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Who will be the unsung heroes of the big game?
The stars of Super Bowl XLVII are easy to pick out. Joe Flacco, the Ravens quarterback, has been playing out of his mind. Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, has played like he’s been around for a decade. Ray Lewis is the emotional center of the Ravens, just like Patrick Willis is for the 49ers. Frank Gore and Ray Rice, the running backs are the engines that make their offenses go.
It’s a good bet that one of those six will be the star of the Super Bowl when the Baltimore Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday night. And it’s a good bet that all of them will make a big play somewhere in the game. But the harder bet is to find the unsung hero. Who will be the guy, like Mario Manningham a year ago, to step out of the shadows and make the play of the game?
The beauty of it is it could be anybody. But here are six guys – three for each team — that may be flying under your radar, but that should have the opportunity to make a big difference at some point in the game:
Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin
Torrey Smith is the No. 1 receiver on this team, but Boldin hasn’t exactly faded into aging, possession receiver territory. He may be 32, but he’s taken advantage of some open space and single coverage in the playoffs by catching 16 passes in three games for 276 yards and three touchdowns. By far the team’s leading receiver, he had two touchdowns in the AFC championship game and he’s not likely to get any extra attention as long as Smith is on the other side.
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta
He doesn’t fit into the Ravens’ offense the way Todd Heap used to fit, and his numbers are decent, but not great in an era of explosive tight ends. But he’s a sneaky weapon, way down the list behind Smith, Boldin, Rice and probably one or two others. Witness his 7 catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 15 game against Denver for proof of what he can do. He also has two touchdowns in the playoffs. Lose track of him, and he can make a defense pay.
49ers running back LaMichael James
The emergence of Colin Kaepernick and his ability to run has really diminished the need for a second running back and LaMichael James is an extreme situational player. But he had five runs for 34 yards in the NFC championship game and his 15-yard touchdown run was an incredible combination of burst and speed. When he gets going, he’s like a cannonball, which makes him always one broken tackle away from a game-changing play.
49ers receiver Randy Moss
There was a time not that long ago that Moss was still the most dangerous player on most fields he was on. Now, he’s a bit player in the 49ers offense. The bigger threats are Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Gore. But the Ravens will overlook Moss at their own peril. He has five catches for 71 yards in two playoff games, but he’s still got the size, skill and hands to make big plays. Maybe the consistent speed isn’t there, but all it takes is one big catch to change a game.
Ravens running back Bernard Pierce
This running game belongs to Rice, but the speed and shiftiness of the Ravens’ starter puts the defense on its heels and allows the 6-foot, 218-pound Pierce to come in and knock them over. A very effective 2 in the 1-2 punch, the rookie has only had 27 carries through three playoff games, but he’s rushed for 169 yards – or 6.3 yards per carry. He’s a threat to break a big run if the defense isn’t on its toes, and he can wear them down while Rice gets a breather on the sidelines.
49ers return man Ted Ginn Jr.
He has been solid but unspectacular in the playoffs, until a 20-yard return to the Atlanta 38 put the 49ers in position for the game-winning touchdown last week. He still has the skills and speed to break a big return and he needs to be contained by the Ravens. And if you doubt his importance, just remember what happened in the NFC championship game last season, when Ginn was injured and his replacement, Kyle Williams, literally fumbled away a trip to Super Bowl XLVI.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Ravens vs. 49ers and the history of the big game.