Five future stars of Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji (90) returns an interception for an 18-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. UPI /Mark Cowan

With the Super Bowl less than seven days away, the names Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews will continue to be talked about ad nauseam over the next week. So for one article, let’s focus on some of the other players in this year’s title game that are on their way to becoming future stars. You know, the “little guys” of the big game. (Actually, there’s nothing “little” about B.J. Raji so pardon my poor choice of words.)

1. Tramon Williams, CB, Packers
Williams has already arrived, so it’s kind of cheap to call him a “future star.” He made the Pro Bowl this year and received a contract extension a few months ago, so obviously the Packers and the rest of the league are well aware of how good he is. That said, it wasn’t until this year before he really emerged as one of the best corners in the league, so it’s fair to talk about his future prowess. He intercepted a career-high six passes and has three picks in the postseason alone. His two interceptions of Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round turned that game on its head and basically catapulted the Packers to an easy victory. There isn’t a more underrated matchup than his upcoming battle with Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace in this year’s Super Bowl. (Assuming that Charles Woodson covers Hines Ward, that is.)

2. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
The second-year receiver out of Ole Miss has already made headlines this season with his deep-threat ability. Observers were worried about how the Steelers would cope after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets last offseason, but Wallace has made everyone forget about the former Super Bowl MVP. He finished the regular season with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns, which included seven 100-yard games. He’s a rising star on an already stacked Steelers team and should be a player to keep an eye on for years to come.

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The MAC will be well represented at this year’s Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is all smiles after the Steelers defeated the New York Jets 24-19, winning the AFC Championship, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 23, 2011. The Steelers will face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Quick, name the conference that will have the second most representatives at this year’s Super Bowl.

The MAC? Damn. You read the title didn’t you? You little title reader, you…

That’s right, the MAC, with its 15 players, is second only to the SEC (18) in terms of representatives at Super Bowl XLV. According to Mt. Pleasant Morning Sun writer and fellow TSR contributor Drew Ellis, the Packers have nine former MAC players on their roster, including Central Michigan’s Cullen Jenkins, Frank Zombo and Josh Gordy, Western Michigan’s Greg Jennings, Buffalo running back James Starks, Miami of Ohio’s Tom Crabtree, offensive lineman T.J. Lang of Eastern Michigan, safety Atari Bigby of Central Florida and linebacker Diyral Briggs of Bowling Green.

Of course, the most recognizable name to come out of the MAC is Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played at Miami. Pittsburgh also rosters former MAC players Antonio Brown (CMU), linebacker James Harrison (Kent State), quarterbacks Charlie Batch (Eastern Michigan) and Byron Leftwich (Marshall), as well kicker Shaun Suisham (BGSU).

According to a former MAC player, it is the constant disrespect the conference gets on a national stage that could lead to the players succeeding in the NFL.

“It really speaks volumes about the conference,” former CMU quarterback and teammate of Zombo, Brown, and Gordy, Brian Brunner, said. “This conference used to be know for being a quarterback-conference, but it has really become much more. National pundits may dog the MAC but when you see numbers like these you realize that a lot of MAC players that get a chance to play in the NFL, they come into the league with a chip on their shoulder and they are going work hard and push themselves and prove they belong.”

Obviously the number of players that represent a conference in the Super Bowl doesn’t reflect its status in college football. I hardly doubt we’ll hear anyone campaign for Northern Illinois to play in next year’s BCS title game if the Huskies go 11-0 and the MAC won’t suddenly be viewed as an elite conference.

But it’s nevertheless interesting to see that the little ol’ MAC – not the Big 12, Big Ten or ACC – has only three fewer players at this year’s title game than the SEC. It just goes to show you that talent is talent.

Ravens’ second half collapse leads to Steelers’ victory

Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco (5) is sacked by James Harrison (92) of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half of their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 15, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Cohn (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Steelers’ 31-24 victory over the Ravens in the NFL Divisional Round.

1. Ravens pick a horrible time to play their worst football.
Baltimore’s second half collapse in this game was one of the worst I have ever seen. They did such a great job building all of this momentum in the first half only to give it right back on their first offensive possession in the third quarter. The Ravens took a two-touchdown lead into the second half but quickly allowed Pittsburgh back into the game with sloppy play. From Ray Rice and Joe Flacco’s fumbles to two huge drops by Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at the end of the game, the Ravens saved their worst for the most important game of the year. That said…

2. …what a great job by the Steelers to capitalize on Baltimore’s mistakes.
You have to hand it to the Steelers: they always seem to make plays when it matters most. When Rice fumbled at the start of the third quarter, they turned the gift into seven points. When the defense picked off Flacco, they again put the ball into the end zone. When Boldin dropped that key pass on third down late in the game, Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown on an improbable 58-yard pass to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown. Pittsburgh played a horrible first half, but it didn’t matter in the end. Because when the other shoe eventually dropped, the Steelers took full advantage.

3. Flacco must elevate his game in the playoffs.
In his third year, Joe Flacco has done some great things. You can tell he “gets it” and that he’s going to be a very good player for a long time. But if the Ravens want to win anything of any substance, he has to elevate his game when they get to the playoffs. He only threw for 125 yards and while he did have one touchdown, his fumble and interception in the second half proved costly. Granted, if Boldin catches that ball at the goal line on third down or Houshmandzadeh doesn’t drop that fourth down pass, maybe I’m signing Flacco’s praises right now. But those two drops don’t excuse Flacco’s lackluster play in the second half.

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Chiefs, Browns, Seahawks all interested in CMU’s LeFevour

According to Central Michigan beat writer Drew Ellis of the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun, the Chiefs, Browns and Seahawks were all on hand to watch quarterback prospect Dan LeFevour work out at his Pro Day on Wednesday morning. The Panthers and Vikings also watched him go through passing drills.

The most notable name on hand was new Kansas City offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who told Ellis that he was specifically there to watch LeFevour. There was also a rumor that the Chiefs had dinner with LeFevour last night.

Questions have been raised about LeFevour’s arm strength and there also is concern that since he played mostly out of the shotgun in college that he won’t be able to run a pro style system at the next level. According to Ellis, LeFevour may not have quelled scouts’ fears about whether or not he can make all the throws.

“He did well throwing the short to intermediate passes today,” Ellis said. “But there was more loft on his deeper throws than you’d like to see and there wasn’t much velocity on his passes when he wasn’t throwing short. He might ultimately have to play in the West Coast Offense where accuracy is the most important thing.”

Ellis’ last bit about the West Coast Offense provides reason why the Browns would be interested, but why the Chiefs? GM Scott Pioli insisted in late February that the team would not be in the market for a starting quarterback in this year’s draft and is committed to Matt Cassel after signing him to a six-year, $63 million contract last season. And after extending a second-round tender on Brodie Croyle, they seem to be set on Cassel’s backup too, so it’s a little perplexing why Weis would want to watch LeFevour.

Another note from CMU’s Pro Day is that receiver Antonio Brown was garnering attention from the Vikings, Lions, Raiders and Dolphins. In fact, Miami held a private workout with him after he ran a 4.4 40-yard dash, which was an improvement over his 4.5 time at the combine. Brown’s stock has improved and he may wind up being selected before LeFevour.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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