NFL playoffs: Difference makers

Donte Whitner

Tom Brady. Eli Manning. Ray Lewis. Patrick Willis.

Those are the names the TV broadcast teams will be drooling over and shoving down the public’s throats this weekend — and rightfully so. They are four of the best players in the entire NFL.

However, the NFC and AFC championship games are going to come down to the play of the less heralded stars. Guys that are bouncing back from injuries and offseason issues, and some rising stars who are coming off breakout regular seasons.

We take a look at eight players that could make a huge impact in Sunday’s games and maybe even decide who ultimately advances to the Super Bowl.

Donte Whitner
Deal:
Whitner, the 49ers’ starting strong safety , likes to talk some trash. His tweet Tuesday, after beating New Orleans, simply said, “Out here in San Fran we let our Shoulder Pads do all the talking….haha.”

Analysis:
With so many Pro Bowl selections on San Fran’s defense (four of them to be exact), Whitner sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. However, that hit he put on Pierre Thomas last week — the one where Thomas went limp and fumbled the ball — might have Giants receivers thinking twice about crossing paths with him.

Victor Cruz

Wide receiver, Giants
The undrafted free agent out of UMass had his coming-out party in a Week 3 win over Philadelphia, catching two long touchdowns and making Nnamdi Asomugha trip over himself. Cruz’s 1,536 receiving yards is a single-season Giants franchise record — and his salsa dance (used as a scoring celebration) brings all the girls to the yard.

Corey Webster
Cornerback, Giants
New York’s secondary was supposed to be vulnerable, a weakness even on an otherwise stout defense.

But Webster has defied that logic. He finished the regular season with a career-high six interceptions and has been even better in the postseason, shutting down Falcons stud Roddy White and then Packers burner Greg Jennings.

This week, he is expected to guard Michael Crabtree, who was held to just one catch for 21 yards when the two teams met on Nov. 13.

Mark Anderson
Defensive End, Patriots
Call him Tebow Kryptonite. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder racked up 10 sacks in 14 games for the Pats, and smothered Broncos QB Tim Tebow in two wins. Anderson sacked him twice in Week 15 and forced a fumble in last week’s playoff win. With Andre Carter (quad) out, Anderson is the Pats’ most prolific pass-rusher. Alex Smith beware.

Aldon Smith
Linebacker, 49ers
The seventh overall pick in the NFL draft has lived up to the hype. Drawing comparisons to Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, Smith set the 49ers record for most sacks in a season (14) and fell half a sack short of the all-time rookie record.

Smith is viewed by many as a situational pass-rusher. He was on the field for less than 50 percent of the 49ers’ defensive plays and notched 13 of his 14 sacks against (think Giants here) three wide-receiver sets.

Bryant McKinnie
Left Tackle, Ravens
He was left for dead after a weight problem and a penchant for skipping practices — McKinnie was kicked off the 2010 Pro Bowl team for missing meetings — forced him out of Minnesota.

But McKinnie has slimmed down (officially listed at a svelte 360 pounds) and looks like the Pro Bowl tackle he once was, now protecting Ravens QB Joe Flacco’s blind side.

Ironic since McKinnie’s success helped move “The Blind Side” star Michael Oher to right tackle.

Aaron Hernandez
Tight End, Patriots
While fellow stud tight end Rob Gronkowski gets all the headlines (and records), Hernandez might be the bigger threat overall.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder is fleet (4.6 40 time) and can line up at four different positions, including tight end, blocking fullback, slot receiver and wide receiver.

Lardarius Webb

Cornerback, Ravens
We all know how disruptive safety Ed Reed (he had one pick last week and dropped two more) can be, but Webb has developed into one of the better corners.

“Sometimes I’m mad and I want to curse him out. But it all pays off during the week,” Webb said of Reed.

He recorded five interceptions in the regular season and has two already this postseason, both while blanketing Houston stud receiver Andre Johnson last week.


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