Super Bowl 2012: 10 Players Who Will Steal the Show in Indianapolis

Louis HamweyAnalyst IIIFebruary 2, 2012

Super Bowl 2012: 10 Players Who Will Steal the Show in Indianapolis

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    With the Super Bowl four days, away predictions are pouring in from all over. Most disagree with the Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots being a three-and-a-half point favorite over the New York Giants given the fact that the Giants have been the best team in football this calendar year.

    Not to mention Eli Manning’s fourth-quarter drive against the Patriots in week nine led the G-men to a victory in New England.

    However, I have never been one to make much out of these half-educated guesses on who will be the better team come Feb. 5. There are far too many factors going into the matchup for anyone to really know what’s going to happen.

    How will Belichick deploy his tight ends? Where will the Pats pass rush come from? Can Eli Manning put together another great performance?

    Too much time between the last game and this one has passed. When you give two great football minds like Belichick and Tom Coughlin (who operate as steel traps, I might add) this much time to scheme, there is very little you can pick up from the previous 19 games that will tell you anything on how this one will unfold.

    But it’s still fun to speculate, and even more so when you are doing it purely for enjoyment. Here are 10 players that can steal the show in Indy.

Tom Brady

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    Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.

    Tom “the golden boy” Brady is by far the most accomplished player on either teams. The Patriots’ quarterback is seeking his fourth Super Bowl ring. This accomplishment would put him in the company of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most Super Bowl wins by a starting quarterback.

    The numbers will show that he has not been at his best this season, but the eye will leave you a little more skeptical. Sure, he played a poor game against Baltimore in the conference championship, but his six touchdowns against a good Denver defense refutes any suggestion that he is done.

    Going into the Super Bowl, most questions have centered around the health of Brady’s favorite touchdown target Rob Gronkowski. Should he be fit to play, Brady’s stock will go up that much more in Vegas.

    However, if Gronkowski isn’t fit, Brady has the opportunity to show how great of a quarterback he really is.

    He orchestrated the No. 2 offense in the league without a deep threat or strong running game. Give him the players Aaron Rodgers had to throw to and we may have seen the greatest season for a quarterback of all time.

    Brady has made a habit of making others better through his play. If he can do the same on Sunday, not only should the Patriots win, but Brady will be the talk of the game.

Eli Manning

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    Continuing the obvious streak is Brady’s opponent, Eli Manning.

    The 2004 No. 1 overall pick is playing in his second Super Bowl after upsetting the Patriots hopes of having the first 19-0 season back in 2008. His incredible escape out of the clutches of Pats linemen and his pass to David Tyree has become an iconic moment in the game's history and has cemented Manning’s place in the lore of greatness.

    However, if you ask Manning, I’m sure that he would view that play as no more than a clip on the highlight reel and would much rather prefer that he be remembered for multiple rings as of this Sunday.

    Oddly enough for Eli, his return to the Super Bowl has directed more attention toward his older brother than anything. Peyton’s injury that kept him out all season has been the most talked about thing in Indy and most comments about his brother are in relation to Peyton himself: Will Eli go one up on Peyton? Can Eli win in the house his brother built? Who will be the greater Manning?

    Eli has taken it all in stride and, like a true professional, answered the media in as vague terms as possible until they quit asking. But, come Sunday, it will be all about Eli (in between shots of Peyton in the sky box of course).

    If Manning can out play the future first-ballot Hall of Famer Brady for the third straight time and second in the Super Bowl, then he will undoubtedly have more rings than his older brother and be the one everyone talks about on Monday.

Rob Gronkowsi

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    Injured or not, this behemoth of a man is playing!

    The most talked about ankle in New England since Curt Schilling’s during the 2004 World Series has been the center of attention the past two weeks.

    Gronk injured his left ankle in the AFC championship game after being tackled. Doctors diagnosed it as a high ankle sprain and he spent the next week in a walking boot. The boot has since come off, but it is still tender as he is yet to practice.

    But don’t for a second think that the injury will stop him. He has said time and time again that he expects to play and I have little doubt he won’t at least try.

