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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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Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

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USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

Football is back in session for the Ravens.

Their rookies are set to report to the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md Wednesday. Veterans report next Wednesday, the 18th.

The team is reporting to training camp a bit earlier than most NFL teams. Due to Ray Lewis being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 4 in Canton, Oh, the Ravens will face the Chicago Bears in the annual Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2. Teams participating are eligible to begin training camp earlier.

This rookie class is already generating national attention. While the Ravens stand by Joe Flacco as their QB1, first-round pick Lamar Jackson could cause a shakeup at some point during the season. And when it comes to much-needed offensive help, tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews could begin to provide relief. 

Third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. begins his journey with the Ravens in a more sentimental fashion. His father, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, also played tackle for the Ravens from 1996-98 and then again from 2003-05. Brown passed away in 2011. 

Stay with NBC Sports Washington throughout the next several weeks as we keep a close eye on the Ravens' preseason. 

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Early 2018 NFL playoff odds have Ravens in similar situation

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Early 2018 NFL playoff odds have Ravens in similar situation

There's only six months until the NFL playoffs and we've got no time to waste.

OK, maybe we're getting a little ahead of ourselves but online betting site, Oddshark, released their early 2018 NFL playoff odds and the Ravens are in a similar situation as previous years.

The Ravens are sitting at +135 — tied for 13th with the San Francisco 49ers — for the best odds to play January football. This would place them in the seventh seed among AFC teams and just outside contention.

The Patriots (-1500), Steelers (-550), Chargers (-145), Jaguars (-140), Texans (-135), and Chiefs (+120) are seeded above them respectively. 

During the 2017 season, the Ravens were constantly in the hunt for the fifth or sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture. Several weeks ahead of training camp, Vegas is predicting that to be the case in 2018.

Playoff odds in July mean nothing, but considering their offseason changes, the Ravens' 2018 season should bring positive change.

They added weapons for Joe Flacco in free agents Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown, and drafted tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews.

Then there was the late first-round draft pick of QB Lamar Jackson. Flacco remains the starter for now, but it will be interesting to see if that changes midway through the season or if they get them both on the field at the same time.

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