foot race with Ryan Mundy finished with the Mile High crowd going berserk on one of the best clutch plays in the league all season.

    After a miserable 2-5 start to the season, the Broncos could not have expected to win a playoff game at home. They have Demaryius Thomas to thank for the fact that they did.

Arian Foster

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    Arian Foster's performances deserved more than a divisional playoff exit in Baltimore.

    The Houston Texans were always going to struggle without starting quarterback Matt Schaub in the playoffs. Rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Yates coped manfully with the responsibility of leading the Texans to the Super Bowl, but he was always going to need support.

    Foster put the offense on his shoulders. Defenses knew this, yet they were powerless to stop him.

    With 285 yards and three scores in two games, Foster saved his best football for the postseason, outshining Ray Rice in the Ravens game, and overwhelming the Bengals' front seven a week earlier with 153 yards and two touchdowns (6.4 average).

    The fact that he played through injury this season is a testament to his toughness and talent. Ray Lewis is a huge fan. From a man who knows his running backs from pounding them for a generation, that is as big an accolade as it comes.

Honorable Mentions

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    There were a number of postseason performances that deserved a mention, but not all could make the list. Who would you have included? Let us know in the comments section below.

    Tom Brady followed up a six-touchdown passing clinic with a sub-par performance against a tough Baltimore Ravens defense.

    Lawrence Tynes is now the hero of two NFC Championship games, but were his kicks for the Giants simply a function of doing his job, or do they deserve more recognition?

    Finally, Brandon Spikes came up with an interception and a fumble recovery for the Patriots in the playoffs, while bolstering a subpar tackling defense.

     

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