We know Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez.
We know Troy Polamalu, Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher and Darrelle Revis.
We don't know very much about Jonathan Scott, Scott Wells, Tim Jennings or Sione Pouha. Yet each of them, as well as other "unknowns',' may play as big a role in Sunday's championship games as the stars and "stars.''
These aren't matchups -- I spent quite a while fighting editors who wanted "matchups'' for big games, then insisted that we list offensive line against offensive line, when that was irrelevant because offensive linemen don't play against each other. We changed nearly two decades ago to the point where we were matching offensive lines against defensive lines, and wide receivers against defensive backs, instead of other wide receivers.
Better, but nothing really develops the way we project them in these matchups.
What follows are a dozen unsung players -- three from each of the four semifinalists -- whose performances Sunday may be a determining factor in which teams go to the Super Bowl.
Did anyone think, for example, that the play that would beat Baltimore for Pittsburgh would be a David Tyree-like catch made by Antonio Brown, a sixth-round pick from Central Michigan, whose main job for most of the season had been returning kickoffs?
So, in order of position, a dozen players to watch out of the corner of your eye while the TV folks are carrying on about Ben, Aaron, Jay and Mark. In some cases (see: Tim Jennings), they also may be the players the other team targets.
Green Bay at Chicago
1. Desmond Bishop, LB, No. 55, Packers: Although Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk have remained standing all season, the rest of the Green Bay linebacking corps keeps going on injured reserve, where 15 Packers reside. The most important of them is Nick Barnett, but Bishop (above) has fit in seamlessly in his place. A sixth-round pick from Cal in 2007 (I once heard an announcer refer to it as "little Cal-Berkeley''), he's started 12 games after starting one in his first three seasons and has 103 tackles, three sacks and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown. His quickness is perfect for coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, and he will be dangerous because the Bears will be paying so much attention to Matthews and corner Charles Woodson.
2. Scott Wells, C, No. 63, Packers: Center is a hereditary position at the Pro Bowl, so the NFC centers are Dallas' Andre Gurode, who rarely has been better than ordinary, and the Giants' Shaun O'Hara, who was out with an injury for most of the season (yeah, so much for the Pro Bowl). Wells, an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, has been one of the keys to protecting Rodgers. He's also typical of players many good teams get for their offensive lines -- low-round picks or undrafted players who are developed slowly. That's generally what the Packers do (yes, they took Brian Bulaga in the first round this year) and is another reason why the unsung Ted Thompson has been a Pro Bowler at GM.
3. Charlie Peprah, SS, No. 26, Packers: What the Brits would call a "third-choice'' starter, Peprah was forced into the lineup by more of those injuries and is still playing despite the return of Atari Bigby, one of the players he replaced. Originally drafted from Alabama by the Giants in the sixth round in 2006, he never made it through training camp, then hung around Green Bay as ... a third choice ... for a couple of years, before being cut and picked up by Atlanta. Brought back by the Packers in desperation, he has 63 of his 90 career tackles this season and his only two career interceptions. Another example of Thompson's patience (although in this case, it was more desperation). An example of his growing status? He was No. 46 on the camp roster, but allowed to switch to No. 26 when he made the team.
4. Tim Jennings, CB, No. 26, Bears: Is he a "big-game'' player? Well, he was in two Super Bowls with the Colts after being a late second-round pick from Georgia in 2006, the third Jennings taken behind Kelly (Seahawks) and Greg (Green Bay). Ironic, because one of the keys to this game may be how he fares against Greg (OK, we can't avoid matchups in some instances.) The plus for him is quickness, the minus is his size -- he's listed at 5-foot-8 but may be shorter. The quickness trumps the lack of height for the Bears because of the pressure on the quarterback and Urlacher's ability to get deep drops. But ... if Rodgers gets time, he may be throwing in Jennings' direction.
