NFL

10 players who will play a critical role

Willie McGinest and Curtis Conway break down the Super Bowl go-to players
Willie McGinest and Curtis Conway break down the Super Bowl go-to players
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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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This football rivalry might not reach the maniacal standards of Yankees-Red Sox simply because the cities' roles seem to be reversed. The Patriots of Boston are often depicted as the NFL’s Evil Empire — you know, cheating Bill Belichick — while the New York Giants are more the homespun, family franchise. Even Belichick has a fondness for the Mara family, an organization that gave him his first big job, coordinating Bill Parcells’ defense back in the mid-1980s.

All week you will read about the Tom Brady revenge factor — the Giants ruined his run at perfection in Super Bowl XLII four seasons ago — and how the G-men were also the last team to beat the Patriots this season, exactly 10 wins ago.

But as we all gear up for the of the big game and the endless comparisons of the two Super Bowl XLVI teams, here are 10 critical players to keep tabs on during Super Bowl week:

1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: This 22-year-old is a physical freak at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds but, like Brady in New England’s previous Super Bowl visit, has a serious left ankle injury. Gronkowski, the league’s best receiving tight end (record 17 touchdowns), has been in a walking boot all week. The dreaded high-ankle sprain (stretched ligaments) is feared, and we all know how limiting that injury can be. The Patriots employ more double-tight end formations than anybody because they don’t have anyone close to a Randy Moss this season. If Gronkowski can’t run and make his breaks while running routes, the Patriots will be minus their best offensive weapon.

2. Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw: Eli Manning threw a record 58 attempts in the NFC Championship Game, but overall the Giants have been pretty balanced offensively in the playoffs. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride rarely abandons his running game, and Bradshaw, despite a bad foot, makes it all go. He had 20 carries for 74 yards against the 49ers and enters the big game with 295 scrimmage yards on 60 touches in three games. He scored four of his 11 touchdowns in the final three regular-season games, and New York cannot win without him.

3. Patriots right tackle Nate Solder: This talented rookie must neutralize Justin Tuck — the Giants’ defensive star in their previous Super Bowl win — and new sensation Jason Pierre-Paul. You can bet that Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will run a lot of combinations at this first-round pick, looking for a weakness and an open lane to Brady. A back injury has put starter Sebastian Vollmer on the bench, and Solder has the feet to protect, but the Patriots could be forced to use a back or a tight end to help him against that feared New York pass rush.

4. Pats running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Of New England's running backs, this guy is the best pounder. Danny Woodhead is more of a scatback, and Kevin Faulk, who probably is playing in his last game, used to be the game’s best third-down back. The Patriots had a better offense when Corey Dillon was in the backfield, but that’s ages ago as Belichick has adapted to the pass-happy NFL system. With a law-firm name, Green-Ellis needs to be as effective as he was against the Ravens (68 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries).

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THEY'RE THE BEST

Where does the first Giants-Patriots Super Bowl matchup rank among the 10 best Super Bowl games?

5. Giants safety Antrel Rolle: He is the team’s outrageous mouthpiece, and we’ll soon find out if he produces any bulletin-board fodder for the Patriots. However, he tends to be the last line of defense against receiving tight ends, and if Gronkowski can fly like his old self, Rolle had better be ready to roll. New York brags that it has done a better job defending tight ends, even though Vernon Davis of the 49ers got behind Rolle for a 73-yard touchdown a week ago and finished with 112 yards and two scores. And where was Kenny Phillips on that play, by the way?

6. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora: The veteran has already said he believes Patriots left tackle Matt Light is a dirty or unscrupulous blocker, statements that have offended the New England locker room. In the playoffs, Osi has 3-1/2 sacks, plus three tackles for losses. With Michael Strahan now on television, Osi is really the leader of this front four. So if he doesn’t bring consistent pressure, Brady could have a big night.

7. Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich: With Andre Carter and his 10 sacks on injured reserve, Ninkovich helped destroy Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the playoffs, but containing Eli Manning will be a more difficult assignment. Ninkovich is a versatile defender and we have to believe Belichick will figure a way to take advantage of his talents. Hey, neither one of these quarterbacks is known to get rattled in the pocket. But the Patriots need to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Manning, who wasn’t fazed by the beating he took in San Francisco.

8. Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks: He has never been fond of going over the middle to catch passes, and with a severely bruised AC joint in his shoulder, how effective will he be? Nicks had only five receptions against the 49ers, but in the first two playoff wins he was unstoppable with 280 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Nicks has huge, soft hands like Gronkowski, and he can be dangerous on Hail Mary tosses, as the Packers discovered firsthand right before halftime. Yes, Eli generally throws to the open man, but Nicks has enough ability to win the battle when covered.

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THAT WAS BAD

Want to relive the 10 worst Super Bowl games? We don't either, but here's our list, anyway.

9. Patriots safety Patrick Chung: The Giants are always sending receivers, albeit a tight end or even Mario Manningham, to the back of the end zone, and Chung ad better read it right in the deep middle. Chung missed eight starts this season, but he’s healthy now and he must keep an eye on tight ends Jake Ballard, Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe, the latter of whom scored his first touchdown against the Niners. Beckum is strictly a receiver; the other two can block. Even though Kyle Arrington leads the Patriots with seven interceptions, Chung and Devin McCourty are the secondary performers on the spot.

10. Giants cornerback Aaron Ross: No one can be more of a head case than the talented Ross, and his primary goal will be preventing Wes Welker from making a big play. Welker is going to get his catches because he is Brady’s favorite third-down target. Welker tied with Calvin Johnson and Roddy White this season with 77 first-down receptions. If given time to throw, Brady likes to go deep to Welker, and Ross had better be mindful of that. Any cornerback can get lulled by Welker’s quick 7-yard outs.

Tagged: Rob Gronkowski, Broncos, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Tom Brady, Osi Umenyiora, Eli Manning, Wes Welker, Antrel Rolle, Rob Ninkovich, Aaron Ross, Hakeem Nicks, Patrick Chung, Tim Tebow

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