You know Tom Brady is going to be in the spotlight in Super Bowl LI Sunday on FOX. So, too, are Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and Julian Edelman and most of the rest of the high-scoring offenses of both teams. But which players might sneak up and be the unsung heroes? We asked Nick Wright and Cris Carter, hosts of the Make Me Smarter Football Podcast, to give us six names they like to play the part.
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Brian Poole, CB, Falcons
The undrafted free agent was a pleasant surprise in Atlanta, playing all 16 games and recording an interception and a sack along with 42 tackles. He spent much of his time in the NFC Championship game defending the Packers' top threats — Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. He'll have his hands full again guarding Brady's targets on Sunday. Neutralizing Edelman, Chris Hogan and the rest is critical for the Falcons.
A Pro Bowler again after a five-year absence, McCourty and the Patriots were 12th in the league in passing yards allowed — but they did it without facing a single quarterback in the top 10 in QBR all season. No. 1 in that category? Matt Ryan. With most expecting a high-scoring aerial affair, a few big plays in the defensive backfield could swing the fortunes New England's way.
The center doesn't usually get a lot of attention, but Cris Carter thinks Mack was one of the biggest additions for Atlanta. Signed as a free agent before the season, the four-time Pro Bowler brings great skill and experience to an important position, relieving a lot of the communication burden on Ryan. The team also runs successfully up the middle in large part because of Mack. His talents, though perhaps hard to pick up on a broadcast, could make the difference.
The Patriots ranked third in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed, in no small part due to Branch clogging up the middle. The Falcons, meanwhile, aren't all Ryan to Jones — they had the league's fifth-best rushing offense too. Branch will play a huge role in putting a dent in the Atlanta game plan.
As the star of Atlanta's defense, Beasley may not be very "unsung" to the average football fan. But in a buildup that has so often focused its talk on the legacies of Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, as well as the emergence of Ryan, it's easy to overlook the second-year man who led the league in sacks (15.5) and was a first-team All-Pro. If Atlanta needs a defensive stop or a big play late, Beasley could end up the hero in a hurry.
Belichick and Co. are likely to pull out all the stops to contain Jones, the Falcons' all-world wide receiver. Physical play and double teams are likely to be in the game plan, and Ryan will draw some of the assignments along with Malcolm Butler (who would be a candidate on this list had he not already become a very well known hero for making a game-sealing interception in the Patriots' last Super Bowl win three years ago).