Jan. 15, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
The NFL is down to just eight teams still vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and five of those eight (including all four which earned a first-round bye) have Notre Dame players on their active rosters.
Only two schools have seen more of its former players claim a Super Bowl title than Notre Dame's 45 times. The 30 different players to claim these 45 titles ranks tied for third nationally. Of the last 12 Super Bowl champions, 10 have included someone from Notre Dame on their roster.
The next step towards increasing the 45 to a 46 comes on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET when Darius Fleming and the New England Patriots play host to Kansas City. Fleming played on special teams for the Patriots in their dramatic Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle. He would be the 12th Irish player 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.
Saturday night on NBC, the Arizona Cardinals play host to Green Bay on the same field where the current Irish just played in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Two of Arizona's offensive threats, WR Michael Floyd and TE Troy Niklas, are former gold helmet wearers while RB Robert Hughes has a place on the Cardinals' practice squad. Floyd led the Cardinals with his five 100-yard receiving games in 2015, two more than perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald's three. Niklas' season was highlighted by his Week 8 performance against Cleveland where he had two TD catches, including the game-winner. Niklas started three of his 16 games played and also added four special teams tackles in 2015.
Sunday's early game sees the NFC's top-seeded Carolina Panthers play host to defending NFC champion Seattle. J.J. Jansen is completing his seventh season as the Panthers' long snapper, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl following the 2013 season. Jansen's flawless snapping helped Panthers kicker Graham Gano rank second in the NFL with a Panthers-record 146 points, trailing only Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 151 league-wide.
The lone Notre Dame vs. Notre Dame divisional round matchup closes the weekend's action in an AFC showdown between Denver and Pittsburgh. Ryan Harris started all 16 games for the Broncos this year, including each of the last 13 at left tackle, helping protect the blind side of both Peyton manning and Brock Osweiler. A special teams captain, David Bruton played in 13 games for Denver this year with three starts at safety before being lost for the season to injury. Bruton made 43 tackles in 2015 and recorded a pair of interceptions.
Most importantly, Bruton was Denver's nominee for the coveted Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award given to players who represent the league's commitment to philanthropy and community impact. The Oakland Raiders also nominated Notre Dame's Tuck for this prize.
On the Pittsburgh side, Stephon Tuitt started as a defensive end in a 3-4 front for the Steelers during their wild card round win over Cincinnati. Tuitt had three tackles against the Bengals, including a takedown of former Irish teammate Tyler Eifert, a 2016 Pro Bowl selection, in the Steelers' 18-16 win. Eifert had five catches for 58 yards against Pittsburgh in the wild card round.
In addition to Eifert, four other former Irish players (RB Robert Blanton, TE Kyle Rudolph, S Harrison Smith and OL John Sullivan) had their Super Bowl dreams deferred by a year last weekend when their Minnesota Vikings suffered a heart-breaking 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Rudolph was nearly a hero in the final minutes as, during the drive that set up a game-winning field goal attempt, he caught a 24-yard pass and drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty against Kam Chancellor, contributing 43 yards to the march.
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.