FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Midway through the season, there would have been no way to predict Taylor Gabriel would be the top scorer among Atlanta Falcons wide receivers.
Especially considering that group includes All-Pro Julio Jones.
Gabriel’s surprise unveiling began when he scored his first touchdown of the season in the Falcons’ 33-32 win over Green Bay on Oct. 30. He flashed his speed on the 47-yard scoring pass from Matt Ryan, showing why the Falcons move quickly to sign the receiver after he was cut by Cleveland late in the preseason.
Jones had another big year, finishing second in the NFL in yards receiving. But Gabriel’s seven touchdowns, including one on a run, led Atlanta’s receivers. Jones had six.
Similarly, Green Bay running back Ty Montgomery, New England running back Dion Lewis and Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier have emerged with surprise key roles to help their teams reach the conference championship games.
Gabriel is a big part of Atlanta’s offense entering Sunday’s NFC championship game rematch against the Packers.
”A lot has changed,” Gabriel said Wednesday as he remembered the regular-season game against the Packers.
”That was the first time I scored,” he said. ”I’ve gotten introduced to the offense a little more since then.”
Gabriel’s teammates saw his potential in his first practice with the team in September.
”The first day when we saw him get off the ball we were like `whoa,”’ said fullback Patrick DiMarco. ”You could tell from his skill set that the kid is super-explosive and super-fast.”
Gabriel (5-8, 167) has 35 catches for 579 yards.
Here’s a look at the major contributions from the other trio of expected surprises:
MONTOMERY CATCHING ON AT RUNNING BACK
The second-year player moved from receiver to running back for the Packers following the season-ending injury to Eddie Lacy in October. Montgomery ran for two touchdowns in last week’s win over Dallas. He also had six catches for 34 yards.
”He’s an extremely skilled player,” said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. ”He’s obviously a running back with the ball, but he can run around like a receiver because he’s played receiver for a number of years, too. I’m really proud of his effort.”
Montgomery set season highs with 16 carries for 162 yards against Chicago on Dec. 18.
LEWIS’ VERSATILTY HELPS PATS
Lewis missed the first half of the season in New England while recovering from surgery on his left knee. He played in only seven games last season before hurting his knee.
In last week’s 34-16 win over Houston, Lewis became the first player in the Super Bowl era to score on a run, a catch and a kick return in a postseason game. He scored on a 13-yard catch, a 98-yard kickoff return and a 1-yard run. They were his first touchdowns of the season.
”The past is the past,” Lewis said. ”Right now, moving forward I’m just focused on having great practices with my teammates and continuing to prepare because it’s a big week for us and we gotta stay focused on this week. That’s all that matters.”
SHAZIER’S INTERCEPTION SPREE
Shazier spent the first meeting against the Patriots trying to shake off the rust after missing a month with a sprained knee. He is healthy this time around and thriving.
Shazier has an interception in four straight games. He also has taken on a large portion of the Steelers’ defensive play-calling responsibilities, allowing veteran Lawrence Timmons to focus more on making an impact in opposing backfields.
Shazier has the speed to cover wide receivers and the intelligence to diagnose plays quickly. In Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over Miami, Shazier disguised a blitz then dropped back into coverage to make a leaping interception.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Shazier ”steadies a lot of waters.”
AP Sports Writers Genaro C. Armas in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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