Super Bowl 2013: Stars Who Must Play in Big Game to Cement NFL Legacy

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos looks toward the sideline as he warms up before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 30, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 38-3. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Playoff time in the NFL brings up talk about legacies. Everybody has one, though some are much better than others. 

The eight teams vying to play in Super Bowl XLVII all want to create their own legacy by playing better than they ever have and being able to call themselves a champion. Of course, just winning a title isn't good enough. 

If Ben Roethlisberger had played in just the one Super Bowl against Seattle when he was dreadful, no one would talk about him as a potential Hall of Famer. It was his performance against Arizona three years later that changed our perception of him. 

Here are the players left in the postseason who need to make a run to New Orleans in order to cement their place in NFL history. 


Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning

If Manning were to walk away from the NFL today without ever taking another snap, he would be in the conversation as the greatest quarterback in history. His teams have won at least 10 games in 12 of his 14 seasons (excluding 2011 from his career since he didn't take a snap). 

That Super Bowl win with the Colts in 2007 helped Manning shed his legacy as a choker, which dated back to his days in college at Tennessee. But that is the only championship he has won in his career. 

His incredible stats and sterling resume don't mean anything to a lot of analysts. All they will say is that Manning was only able to win one championship. It's nitpicking, but that's how NFL analysis works. 

Add to that the fact that this year's Broncos team is arguably the best that he has ever played for when you factor in offense, defense and special teams, and Manning can go from being in the conversation as best quarterback ever to the best ever. 


San Francisco 49ers LB Patrick Willis

Admittedly, trying to find players other than quarterbacks who need to win in the postseason to cement their legacies can be a bit taxing. But Willis was actually an easy choice for two reasons. 

First, with Ray Lewis retiring at the end of Baltimore's playoff run, the title of best middle linebacker in the NFL is up for grabs. Willis has been regarded as the next Ray Lewis for years, has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons and made four All-Pro teams. 

Second, Willis is the leader of the defense that is regarded as, if not the best, one of the very best in the NFL. The window of opportunity for teams to win a Super Bowl being led by their defense is much smaller than that of a team with an elite quarterback. 

The 49ers are playing in just their third playoff game since Willis was drafted by the franchise, so it's not like he has had ample opportunities to get to the big game. But with the offense looking more explosive this year than it did in 2011, this could be their best chance to get there. 


Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez

Gonzalez is arguably the best tight end in NFL history. He holds NFL records for receptions (1,242), yards (14,268) and touchdown catches (103) by a tight end. The one thing missing from his sterling resume is a Super Bowl. 

Actually, winning a playoff game is the first step on Gonzalez's journey. He has played in just five postseason games in his 16-year career. Sunday's showdown with Seattle will be No. 6. His teams are 0-5, and he has largely been a non-factor. 

Gonzalez has 16 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs. Despite being 36 years old, he still caught 93 catches for 930 yards and 10 touchdowns. This feels like his best chance to win a postseason game. 

If Gonzalez wants to change his legacy, this could be the last real chance for him to make a dent in the postseason.