Super Bowl 2018: A special Patriot heads our list of potential unsung heroes

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Matthew Slater might be the embodiment of the quintessential Patriot. Sure, it would be easy to point to Tom Brady -- the one constant in Bill Belichick's unreal period of sustained success in New England -- but the quarterback is a unicorn. He is a freak of nature, about to win the MVP award at age 40 and possibly the Super Bowl MVP as well.

Slater, to me, is more like the kind of uber-effort, try-harder-than-you, Patriot discovery who dots this roster, doing all the little things and excelling at all the dirty work that keep this machine humming along. He has certain attributes that Belichick is drawn to and knows that, if asked to do certain particular duties, he can do them more effectively than most on the planet. He is someone totally and completely willing to be largely nameless and faceless in the pursuit of Super Bowl after Super Bowl, knowing his chores will be streamlined and his chances for glory all but none. And year after year he will work his tail off and excel in every special teams role thrown at him and give of himself fully and completely, almost always with a smile on his face.

He sets an example for younger players at every practice and meeting, and he is perfectly able to out-smart you as well as out-work you. He won't make a bonehead play or miss an assignment or fail to down a ball at the goal line. He'll study longer and harder than his opponent. He has earned the full trust of Belichick. He's named a team captain -- no small feat in New England -- for big game after big game. And, like his more well-known and glamorous teammates, he tends to save his best work for the biggest games of the year.

In a Super Bowl which could end up being decided by people other than the multi-millionaires who are paid to throw and catch the ball for a living, Slater may end up being a critical factor. Field position was at the heart of the Patriots' win over the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game -- constantly forcing a more limited quarterback with little postseason experience to play on a long field starting drives deep in his own territory -- and Slater's work on those kicking and punting units has much to do with it.

You can put him down for a critical tackle or two, for getting to a bouncing ball before anyone else. And the fervor with which he does his job -- in practice and on game day -- helps maintain Belichick's gospel year in and year out, continually demanding that a franchise that has already accomplished so much aspires for even more the following year.

"Every year is a new year with a new challenge," Slater told me, "and what has happened in the past has no bearing on what is happening in the current season ... It's really impressive what Coach has been able to build here -- the culture he's been able to put in place, and how he's been able to have team after team pretty much buy into that says a lot of about his ability to lead men. And it's not just him -- there are a number of factors that play into that -- but Coach, he's one of a kind."

Says here that Slater will end up being one of the unsung heroes of Super Bowl 52. Here are four other under-the-radar players I believe could end up going a long way to dictating the outcome of the game:

Vinny Curry, DE, Eagles

If Philadelphia wins this game, its "wide-9" will have much to do with it. The wide stance and acute angles its ends take to the quarterback can be very effective and allow defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to muster a fierce pass rush without having to devote more than four or five bodies to do so. Everyone else plays coverage.

Curry doesn't get quite as much pub as veteran ends Brandon Graham and Chris Long, but Sunday might be his day to shine. He hasn't registered a sack yet this postseason and had just three this season, but he is the kind of guy who could get hot, and he'll get plenty of opportunities to hunt Brady on Sunday. I wouldn't discount him being a factor.

Dwayne Allen, TE, Patriots

It's been a disappointing first season for Allen in New England by all traditional individual metrics. He hasn't made an impact on offense, and hasn't come close to being the playmaker that he was at times with the Colts. He's an able blocker, but his athleticism has yet to rise to the fore.

But there's still one game to play, and the Patriots tend to pull guys out of the abyss and empty out the playbook this time of year. If Rob Gronkowski gets doubled to no end, could there be some two tight-end packages in which Allen gets free to rumble down the field? I know he and Brady haven't really clicked, but no better time than now to do so. This is certainly a guy with some playmaking ability.

Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots

He's been overshadowed this past season, especially after his trade to the Saints fell through and Belichick signed corner Stephon Gilmore to a massive deal last offseason. But it wasn't that long ago that he became one of the more memorable unknown Super Bowl heroes of all-time. He has a flare for the dramatic, and he has the kind of ball skills that make a difference.

Could he bait Nick Foles into a mistake or two? Get a jump on a route and take something to the house.

Jake Elliott, K, Eagles

Generally, the Super Bowls have been close affairs, and especially with the Pats involved, win or lose. This one will likely be no different, and it may come down to someone's foot in the end.

Elliott, who was alertly plucked from the Bengals practice squad back in September when Caleb Sturgis was placed on IR, has been one of the true finds of the NFL this season. The kid has been a stud, ice cool in critical spots, sporting a big leg and plenty of guts.

This, of course, is a very different stage on Sunday. He's already set NFL records for the longest field goal by a rookie in the regular season and the playoffs. Might a Super Bowl record be looming? Or a game-winning kick? It might be freezing outside, but the conditions inside the dome will be perfect, and this guy has a knack for crushing 50-plus yard field goals.

So which side of the Super Bowl line do you need to be all over? Visit SportsLine now to see which side of Patriots-Eagles you need to jump on, plus what X-factor determines the outcome, all from a Vegas legend who's 9-3 on Eagles' games. 

CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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