This Sunday's NFL conference Championship Games are loaded with star names like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick. But it is five secret weapons who could make the biggest impact.
AFC Championship - New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Jeremy Mincey, DE, Broncos
Plucking defensive end Jeremy Mincey off the NFL scrapheap was a smart solution. Mincey played for Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He knows the Broncos system and is a capable pass-rusher. He was in fine form in the Broncos 24-17 playoff win over the San Diego Chargers.
Mincey sacked quarterback Philip Rivers once and applied consistent pressure throughout the game. He has combined with fellow greybeard rush end Shaun Phillips to provide a strong pass rush and compensate for Miller's loss.
The Broncos must keep Patriots' passer Tom Brady under constant duress during the AFC Championship Game. Mincey can play a key role in destroying the pocket around Brady.
Sealver Siliga, DT, Patriots
While Mincey can be useful to the Denver defense, the most important member of the Patriots unit will be Sealver Siliga. The 6'2", 325-pound defensive tackle has gone from NFL castoff to being the centrepiece of the New England front seven.
He has helped the Patriots recover from the injury enforced loss of veteran pair Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Siliga has steadily emerged as a force against the run and a player capable of applying a tremendous push on the pocket.
That latter quality will prove invaluable against the Broncos. The Patriots have always been the masters of forcing Manning into costly mistakes.
The secret has been their ability to pressure the middle. A strong inside push shrinks the pocket around Manning and prevents him from stepping up. That usually leads to some errant throws.
Siliga will have plenty of motivation to create that push against the Broncos. They are one of three teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, who cut Siliga before the Patriots gave him a chance.
If Siliga is disruptive this Sunday, bank on the Patriots pressuring Manning into a key turnover or two.
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
Rookie running back Montee Ball can sneak under the radar to undermine the New England defense. The Patriots won't be expecting Ball or even notice him. They will be too busy trying to contain wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno.
But Ball, who is a smart and tough inside runner, could make a decisive impact. When the Broncos were beaten by the Patriots in Week 12 it was Moreno who rushed for 224 yards on 37 carries.
New England head coach Bill Belichick will have a plan for Moreno this time. That will give Ball the opportunity to undermine a defense that is naturally weaker against the run without Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Ball gained 52 yards on 10 invaluable carries last week against the Chargers. He can help provide the balance the Broncos will need to outwit the Patriots.
NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
Glenn Dorsey, NT, 49ers
The likes of Justin Smith and Patrick Willis get all the headlines on the star-studded San Francisco defense. But nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is just as important.
Signing Dorsey last offseason bolstered an already fearsome defensive front. He has been a stout player against the run.
The ex-Kansas City Chief fills rushing lanes and quickly penetrates into the backfield. The 49ers will need those qualities to slow down prolific Seahawks' runner Marshawn Lynch.
While the thought of facing the 49ers is enough to give most running backs sleepless nights, Lynch seems to relish it. He has scored three touchdowns and posted two 100-yard rushing efforts in his last four games against San Francisco.
But with Dorsey in the line-up, the 49ers have not allowed a single 100-yard rusher this season. If they hold Lynch under 100 in Seattle, they will be NFC Champions.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
Former rookie free agent Doug Baldwin is often overlooked on the Seattle offense. But his ability to stretch the field could prove crucial this Sunday.
Baldwin possesses the vertical speed to get behind a secondary, along with the ability to make the tough catches. He averaged 15.6 yards per reception this season.
As good as the 49ers are defensively, they can still be caught out by the deep ball on those rare occasions quarterbacks have enough time to launch a vertical strike.
A big play or two from Baldwin could make the difference in what will be another tight struggle between two bitter rivals.
Look out for which of these secret weapons make a difference on Championship Sunday.
image: © ssshupe
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