Jan. 8, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
Each of the four teams which earned first round byes in the NFL playoffs have Notre Dame players on their active rosters, but that doesn't mean that the Fighting Irish quest for Super Bowl glory is taking a week off.
The name "Notre Dame" pops up six times on rosters of teams whose pursuit of the Vince Lombardi Trophy begins this weekend alone.
Saturday night, Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert's Cincinnati Bengals tussle with his former Irish teammate Stephon Tuitt's Pittsburgh Steelers. Sunday afternoon, four faces familiar to the Notre Dame fan base (Robert Blanton, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith and John Sullivan) will be dressed in the purple of the NFC North division champion Minnesota Vikings as they play host to the Seattle Seahawks.
The sextet (and the seven others who will join them once the playoffs reach the divisional round) have a favorable track record to follow as professional football's sterling silver trophy has been regularly held by hands that once held Notre Dame's fabled gold helmets.
Notre Dame alums have combined for 45 Super Bowl wins, ranking third of any college. The 30 different Irish players to play in a Super Bowl victory ties for third nationally. Of the last 12 Super Bowl champions, 10 have included someone from Notre Dame on their roster. That roll includes the defending champion New England Patriots who had Darius Fleming on their active roster and Jonas Gray on their practice squad for February's Super Bowl XLIX victory over Seattle.
Fleming remains on the Patriots' roster for their bid at a second repeat championship in 11 years. The AFC's top-seeded Denver Broncos' active roster includes Ryan Harris while special teams captain David Bruton is on the Broncos' injured reserve list.
In the NFC, top-seeded Carolina benefits from the reliable work of long snapper J.J. Jansen while the Arizona Cardinals boast Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas in addition to practice squad member Robert Hughes.
Of the 13 Notre Dame players still standing for a shot at professional football's ultimate prize, only Fleming is in the hunt for a second Super Bowl title. Notre Dame has seen 11 players win multiple super Bowls, the most recent being Justin Tuck who earned a pair of rings starting at defensive end for the New York Giants, defeating the Patriots in both Super Bowl XLII and XLVI.
Bruton played for Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII but could not take home a championship as the Broncos fell to a Seattle team led in part of former Irish receiver Golden Tate.
In this Saturday's Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game, Tuitt's name will come up often in reference to Week 14. On Dec. 13, during the Steelers' last game in Cincinnati, Tuitt recorded his first career interception. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton broke the thumb of his throwing hand while attempting to tackle Tuitt and has not played since. Tuitt started 14 games this fall at defensive tackle had had career-highs in tackles (54), sacks (6.5), quarterback hurries (11) and tackles for loss (8).
On the other side of the ball at Paul Brown Stadium, Eifert was selected to his first Pro Bowl this year after leading all NFL tight ends with 13 TD catches. Eifert tied Odell Beckham Jr. for fourth in the NFL in TD catches and fifth in the NFL in overall TDs scored. Eifert's 13 TDs were a part of a break-out 52-catch, 615-yard season for the Fort Wayne, Indiana native.
The quartet of Vikings from Notre Dame is led by Harrison Smith who made 66 tackles in 2015 from his safety position with a pair of interceptions -- returning one for a TD against the Giants. Tight end Kyle Rudolph started all 16 games and caught 49 passes for a career-high 495 yards with five TDs. His five receiving scores led Minnesota while ranking second to Stefon Diggs for the most catches and receiving yards on the club. Blanton saw action alongside Smith at safety in 16 games with one start. He made 34 tackles for the Vikings with three pass defenses. Sullivan, who had started every game at center from 2012-14 for Minnesota, spent the year on injured reserve.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and serves as the football publicity team's top lieutenant while coordinating all media efforts for Irish women's lacrosse. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.