11 players who may steal the Super Bowl spotlight, by Chris Wesseling
Jake Ballard, Giants tight end
After battling a knee injury for the past month, Ballard finally feels better than he has since early December. A key factor in the Week 9 victory over New England, Ballard came up huge on the final drive with a twisting 28-yard reception on third down before winning the game with a one-yard touchdown at the buzzer. Mislabeled as a blocking specialist, Ballard's 604 regular-season yards are more than former starter Kevin Boss ever posted in a single season.
David Diehl, Giants left tackle
Diehl's play has actually rebounded since kicking outside to Eli Manning's blindside two months ago, but he was abused by Justin Smith and the the 49ers. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Giants' offensive line allowed 15 more pressures than any other team in the regular season and has added 61 more since the playoffs started. If Diehl can stem the tide, Manning has a good shot to play the hero once again.
Julian Edelman, Patriots receiver/cornerback/kick returner
The ultimate jack-of-all-trades, this former college quarterback played 27 snaps apiece on offense and defense in the AFC Championship game. Edelman took a handoff, made a diving catch, returned punts, covered Anquan Boldin, and even sprung Aaron Hernandez for a nine-yard run with an outstanding block. With Rob Gronkowski (ankle) banged up, Edelman may be called on to make an extra play or two in crunch time.
Deon Grant, Giants strong safety
Unlike most teams, the Giants predominantly play with three safeties. Grant joins Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle in all nickel packages, which is especially important against a Patriots offense that has been operating out of the no-huddle formation in the playoffs. The Giants prefer to stay in man coverage, and Grant made several plays matched up on Rob Gronkowski back in Week 9. With Gronk hobbled, the matchup could be in Grant's favor.
Linval Joseph, Giants defensive tackle
Ferocious pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora are household names up front, but Joseph has been an animal inside. The stout first-year starter has not only plugged a leak in the run defense, but also added two quarterback pressures in each of the three playoff wins. He can help turn the Patriots offense one-sided in the Super Bowl.
Kyle Love, Patriots defensive tackle
While Vince Wilfork deservedly hogs the spotlight on the defensive line, Love's emergence at nose tackle is a major reason the Pats haven't lost since dumping Albert Haynesworth in early November. The Giants will see a different defense in the Super Bowl than they faced in Week 9, as the Pats have reverted to Bill Belichick's staple 3-4 front with Love plugging the middle. New England's defensive line has played near flawless football in the two playoff wins.
Mario Manningham, Giants receiver
Though he's been lost in the shadow of breakout star Victor Cruz, Manningham made the key catch in last week's NFC Championship game. Now that Manningham's balky knee is healthy, the Giants figure to go three-wide to attack the Patriots' secondary with a trio whose 4,134 receiving yards led the NFL. A favorite red-zone target of Eli Manning, Manningham has scored in all three playoff games and has notched 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Sterling Moore, Patriots cornerback
Waived by the Patriots in mid-December, Moore made the key play to knock the ball out of Lee Evans' hands during the AFC Championship and keep the season alive. It may not have even been his best play, however. Moore's third-down pass breakup on tight end Dennis Pitta was even more sensational, and he made a great tackle on the final punt return. Now entrenched as a starter, Moore will have his hands full with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham.
Rob Ninkovich, Patriots linebacker
Lacking in play-making ability throughout the season, the Pats linebackers are finally bringing pressure without blitzing. After burning the Broncos for two sacks, two pressures, and another hit on Tim Tebow, Ninkovich added three more pressures and another half-sack against the Ravens. Ninkovich and Mark Anderson aren't household names, but the matchup is in their favor against a Giants offensive line that has struggled to pass protect.
Danny Ware, Giants running back
The Giants are known for their backfield tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, but Ware often enters on third downs as a pass protector and outlet receiver. In fact, Ware has played the same number of snaps as Jacobs the past two weeks. Much like the Pats' Danny Woodhead, Ware could play a pivotal role in the two-minute drill of a tight game.
Danny Woodhead, Patriots running back
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is New England's leading rusher, but it was Woodhead who was featured on a series of shotgun draws back in Week 9. Now that the Giants' vaunted front-four is healthy and playing havoc with opposing passers, the Pats figure to go heavy on blockers up front with Woodhead as a chip blocker and quick dumpoff option for Tom Brady. If it comes down to a two-minute drive, Woodhead will be on the field at the end.