Super Bowl XLVII is mere days away, as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens for a shot at reaching the NFL's pinnacle. There isn't any shortage of star power in this clash, but there are several underrated players that will be bigger factors than many expect.
Legendary Ravens LB Ray Lewis will no doubt dominate the headlines, as will opposing QBs Colin Kaepernick for his dual-threat style and Joe Flacco for his recent brilliant postseason stretch.
However, here is a breakdown of players that may be passed over at first glance, but should figure prominently into Sunday's outcome.
Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens
A pending free agent this summer, the Ravens should make sure to lock up Pitta along with Flacco.
Pitta had five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore's AFC Championship victory against the New England Patriots, and tied Ray Rice as the team's second-leading pass-catcher in the regular season with 61 receptions.
Baltimore has had immense success throwing deep in recent weeks, and will likely look to get Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith involved in that regard. The Niners got beat a ton over the top in Atlanta, particularly early on.
That means the middle of the field will be open, and Pitta will have room to roam. No matter who is covering him, he has the ability to win one-on-one matchups.
At 6'4" and 245 pounds, Pitta gives Flacco a massive red-zone target, which helped him finish second to Smith with seven touchdowns in 2012.
The Ravens should find their way into the scoring zone several times in this one, and Pitta will be the go-to guy in those situations. It wouldn't be a shock if he found the end zone at least once. Watch for him especially to slip out of a block on a play-action pass for a potential score.
Delanie Walker, TE, San Francisco 49ers
The Niners usually have Walker in for blocking in both running and passing situations. Since Colin Kaepernick took over under center for San Francisco, though, Walker's role as a receiver has increased.
Walker is the ultimate sleeper pick for an unexpected, largely unheralded player to step up and have a monster game on pro football's biggest stage. He logged just one reception for 20 yards in the NFC Championship game and has trouble consistently catching the ball.
Call him a sleepwalker, if you will.
Sorry—bad jokes aside, there is serious breakout potential for Walker in this one. The defense will be keying in on the multifaceted rushing that the Niners present with Frank Gore, Kaepernick and the speedy LaMichael James.
Walker's tight end teammate Vernon Davis will also draw plenty of attention after reemerging as a weapon against the Atlanta Falcons. Oh, and there's Michael Crabtree, the Niners' No. 1 receiver who has been nearly impossible to guard lately.
That should leave Walker with plenty of operating space to look the ball in. Super Bowls are designed for viewers to expect the unexpected. In that context, Walker is a prime candidate to be a hero in New Orleans.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Baltimore Ravens
The rookie out of Temple has gone about his business rather quietly, but he has a much higher yards per carry average of 6.3 than Rice's 3.9 this postseason.
Pierce blends an imposing physical presence to go along with deceptive speed, and should be a handful for even the extremely physical defense of the Niners to handle.
Typically, the bigger running back shoulders the load while the more undersized player becomes a change-of-pace. The opposite has been true with Rice and Pierce this season, but since Jim Caldwell began calling the plays, Pierce's role has perpetually increased.
As ESPN Stats & Info points out, Pierce has been on the field for nearly a third of Baltimore's offensive snaps, compared to just 17 percent in his first 13 games under former OC Cam Cameron.
With Pierce's ability to pick up short-yardage conversions, he should be considered a strong candidate for first touchdown of the game. The Niners have struggled to start well this postseason, and the Ravens offense is simply rolling right now.
Scoring the first TD in the Super Bowl would make Pierce a household name, and he may very well out-rush Rice in this game.
Ahmad Brooks, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Apparently a shoulder sprain suffered in the second quarter of the Atlanta game isn't enough to keep Brooks out of the lineup in the Superdome, according to a report by NFL Network's Albert Breer.
In fact, Brooks indicated that he could have played if the game were this past Sunday. That is an indication of the toughness that the gritty, 28-year-old linebacker brings to the Niners' front seven.
Brooks made a key pass breakup in the closing moments of the NFC Championship despite the injury, denying the Falcons a golden opportunity to convert a third down. He often is overshadowed by the likes of Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
That's well-deserved, as those are three of the biggest defensive stars in the entire league. But that doesn't take away how big of an impact Brooks makes.
It will be absolutely critical for Brooks to hold up against the pass, as the Niners have been getting beat deep recently and will likely lay off to combat the deep-ball potential that Flacco and his plethora of weapons have.
Don't be surprised if Baltimore throws a lot at Brooks as a necessity of picking poisons—and don't be surprised if he makes a play on the ball for a game-changing interception.
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