Rice the key to Minnesota hopes
NFL fans of a certain age will be used to some guy called Rice running rampant in big games. And it's no different today, except the Rice in question is not San Francisco 49ers legend Jerry, but Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sidney.
This weekend's Super Bowl semi-finals - the AFC and NFC Championship Games - will feature a promising rookie passer in the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez and three quarterbacks destined for the Hall of Fame in Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts), Brett Favre (Vikings) and Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints).
But I want to draw your attention to Rice, who will undoubtedly have to play a big role if the Vikings are to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.
Rice was outstanding in last weekend's 34-3 demolition of the Dallas Cowboys, catching six passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns. He was just too much for the Cowboys defenders to handle.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder has turned into a formidable weapon for the Vikings this term. Throughout the regular season he caught 83 balls for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. In his third year in the NFL, the 23-year-old has finally come of age.
Brett Favre and Sidney Rice have struck up an excellent partnership this season
And Rice's emergence has been welcomed in Minnesota and by the player himself. After two injury-plagued seasons, Rice was being dubbed as a failure and as a young man who just didn't get what it took to be a success in the NFL.
Those were harsh comments, indeed. But they were also pretty much on the mark. Rice endured two injury-plagued seasons and caught just 15 passes in 2008. But his problems went deeper than the purely physical - he didn't seem to understand what kind of work needed to be put in off the field to reach the very top of the NFL ladder.
His namesake in San Francisco certainly understood. Jerry Rice may be the best wide receiver the NFL has ever and will ever see, but he was also a notorious hard worker.
Coming from tiny Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice was not the biggest or quickest receiver in the game - but he was possessed with an overwhelming desire to be the best. He watched hours and hours of game film every day and his off-season running in the hills of San Francisco was the stuff of legend.
Sidney Rice was not quite as active at the beginning of the past off-season. Sitting at home feeling sorry for himself due to some nagging injuries, Rice was prompted to attend an informal receivers clinic in Minnesota being hosted by ex-Vikings legend Cris Carter. It was Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald who cajoled Rice into attending the camp.
And things didn't go well.
On the second day, Rice cried off with a tweaked hamstring and Carter chewed him out in front of receivers from around the NFL. Asked his opinion of Rice, Carter pulled no punches as he said: "I told him I thought he was pretty pathetic."
And there was further public criticism to come when Carter told ESPN that low-round draft choice Jaymar Johnson was the more polished receiver when compared to Rice, even though the rookie was practice-squad material at best.
Those words stung and Rice responded. He spent the summer working out like a demon in Florida, pushing blocking sleds, hammering tyres with sledgehammers and climbing ropes. There was also the usual assortment of sprinting and weight-lifting and according to Rice: "There wasn't one day that went by where we didn't throw up."
But the effort was worth it. The tough love from Carter was enough to spark action. While several receivers in the NFL are loud-mouthed, cocky and, let's face it, pretty obnoxious, Rice is quiet, polite and somewhat shy.
When he was struggling, Rice's reserved nature was perceived as a lack of passion.
But having learned to take proper care of his body and now willing to put in hours of film study each week at team headquarters in Minnesota, Rice finally gets what it takes to succeed and he is putting his physical skills to good use.
With a basketball background, Rice is almost impossible to defend on high passes and Favre has made a habit of lofting up jump balls that he knows his favourite target is going to come down with. He is not the quickest in the league, but Rice has become one of the most determined - and his sure hands mean he rarely puts a pass on the ground.
Favre said: "There are faster guys. There are taller guys. There are quicker guys. But the thing about Sidney is that he wants to be good - it matters to him."
That kind of compliment will mean the world to Rice because it dispels the notion that he just doesn't care. He has shown this season that he cares passionately, he has made the necessary changes off the field to become a star and he is full of confidence heading into this weekend's showdown with the Saints.
Here are my predictions for the weekend...
AFC Championship Game - New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
The Jets will try to make this a scrappy game that they can win with their mauling defence and the league's number one rushing attack. And they will attack the Colts on the ground through Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones in order to keep the ball away from Peyton Manning and his offensive weapons.
I do think the Jets will make life tough for Indianapolis because they are full of confidence at the moment with head coach Rex Ryan insisting he would be "shocked" if his team didn't win on the road for the sixth game in a row.
But I think the Colts have too much firepower to be negated for an entire 60 minutes, even with Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis in the form of his life. And if the Colts get in front, New York are not built to play catch-up, even with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez growing up in a hurry during his first two playoff appearances.
So I'm backing the Colts to book a Super Bowl berth for the second time in four seasons and they'll head to Miami, where they won it all in 2007.
Prediction: New York Jets 10 Indianapolis Colts 20
NFC Championship Game - Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
We are guaranteed at least one Cinderella story in this year's Super Bowl. But will it be the ageless Brett Favre and the Vikings or the New Orleans Saints, who have become the symbol of hope for an entire city since Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005?
One thing we can rely on is the fact there should be plenty of points in this contest. Both clubs are loaded with offensive firepower.
Brees is in outstanding form for the Saints but this is not a team just built to pass the ball. Reggie Bush showed last week against Arizona that strong running can also be a trademark of the number one-seeded Saints when required.
Favre also has a great deal of weaponry at his disposal and arguably the game's best running back lined up behind him in Adrian Peterson, although he has not posted a 100-yard rushing day in two months.
With both offenses loaded with talent, this game could come down which defence steps up on Sunday evening. The Saints looked very impressive on that side of the ball last week and played with a great deal of emotion led by Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper.
The Vikings got a great defensive showing from their front four and those defensive linemen will need to replicate that performance in order to knock Brees out of his rhythm.
This game has the potential to go either way but I think homefield advantage gives the Saints the edge and they will advance to Miami, giving the NFL its first Super Bowl match-up featuring the top seeds in each conference since the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills met in January, 1994.
Prediction: Minnesota Vikings 24 New Orleans Saints 31
Listen to both NFL championships games this Sunday on BBC 5 live sports extra from 2000 GMT (available on the web to UK users only) and follow live text updates at bbc.co.uk/sport. Watch extended highlights of the NFL play-offs on BBC 2 on Monday 25 January at 2320 GMT; short clips on Monday on the BBC Sport website (UK only).