DENVER (CBS) – There will be 90 players not named Tom Brady or Peyton Manning active and in uniform Sunday when the New England Patriots confront the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship.
Despite all the attention paid to the star quarterbacks entering their 15th on-field encounter, any one of those others might be involved in the decisive play leading either to a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII or end of the season. For a prime example, one need only to revisit the final minutes of their last meeting in Week 12.
With the Patriots and Broncos tied at 31-31 deep into overtime, a punt twisting in the wind eventually landed, bounced off Denver’s Tony Carter and was recovered by New England’s Nate Ebner. Two snaps later, Stephen Gostkowski delivered a 34-31 win with a 31-yard field goal.
That two reserve defensive backs — one an ex-Patriot, the other a former rugby star — found themselves on the spot in the climactic moment of so-called Brady-Manning XIV shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the nature of team sports.
Regardless of pre-game narratives, story lines write themselves once play begins. And, as was the case of Carter and Ebner, they are often written by players who are nearly anonymous to all but the most ardent of fans and followers.
All week long, we’ve heard and read about Brady vs. Manning from every conceivable angle. Nearly as much talk and print has been devoted to Manning’s shared history with New England head coach Bill Belichick. There’s even been time spent on Brady’s experience with Denver coordinator Jack Del Rio’s defenses.
But as worthy of their status as Brady and Manning are, the AFC title will be determined by many more than those marquee names. In a game of this magnitude, there are no bit parts. Everyone, including the most obscure members of each supporting cast, occupies a prominent role.
Included are five Patriot youngsters who worked their way onto the current 53-man roster from the team’s practice squad since the start of November.
Among them is defensive back Kanorris Davis, a rookie free agent from Troy University. He rejoined the active ranks on Dec. 28, after two other brief stints with the Patriots in late September and early October.
In last Saturday’s Divisional playoff victory over Indianapolis, Davis made two tackles covering punts. The latter occurred late in the third quarter, with the Pats leading 29-22, and resulted in a loss pinning Indianapolis back at its 12-yard line. Soon thereafter, New England stopped the Colts and began pulling away to the 43-22 victory.
Facing Denver, the Patriots will need a similar effort. Two muffed punts in the Week 12 wind at Foxborough notwithstanding, the Broncos field dangerous return men in Trindon Holliday and Eric Decker.
Holliday has returned three kickoffs and three punts for touchdowns in just 27 games with Denver. His 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return against Baltimore in the 2012 Divisional playoffs are the longest and second-longest, respectively, in NFL postseason history. Decker returned a punt 47 yards in last week’s Divisional match-up with San Diego and has a 90-yard runback from 2011 on his resume.
One false step in coverage could spring either for a game-breaking return. That said, Davis, who’s been active for only four previous games, is trusted by teammates and coaches to be in the right spot, all the time.
“I think Kanorris has done a good job all year of staying ready,” special teams captain and Pro Bowler Matthew Slater said. “He’s a tremendous worker. He goes out every day and prepares himself. He just asks a lot of questions, he takes coaching and I don’t think that any of us as players were surprised at the success that he had during the (Indianapolis) game.”
“We felt like he was a very good player on special teams in college at Troy,” said Belichick. “He played safety for them and he had some of the same type of plays defensively that we saw in the kicking game. He’s a fast, aggressive run-support player. He would come up and take on blockers and be aggressive and reckless as a defensive player, kind of that same type of style that special teams players have.”
Though Davis fits in on special teams, another former practice squad member Sealver Siliga occupies a much bigger role on defense. The 325-pound Siliga, who was with Denver a year ago and Seattle previously this season, was picked up by New England on Oct. 23. A month later, he was activated in time for the first of five straight starts.
Siliga lends a large, active body on the interior and makes the Patriots a better run-defending team. His presence alone should help keep Denver from approaching the 280 yards rushing it amassed in Week 12 at New England.
“Sealver has done a great job for us,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich says. “He is a big guy, big body. It is hard to move that guy. So him coming in and stepping up and making plays, that’s awesome. Definitely happy that he has been able to step up for us and be key on the d-line.”
Someone who spent most of the year mimicking opponents to prepare his Seahawk and Patriot teammates will now try to stop the opposition, just one win away from the Super Bowl. It’s a tremendous opportunity. Yet one that Siliga, like Davis, has earned.
“Everybody wants an opportunity to play, and I think that he has bounced around a little bit,” said Ninkovich, himself an ex-journeyman who made a home for himself in New England. “He has been to a couple of teams, was on the practice squad, and you just want a chance. So when you are given that opportunity you have to go out there and make the best of it and I think that he has made the best of his opportunities.”
“Really we tell all of our practice squad players that they’re really not practice squad players; they’re really players that should expect to become roster players,” Belichick said. “We just don’t know exactly what that time frame is.
“They are responsible to be ready every week to practice and prepare just like they’re going to play. Who knows, there’s always a possibility and circumstances could come up where they would be playing. They should approach the game just like the 53 players on the active roster should approach it because they’re eligible to play in it and need to be ready to go every week. When that opportunity comes, they need to step in there and take advantage of it or that opportunity might not be there the next week.”
There’s no greater example, Belichick pointed out, than Brady. Although he wasn’t on the practice squad, Brady was the scout-team quarterback in 2000. The following season, he was a Super Bowl champion.
Sunday in Denver, Brady will seek his sixth Super Bowl appearance. It just so happens his opposite is Manning, is in search of his third. Neither can get there on his own.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.