5. Olin Kreutz, C, No. 57, Bears: Interesting that he didn't make the Pro Bowl because he used to hold one of those hereditary center spots -- he made it six straight seasons from 2001-2006. Perhaps it's because the lingering impression of the Bears is that Sunday night game against the Giants in which Cutler was sacked nine times in the first half. In other words, Chicago's OL stunk on national television. But Kreutz is one reason why its been fixed -- he's been around for 13 seasons, makes the blocking calls for the OL and will be especially important against Capers' deceptive schemes.
6. Chester Taylor, RB, No. 29, Bears: Just a hunch, but he may play a big role if Cutler does what he should and eschews the deep pass on third down for the short one to one of the best third-down backs of the decade. He did not have a great year statistically -- only 2.4 yards per carry and 20 receptions compared to a 4.5 average and 265 catches in four seasons each with Baltimore and Minnesota -- yes, he was in last season's championship game. One reason may be that his skills are similar to the skills of starter Matt Forte. Just a hunch, but watch him Sunday.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh
7. Sione Pouha, NT, No. 91, Jets: Who knows with 3-4 nose tackles? Unless, like in the case of Kris Jenkins, who went down this season in the opening game for the Jets, they've been 4-3 tackles who make big plays. Pouha, a third-round pick from Utah in 2005, may fit the Jets scheme as well or better. So he had 59 tackles and two sacks in 16 games? Nose tackles aren't supposed to tackle, they're supposed to keep opposing linemen off the linebackers. Look to Pouha if you think David Harris and Bart Scott had good seasons -- and they did although Scott slipped a little.
8. LaDanian Tomlinson, RB, No. 21, Jets: OK, we know, everyone's heard of this guy (although as a Hall of Fame voter, I never refer to anyone as a "future Hall of Famer'' because I know the intricacies of the process.) But if there was a key to the Jets' offense, especially early in the season, Tomlinson was it after being written off in San Diego at age 31. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry, falling off late but still bettering last season's 3.3 with the Chargers by almost a yard. Just as important, his 52 catches gave the inexperienced Sanchez the short outlet he didn't have a year ago, when he had 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions compared to 17 and 13 this season.
9. Wayne Hunter, RT, No. 78, Jets: He's had a typical career for an offensive lineman -- appearing in only 47 games in seven seasons with Seattle, Jacksonville and now the Jets, and his four starts this season were three more than he'd made in his previous six. In other words, either a late bloomer or a desperate choice to replace the injured Damien Woody. Let's take the first -- the experienced Woody was slowing down when he was hurt. LaMarr Woodley usually lines up on Hunter's side, but he'll also see James Harrison. He'll get help, but he must keep those two off Sanchez.
10. Jonathan Scott, LT, No. 72, Steelers: Started 14 games in his first four seasons with the Lions and Bills, two teams that hardly epitomize NFL success. Signed by the Steelers to be a backup to Willie Colon and Max Starks and forced into a starting job when they were hurt. He's a serviceable left tackle on a line where tackle is the weakest link (see Flozell Adams, age 35 and "sick'' last week against Baltimore on the right side). Scott gets to block Shaun Ellis or Jason Taylor or Calvin Pace, all of whom can cause problems.
11. Mike Wallace, WR, No. 17, Steelers: The one Steeler who can stretch the defense. With Revis probably covering Hines Ward, Wallace will have a chance to beat Antonio Cromartie to the inside -- he has the size to match up with Cromartie, and Cromartie overplays to the outside. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, he has the potential to make a big play that can change things.
12. Ryan Clark, FS, No. 25, Steelers: With Polamalu still coming back from an Achilles injury, Clark played his role last week, with a big interception that set up a score against the Ravens. An undrafted free agent coming out of LSU in 2002, he made the Giants, spent two years there and then went to Washington, where he was a starter for two years until Dan Snyder decided to let him go when he spent $20 million to sign Adam Archuleta as part of his "name'' campaign. Clark has blossomed with the Steelers, starting every game for which he's been healthy, including two Super Bowls, both won by the Steelers. He'll be the "over the top'' guy Sunday against Braylon Edwards and former teammate Santonio Holmes.
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