The conversation is a tradition. Whether it is related to an established veteran that has never won a Super Bowl, or a retiring legend giving it his all to get one more like Ray Lewis last season, the storyline grows as the Super Bowl gets closer.
Football is the ultimate team sport, and often superstar players do not get the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl, much less win. And it is usually not their fault.
But as their careers wind down, fans and media alike start rooting for these respected veterans that have put their health on the line every week in pursuit of that championship for the organization and the fans.
The players become a part of a family, and their individual success coincides with that of the team. The following players have been mainstays in the NFL playoffs for many years, and some are perennial Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers, but none has won a Super Bowl yet. This could be the year that all changes for one or more, but that will be decided between the lines.
My only criteria was that the player has been in the league for nine years or longer, which would put most, if not all, of these players in their thirties. None has announced their pending retirement yet like Lewis did last year, but most will not be around much longer, so enjoy watching them while you can.
10. Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos - The longtime Chargers pass-rusher joined the Broncos as a free agent this offseason, taking less money to play for a contender. He was a major part of the stout defenses in San Diego in the mid-2000s and has helped Denver overcome injuries and suspension to his fellow book-end linebacker, Von Miller. With another double digit sack season in his first year in Denver, and 79.5 sacks for his career, Phillips could be doing his bowling sack dance in the Super Bowl for the first time on this loaded Broncos team.
9. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers - The veteran outside linebacker just had his best year as a pro, and this is coming off three straight ACL surgeries on the same knee. A first round pick in 2005, Davis was converted from a safety to a linebacker and was a solidly consistent start his first few years until the injury bug hit. After his third straight ACL tear, Davis restructured his contract to help the team, and vowed to become the first player in NFL history to recover from three ACL surgeries. Davis and Luke Kuechly have emerged as the inspirational leaders of the Panthers formidable front seven and Davis was one of the more notable Pro Bowl snubs.
8. Logan Mankins, New England Patriots - Mankins is one of the unsung heroes of the Patriots' offensive success. He was drafted in 2005, after the Patriots had just won their third Super Bowl in four years. Since then, he has made six Pro Bowls and helped the New England offense set several records and maintain a standard of consistent excellence that has been matched by few historically. Offensive guards probably play the least glamorous position in football. There was no Blind Side movie made about the importance of guards, but Mankins has been an indispensable part of the New England offense protecting Tom Brady for nine years.
7. Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints - While it may seem like Sproles has been with the Saints for most of his career, it is only his third year in New Orleans. He was not a part of the 2009 Super Bowl team, as he was with the San Diego Chargers at the time. But Sproles has been making plays on both offense and special teams for nine seasons now. The 5'6" waterbug is still as shifty as ever, as he has racked up over 70 catches and 600 yards in each of the last three seasons in part-time duty with the Saints. He is a fan favorite and a nightmare for defensive coordinators to scheme against.
6. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers - As his career winds down, Gates continues to be a red zone threat for the Chargers. He may no longer be the go-to target he was earlier in his career when he racked up eight Pro Bowl appearances, but he is still a factor in San Diego. Since his breakthrough 2004 season in which he set a record for touchdown receptions by a tight end, the undrafted former college basketball player from Kent State has over 9,000 yards and 87 touchdowns while remaining a key contributor to San Diego teams that made the playoffs in six of those following ten seasons.
5. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers - The thirteen-year veteran and stalwart of the 49ers defense has been rested more this regular season in an effort to keep him fresh and ready for the playoff grind.
Smith was originally drafted as a pass rushing defensive end by the Cincinnati Bengals, but he has evolved into a 5-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for a 49ers defense that has been among the best in the NFL for the past three seasons.
With 82 sacks under his belt already, Smith now spends most of his time occupying blockers and allowing his younger teammates to get the statistical glory.
4. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers - Rivers enjoyed a career year in his first season under new head coach Mike McCoy and has led the Chargers on a late season surge into the divisional playoff round to face his longtime nemesis Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who they already beat in Denver a few weeks ago.
In his tenth season, Rivers is the only quarterback from the famed 2004 class without a Super Bowl ring. But with over 30,000 career passing yards and 5 Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl is the next and only goal remaining for Rivers, which would put him in the elite class quarterbacks in the NFL.
3. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers - As close as the 49ers came last year to winning the Super Bowl, they are playing as focused and hungry as one would expect a team to play after falling so short. The leader of that charge is Frank Gore, the workhorse running back who has been with the team for his entire nine year career.
Gore has made 5 Pro Bowls and gained over 12,000 yards from scrimmage after dealing with some major injuries in college at Miami and early in his NFL career. A Super Bowl ring would provide a major boost to Gore's Hall of Fame chances.
2. Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos - Still starting and contributing in his fifteenth season, Champ Bailey is one of the great cover corners in NFL history. With a record twelve Pro Bowl appearances at his position, this might be Bailey's best chance to capture that elusive Super Bowl title.
His first five seasons with the Washington Redskins were a struggle, but since being traded for Clinton Portis in 2004, Bailey has had a few opportunities in the playoffs and fallen short. Now he has Peyton Manning on his side and home field advantage in the AFC, so the future Hall of Famer might finally get his ring.
1. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers - Usually the smallest player on the field, the five-foot nine Smith may well have the biggest heart, and the biggest mouth, of any wide receiver in the league. He has been with the Carolina Panthers his entire thirteen year career, racking up over 12,000 receiving yards and making the Pro Bowl five times despite dealing with some shoddy play at quarterback.
Smith goes up and snatches passes out of the air with an assertiveness and aggressiveness of a player twice his size. While his skills have dropped over the years as he has aged, his passion and leadership remain vital to the Panthers. Winning a Super Bowl ring would put Smith in serious Hall of Fame consideration.