Pick 6 of possibly surprising playoff performers

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?”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and
http://twitter.com/AP-NFL