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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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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP