OK, so the name Tom Brady probably rings a bell. Ray Lewis, too. If either makes a key play in the AFC championship game Sunday, no one would be shocked one bit.
Same goes for Brady's top receiver on the New England Patriots, Wes Welker. Or Lewis' longtime partner on the Baltimore Ravens defense, safety Ed Reed.
Over in the NFC championship game, all eyes will be on Atlanta Falcons wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones or tight end Tony Gonzalez, not to mention San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — he of the run-for-a-long-touchdown-then-kiss-your-biceps move — or All-Pro defenders Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
Established playmakers, all. Keep this in mind, though: More than 150 other guys will be wearing NFL uniforms in Foxborough and Atlanta this weekend. Here are some less-heralded guys who could play important roles in the conference title games and, if their team makes it, the Super Bowl:
— Shane Vereen, Patriots RB: With superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski out with a broken left arm, and running back Danny Woodhead sidelined with a bum thumb, Vereen starred in last weekend's 41-28 win over Houston. He scored three touchdowns in that game, after accumulating five TDs in his NFL career up to that point. Precisely the type of anonymous player New England seems to come up with season after season.
— Rob Ninkovich, Patriots DE: Good as he's been all regular season, he just doesn't have the name recognition that, say, mammoth defensive tackle Vince Wilfork does. Yet there was Ninkovich — who appeared in only eight games over his first three NFL seasons — making a leaping interception, then grabbing an onside kick against the Texans. "I was blessed to be able to stick around in the league a couple years without really doing anything," Ninkovich said. Spoken like a true Bill Belichick find, eh?
— Corey Graham, Ravens CB: Lauded mainly for his special teams play, he had only four interceptions and 10 starts in his first five NFL seasons, all with Chicago. But Graham emerged to help an injury-depleted Baltimore secondary, intercepting Peyton Manning twice in last weekend's 38-35 double-overtime win at Denver — he returned one for a touchdown; the other set up the game-ending field goal. And he can talk the talk. His self-assessment this week: "I am a pretty savvy corner."
— Bernard Pierce, Ravens RB: He's a rookie, he's playing behind Ray Rice, and he was limited by a knee injury against Denver. So why is Pierce on the list? Well, for one thing, he showed what he can do by gaining 103 yards on only 13 carries in the first round of the playoffs against the Colts. He also ran for 123 yards on 14 carries against the Giants in Week 16. And finally, we asked Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones — a candidate for this group himself — which less-than-famous teammate could make a mark, and he quickly mentioned Pierce. "He reminds me a lot," Jones said, "of Jamal Lewis."
— Kroy Biermann, Falcons DE: Best known so far for being married to one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, the fifth-round draft pick out of Montana in 2008 could be vital to keeping Kaepernick at home. The top-seeded Falcons didn't generate a pass rush or succeed in containing Russell Wilson in a 30-28 win over Seattle last weekend; it didn't help that John Abraham left after only 15 snaps because of an injured left ankle. With Ray Edwards released, Biermann got a starting job full-time, and he can make plays when dropping into coverage. Other Falcons to watch: WR Harry Douglas is often ignored because of Jones and White, but he caught a 22-yard pass on the last-minute drive that produced the go-ahead field goal against the Seahawks; RB Jacquizz Rodgers, who is basically sharing rushing duties with Michael Turner and made a key block on a blitz during that drive.
— Tarell Brown, 49ers CB: Owner of 11 interceptions in six NFL seasons, he's got a little streak going at the moment. Overshadowed by All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers, Brown picked off Aaron Rodgers in a 45-31 win over the Packers last weekend — ending a 183-pass stretch without an interception by last season's NFL MVP — and also grabbed one in San Francisco's division-clinching win over Arizona in Week 17. Other 49ers to watch: The entire offensive line, which opened gaping holes for Frank Gore and Kaepernick against Green Bay; LB Ahmad Brooks, an afterthought on a team with Willis, Bowman and Smith but quite capable of making a play that'll make someone say, "Hey, who's he?"
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