    Before the ball kicks off, the only thing challenging Peyton Manning for screen time will be this ankle. As the game goes on, you can be assured you will see more dirty sock than you thought possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC hired an extremely short cameraman for a direct line view of the ankle.

    Gronk has been the Pats leading touchdown threat with 17 on the season, an NFL record for tight ends. Even if he's not at 100 percent, he poses a matchup problem for a defense with his size and speed.

    He will be the most talked about single player going into the game and if he can push through the pain and have a big night, will be the most talked about coming out as well.

Victor Cruz

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    This salsa dancin’ machine has been the most electrifying player of the year for the Giants.

    With the speed and elusiveness to turn an eight-yard pitch-and-catch into a 50-yard touchdown, the second-year receiver out of UMass has made only Manning happier than the fans who get to watch him.

    He has modest numbers when it comes to touchdowns (nine on the season), but he seems to have them at the most opportune times, including a 99-yarder against the Jets that set the G-men on this path to the Super Bowl.

    While Hakeem Nicks and Mario Mannginham have been a bit more reliable for route running and catches, Cruz still is the biggest threat as he can change the momentum of a game with one cut back and 40-yard all-out sprint.

    For a Patriots defense that has not been all that great this season, Cruz has a chance to have a big night.

    Belichick’s make shift secondary’s biggest problem is fundamentals like tackling. Cruz feeds off mistakes and exploits them for huge gains and even a great mind like Belichick can’t teach his players to be better tacklers in two weeks.

    Just as easily as Cruz could finish with six catches for 30 yards he could end up with four for 110 and two scores. If the latter occurs, then he will be the face we remember from this game.

Aaron Hernandez

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    Let’s say Gronkowski doesn't play, does that mean the Patriots’ tight end packages are no longer useful? No. Does that mean they are diminished? Absolutely not. Unlike a few teams who have a good tight end threat, the Patriots are lucky enough to have two very good tight ends.

    Aaron Hernandez really established himself last season when he became one of Tom Brady’s favorite touchdown targets, with six in his rookie year. It was the first time Belichick had this kind of “new age” tight end and it was like watching a kid in a candy store.

    Hernandez has taken a bit of a back seat this season statistically as Gronkowski has become the focal point of their attack. However, that does not mean Hernandez has not been helpful. He has caught seven touchdowns on the season and is the third leading receiver.

    There is little doubt Gronkowski will play, but the question really will be how healthy is he? Odds are he won’t be 100 percent and if so how much will it slow him down?

    Only Belichick knows the answer to these questions and will plan accordingly. But if Gronk isn’t at his best, he could be used as a decoy as Hernandez beats up on this Giants defense.

    He is capable of having the same exact game we expect Gronkowski to have and if he does, he will be hailed as the one who stepped up big in the spot light.

Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Beast. Animal. Superhuman. Freak. Whatever your slightly insulting adjective you want to use to describe him, it would probably be accurate. He is quicker than guards and stronger than tackles. He is the NFL’s equivalent of Lebron James: the total athlete that is a matchup nightmare for any offensive coordinator.

    Leading the team with 16.5 sacks on the season, he took over and made the defensive line his own as Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were out earlier in the season. Their return only improved Pierre-Paul’s play as he was able to get in more one-on-one blocking situations.

    While he has not been at his best in the sack department this postseason, he did have six in the last four games of the regular season and blocked a game-winning field goal try by the Dallas Cowboys, which proved critical in them even getting into the playoffs.

    So, now he faces the Patriots in the biggest game of his life. Most of the time, if you give two weeks to Bill Belichick to prepare for anything, the hooded genius will come out on top. But in the case of Pierre-Paul it is difficult to scheme against pure ability.

    And who knows, with Belichick getting tricky on gadget plays and interesting tight end formations, you could even see Pierre-Paul occasionally drop back into coverage. At the very least, he should be responsible for giving Gronk and Hernandez a bump at the line to get them off their routes.

    He will need to show up Sunday if the Giants want any chance of winning this game. But if he shows up with all he’s got, he could make the big plays that dominate this game.

