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Pick 6 of possibly surprising playoff performers

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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?''

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter athttp://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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

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Retired Steve Smith Sr. not interested in working out with current players

Retired Steve Smith Sr. not interested in working out with current players

Since announcing his retirement, former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. says numerous players are expressing a desire to train with him this offseason.

It’s understandable why players would want to be mentored by Smith, after his brilliant 16-year career.

But while Smith has the time, he does not have the desire.

“People have been calling me, ‘Hey, wanted to work out…let’s watch some film…I need to work on some releases,”’ Smith said to James Lofton and Brad Hopkins on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

“I had some DB’s calling me, ‘Hey, you can give me some line work’, and all that stuff. When I was at the Super Bowl…I had probably about three or four people text me, saying, ‘Hey, let’s get up’, and I had some agents call me for their guy to help them work their guy out, get him prepared for the combine.

“And I had to take a step back and I said, ‘You know what? If I do all these things, now I’m getting my mind and body to say I can still play.

“So I had to text some guys and say, ‘You know what? I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to watch film with you and work out and train with you because that means I’m telling myself and my family I’m about to go play again. And I don’t want to go through that process. I’m done playing.’

“So if I’m training anybody, their last name is Smith, meaning my kids. I’m just going to love on them, and that training is less intense. The goal is so lesser. It’s, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we’re drinking water, fluid, and all that stuff.’ Out there, when you’re training for ball, it’s a different animal. So I said, ‘No.’’’

Smith sounds determined not to play anymore. He recently signed with NFL Network as an analyst, and he has not given any mixed signals about his desire to start a new chapter in his life.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at the “State of the Ravens’’ press conference that if Smith wanted to return, the door was open.

However, Smith seems content to keep that door closed.  

RELATED: THE BEST OF STEVE SMITH SR. TRASH TALK

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Former Ravens RB Trent Richardson arrested on domestic violence charge

Former Ravens RB Trent Richardson arrested on domestic violence charge

Former Alabama Crimson Tide running back Trent Richardson, who was signed by the Ravens in April 2016, was arrested Thursday night in Hoover, Ala. on a domestic violence charge, according to Hoover police.

Richardson, who was drafted by the Browns with No 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, joined the Ravens during the 2016 offseason before being waived prior to the start of training camp in August.

According to the report, Richardson was arrested following an incident at the Hyatt Place Hotel and was charged with one count of third-degree domestic violence. 

The argument between Richardson and the women began at a nearby Walmart before the altercation turned physical. 

RELATED: RICHARDSON DISCUSSES FAMILY FREELOADING

"Officers were able to make contact with an adult male and adult female who were involved in a domestic altercation," police said in the official release.

"After interviewing both parties it was determined that the two individuals had been arguing earlier while at the Walmart on John Hawkins Parkway and that the dispute continued after they arrived back at the hotel. At some point the situation turned physical and the female sustained injuries (scratches and bruising) about her face."

Richardson's NFL career has been wrought with disappointment.  He played just 17 games for the Browns — averaging 3.6 yards per carry—  before he was traded to the Colts in 2013. His numbers declined even more, and he was released at the end of the 2014 season. He spent the 2015 offseason with the Raiders, but was released before the beginning of the Regular season.

Richardson's last appearance in a regular season NFL game took place in a December 2014 Colts' victory over the Patriots in which he ran for 11 yards on six carries.

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