Contrary to popular belief, next Sunday's Super Bowl will not merely be a battle to the death between coaches John and Jim Harbaugh. It won't be Joe Flacco versus Colin Kaepernick or Ray Lewis versus the world either.
Football is a team sport in every sense of the word. Unlike, say, basketball, where one man can literally put an entire team on his back (see: 2006-07 Cavaliers), football requires proficiency in virtually all facets of the game.
Even if media coverage this week will not revolve around these players, their performances could well determine the outcome of Super Bowl XLVII. That makes them worth spending at least some time examining.
LB Dannell Ellerbe, Baltimore Ravens
Undrafted out of Georgia in 2009 and underutilized during most of his Baltimore tenure, Ellerbe has been a revelation since taking over for Ray Lewis midseason. Even after Ray-Ray returned to the lineup, the hulking tackler played every defensive snap against Denver and New England, accumulating 14 tackles and one interception in both contests.
He's been pretty good in his extended action, too. Per Football Outsiders:
Ellerbe finished the regular season with 13 games and only seven starts, but he was just outside the top 20 at his position in plays and successes, and just outside the top 10 in defeats.
But San Francisco may well be his stiffest competition to date. In one respect, the Niners are shattering the mold by employing the "read-option" offense. But, on the other hand, they're an old-school throwback to the days of power football. More so than any other team in this year's playoffs, they rely on their running backs to pick up yards, doing so up the middle.
Opposite Ray Lewis and up against the best run-blocking linemen in football, Ellerbe will be tasked with slowing down those A-gap runs. If he can, it will throw a fatal wrench into San Francisco's offense.
CB Tarell Brown
The 49ers have one of the NFL's best secondaries, including three Pro Bowl players this year, but no bona fide blue-chip names. They function as a unit, working best as a team rather than a collection of individuals.
No one better typifies that anonymity than sixth-year player Tarell Brown, who—despite being a relative unknown in casual football circles—has emerged as a borderline-elite cornerback.
Of 113 qualified players at the position, Brown ranked fourth according to Pro Football Focus' pass coverage ratings this season. Only Richard Sherman, Casey Hayward and Charles Tillman (all much well-known commodities) ranked higher.
Whether against Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith Sunday, Brown will be counted on to continue that stellar play. Both Ravens' receivers are peaking at the right time, and neither will be easy to slow down. But if Brown looks as good as he did against, say, the Packers, he'll be able to dutifully buck that trend.
OT Bryant McKinnie, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens' offensive line wasn't bad, per se, for most of the season. But it wasn't great either. That, however, has changed of late.
Since subbing in Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, and moving Michael Oher (ironically) from Flacco's blind side to a more natural spot on the other side, Baltimore's offensive line has been much, much better. It's easy to attribute this upswing to Ray Lewis' return or Joe Flacco's precision, but blocking has been just as important (if not more so) than any single factor.
Back in his Vikings days, McKinnie was held in high esteem as one of the league's top pass-blockers. That reputation has waned a bit since moving to Baltimore in 2011, but the talent is still there.
It must remain there come Sunday, when Aldon Smith will have his ears pinned back in assault. He loves rushing off the offense's left side, and should spend most of his game jostling with the Ravens' veteran tackle.
When Smith isn't getting to the quarterback, San Francisco's defense can struggle. When he does, it looks like the NFL's best unit. Bryant McKinnie's performance will decide how it looks in New Orleans.