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When it comes to playoff heroes, expect the unexpected

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Associated Press
Giants TE Jake Ballard (left) and Falcons LB Curtis Lofton will be big factors in Sunday's game.

Every year at this time, a player who hasn't had much fanfare previously will come up with the big play that helps his team win a playoff game. It could be a player on offense or defense, or a special teamer.

Last postseason, it was Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields -- an undrafted rookie who had two interceptions and a sack in the NFC title game victory over the Bears. It also was Seattle Seahawks tight end John Carlson, who had just one TD reception in 2010 but then caught two scores in Seattle's shocking wild-card upset of the New Orleans Saints.

In Super Bowl XLV, did anyone think Jordy Nelson would be the Packers receiver who would catch nine passes for 140 and one TD? Some even thought he could have been the game's MVP.

With four games this weekend to kick off the postseason, here are some under-the-radar players who could make a difference:

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Cincinnati Bengals
Thomas Howard, LB: Cincinnati must play strong run defense against the Texans. With their system and their QB issues, the Texans will be running a lot. Howard, in his first year with the Bengals, along with Geno Atkins, will be most responsible for stopping Arian Foster. The Bengals rank seventh overall on defense.

Houston Texans
Duane Brown, OT: Houston must do everything possible to protect T.J. Yates and give their young quarterback time to throw the ball.

Kareem Jackson, CB: The Texans' other corner, Johnathan Joseph, is one of the best in the NFL. Which means that Jackson is the one the Bengals will challenge throughout the game.

Brooks Reed, LB: Reed became a rookie starter when Mario Williams went down. He has six sacks and has played the position very well. He'll make a name for himself if he can get to Bengals QB Andy Dalton.

Detroit Lions
DeAndre Levy, LB: Levy is the team's leading tackler, and he needs to make plays in space to keep the Saints' running backs and tight ends from having a field day.

Brandon Pettigrew, TE, and Titus Young, WR: The Saints will do everything they can to prevent Calvin Johnson from beating them, which makes it so important for these two players to produce. Pettigrew and Young combined for 11 TD receptions this season, so it's not out of the question.

New Orleans Saints
Patrick Robinson, CB: Jabari Greer will be covering Calvin Johnson (with help, of course), so Robinson will be a big factor in this game on the other side of the field. He's played extremely well, with four interceptions.

Jermon Bushrod, OT: Detroit is a very good pass rushing team, so Bushrod needs to be the guy who can block the blind side and give Drew Brees time to throw the ball.

Atlanta Falcons
Curtis Lofton, LB: If you're going to beat the Giants, you have to stop that inside running game. Lofton had 147 tackles this season and will be busy Sunday.

Harry Douglas, WR: The Giants will understandably do everything they can to contain Julio Jones and Roddy White, which could make Douglas a valuable third option for Matt Ryan. Douglas missed a lot of last season and it showed. He makes a difference.

Will Svitek, OT: With the Giants' outside pass rushers playing so well of late, it's imperative for Atlanta's offensive line to step up. Svitek has started the past 10 games at tackle and is plating well. He's a great story, too, having escaped from Prague and going to Stanford as a defensive lineman before moving to tackle in Atlanta.

New York Giants
Linval Joseph, DT: He doesn't have a lot of sacks, but he gets inside pressure and will be a key to slowing down Michael Turner.

Jake Ballard, TE: This undrafted free agent who's in his second season had 38 catches in 2011. You don't think of him when discussing this year's emergence of big-play tight ends, but Ballard averaged 15.9 yards per catch, which is tremendous for the position.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown, WR: In all likelihood, Denver will focus on taking Mike Wallace out of the game. Brown can be a big factor both as a receiver and return specialist.

Mewelde Moore, RB: With Rashard Mendenhall done for the postseason, Moore becomes a bigger factor -- though he is questionable himself for this game. He hasn't been much of a factor this season, but if he's cleared to play he will be an important part of the Steelers' offense Sunday.

Lawrence Timmons, LB: Denver looks to run, run, run, so Timmons will be a bigger factor in this game than the Steelers' pass-rushing linebackers.

Denver Broncos
Eric Decker, WR: Demaryius Thomas has been the Broncos' big-play receiver, but Decker has been more valuable in crunch time. He caught eight TD passes this season.

D.J. Williams, LB: In his eighth season, Williams has had his best season yet on the inside. He must have a big game to keep Denver close.

NFL odysseys

» Matt Stafford and Matt Flynn last week combined for 971 net passing yards, the most ever in a single NFL game -- let alone by two guys named Matt.

» When the Bengals and Texans square off Saturday, it will mark the first time in NFL history that two rookie quarterbacks - in this case, Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates -- will start a playoff game.

» Speaking of Yates, he is the first rookie in the common draft era to start a playoff game after being drafted in the fifth round or lower.

» Three of the four starting quarterbacks in Saturday's games played high school football in Texas (Drew Brees, Stafford, Dalton).

» When Flynn set the Packers' single-game passing yards record, the mark he broke did not belong to Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre or Bart Starr. It belonged to Lynn Dickey, who threw for 418 yards in a 1980 contest.

» While the Packers' defense has been criticized, it did lead the NFL in 2011 with 31 interceptions.

Game of the week:
Detroit at New Orleans

After knocking off Detroit in Week 13, New Orleans leads the all-time series against Detroit, 11-9-1. These high-powered attacks have combined for 1,021 points this season -- 547 for the Saints, 474 for the Lions. This will also be the first-ever meeting between two quarterback with 5,000 passing yards each - not to mention two former state high school champions from Dallas.

Matt Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, has been injury-free for the first time in his career. The strong-armed QB has an outstanding receiving corps but he lacks a solid running game so is forced to throw a high percentage of the time.

Brees, the first pick in the second round of 2001, has a great understanding of the game and very good accuracy. He makes up for his lack of height with the ability to throw in the windows and lanes the defense provides.

Another good matchup here is between defensive coordinators Gunther Cunningham of Detroit and Gregg Williams of the Saints. Cunningham, in the NFL since 1982, has been regarded as one of the top defensive coaches for years. His Lions allowed more points this year than last year, but they are playing better. Williams, like Cunningham, is a former head coach. He gives a lot of latitude to linebacker Jonathan Vilma to run his defense on the field. Williams is a very emotional coach. This is a good battle between two very good defensive minds.

Prediction: Saints 45, Lions 38

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