Vince Wilfork

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    There is not much love given to the Patriots defense and rightly so. They have been one of the worst Belichick has ever had. In the end, it doesn’t matter should they win Sunday.

    However, one player has been great, the same player who has been great since 2004, Vince Wilfork.

    The 300-plus pound nose tackle is the most consistent player on the Patriots defense. He has dominated the line of scrimmage this season and has been the anchor that has kept opponents rush totals at a modest 117 yards per game and 13 touchdowns.

    But what Wilfork can really do is what he did against Baltimore two weeks ago.

    With the Ravens driving and a third and three at the Pats 30-yard line, Wilfork stuffed Ray Rice up the middle for a three-yard loss. The very next play, with the Ravens going for it on fourth and six, Wilfork broke through the line and had his hand on Joe Flacco almost as soon as he got the snap, forcing Flacco to throw the ball away.

    Wilfork may not be the one who is going to have the most sacks or even tackles, but he does have that potential to show up at the moment he is needed and make the biggest play of the game.

Hakeem Nicks

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    Nicks and Coughlin must be close, if no more than for the fact that their time in New York has been very similar to one another’s – they both struggle to make it through the regular season, but come the new year, it’s their time to shine.

    The first-round draft pick in 2009 has not been the great prodigy he was expected to be, that is until the divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. As Hicks launched himself into the air and grabbed the Hail Mary before half time, he validated himself and has been doing so ever since.

    Nicks leads the players in receptions, yards and touchdowns in the postseason. He has shown up in a big way for the G-men and it has paid off in his first Super Bowl appearance.

    Like Cruz, he has the potential to do some real damage against this Pats secondary. Just look at what he was able to do against good defenses like San Francisco and a Hall of Fame corner back in Charles Woodson.

    It is obvious that the Pats will plan for Nicks in one way or another, but it may not matter. Nicks could take the Giants to their fourth Super Bowl title and become the first receiver since Santonio Holmes to be the MVP of the game.

Deion Branch

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    “Really?” you may be asking, but just hear me out. Remember, this is about who steals the show, not who has the best game.

    Branch was once a saint in the ranks of New England. He was the MVP of the 2005 Super Bowl, the last time the Patriots won. Since then, he went to Seattle for an unspectacular stay, but returned to New England for another shot at glory.

    His name has been lost amongst the hubbub of tight ends and slot receivers. The lack of a deep threat has become the moniker with which to describe this Patriots offense. But even then Branch has put together decent numbers averaging 13.8 yards per catch.

    Belichick has always been known for doing the unexpected in a conventional way. While he is not going to bust out trick plays every other possession, he will confuse you with different primary targets than you may have expected.

    With all the talk around the tight ends and Wes Welker this season, the Giants will surely have to plan for them. Do not be surprised if Branch begins to find himself targeted more.

    And while he most likely won’t be the best on the night in the stats department, he could very well be the one who makes the big play to win it for New England.

    He is a veteran in his twilight years returning to the place where he first became a star only to reach that glory again. Sounds like a good story to me and one that will surely be the talk of everyone.

Antrel Rolle

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    Games like this are measured in single moments. Yes, the outcome is relative to the entire 60 minutes of game time, but the memory will come down to a handful of plays.

    While most of the attention of the Giants' defense has been an incredible front four and a strong secondary, when healthy, Rolle has quietly led the team in tackles, both in the regular season and post season, from the linebacker spot.

    With a Patriots offense that relies on short yards to move the ball, Rolle will be on high alert and will be necessary to stop them from moving the chains.

    I don’t really see Rolle being a tremendous part of this game in highlights. He will get tackles and he will be important in the overall outcome, but he is not a big-play guy.

    But for those who watch the game with a more critical eye than the rest, Rolle may figure as the most influential player on the field. Should he continue his form, Brady may just stop dead in his tracks. If he dips a little, he could be the goat that costs them the game.

    Either way, Rolle could be the most talked about player after the final whistle blows.

Who Will You Be Talking About?

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    Obviously everyone on this list has just as much of a chance of being memorable as forgettable on Sunday.

    So, who do you think will steal the show at this year's Super Bowl? Your opinion is as good as mine so make it known!