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Ravens' Rice, Saints' Sproles among possible playoff stars

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(From left) Calvin Johnson, Ray Rice, Andre Johnson and Darren Sproles could be superstars in the playoffs.

It happens every year. Whether it's a known star, an unheralded veteran or a breakout youngster, somebody turns into a beast when the playoffs begin.

Remember the 2008-09 season? Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald set playoff records for catches (30), receiving yards (546) and touchdowns (seven). Or the 2010-11 season? Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez might have played two of the best games of his career in clutch moments during the playoffs.

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs turned it on last year with five sacks in two playoff games, including three sacks and a forced fumble against the Steelers. A year earlier, Jets running back Shonn Greene rushed for more than 120 yards in back-to-back games.

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So who will do it this year? Who has the potential to vault his team to another level when the playoffs begin? We take our best guesses at which players, no matter the position, have the potential to become a Postseason Most Valuable Player.

NFC

Atlanta Falcons: Quarterback Matt Ryan

For the past few months, we've wondered whether Matt Ryan's early and rapid ascent toward a career as an elite quarterback suddenly had slowed down. But Ryan is back to playing exceptional football lately.

Since Week 11, he's thrown 15 touchdowns to only two interceptions, sneaking the Falcons into the playoffs despite some strange times earlier this season. Aside from a rough game against the Texans in Week 13, Ryan's second half meshes much better with the expectations that were set for him earlier in his career. That's a huge benefit for the Falcons heading into a game against the Giants.

Detroit Lions: Wideout Calvin Johnson

During the best season of his career, Calvin Johnson might have played his best football in the final three weeks of the regular season. Now, if Johnson wants to prove for the first time that he's also the real deal in the playoffs, he'll need to carry the momentum of those two performances of 200-plus yards into Saturday's NFC Wild Card Game against the Saints. If Detroit is going to have a chance in New Orleans, it's going to require some high-powered offensive production. And Johnson, making his playoff debut, is just the guy to do it.

Green Bay Packers: Wideout Greg Jennings

We'll still need to see how Jennings' injured knee responds to his first game action in nearly a month, but given the Packers' patience with his return from a slightly torn MCL, it stands to reason he's now capable of playing at a high level. If that's the case, there's an extra benefit as well: fresh legs. Last year, Jennings played a huge role in two of the team's playoff wins (101 yards against Atlanta; 130 against Chicago). He has the ability to be a force. Now, he might have the stamina, too.

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New Orleans Saints: Running back Darren Sproles

You could just as easily make a case for tight end Jimmy Graham as the Saints' go-to guy for the 2012 playoffs. But Sproles isn't just gaining yards in one dimension of the game -- he's doing it in two.

Sproles set a new NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards this season. Perhaps equally impressive, Sproles is averaging 7.59 yards every time he touches the ball on offense (whether a run or a catch). That's the type of big-play muster that's going to provide a major boost for the Saints, both on the ground and through the air.

New York Giants: Wide receiver Victor Cruz

As obvious as Cruz's potential as a PMVP candidate might seem, this fascinating ascent still requires proper perspective: As an undrafted free agent last year, Cruz didn't do a thing during the regular season. Now? Well, he set the Giants' single-season receiving record. But it's his big-play ability that could make him so special in the playoffs. Not since 1966 had a receiver caught four touchdowns of longer than 65 yards. This year, Cruz matched that mark.

San Francisco 49ers: Defensive end Aldon Smith

Bursting onto the NFL scene with 14 sacks during his rookie season, Smith already is receiving plenty of respect as a potential defensive rookie of the year candidate. But now, he has a chance to truly break out as a star. Smith actually didn't play all that many snaps this season, making most of his impact as a specialty player solely on passing downs. If the 49ers decide to give him a bigger role in the playoffs, it might not be long before everyone knows about one of the rising stars in the NFL.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens: Running back Ray Rice

In the case of the Ravens, there's no reason to make this more difficult than it needs to be. Yes, Joe Flacco will need to be more consistent through the playoffs. Yes, he'll need help in the passing game. But the Ravens will go as far as Rice, who finished second to Maurice Jones-Drew for top spot in the league with 1,364 yards, takes them. That's a powerful finish for a playoff contender, and it's a testament to Rice's current stamina. He's in fantastic shape, and he might just be ready to vault the Ravens toward a Super Bowl berth with a blue-collared approach on both sides of the ball.

Cincinnati Bengals: Quarterback Andy Dalton

A nasty illness sent Andy Dalton for treatment at the hospital early in the week, but he was able to get back on the practice field Thursday as he prepares for his postseason debut. As if Dalton already wasn't facing some serious pressure, now he'll also need to hope he's fully recovered to keep the Bengals alive in a big game against Houston. That said, if the Bengals do make it to the divisional round, it will likely have been a result of a nice performance by Dalton -- providing hope in Cincinnati that he has the goods to be a clutch player early in his career.

Denver Broncos: Running back Willis McGahee

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We all saw what happened when McGahee was hampered by a hamstring injury in Denver's losses to New England and Buffalo. Now that McGahee feels back to full health, it's going to be critical for the Broncos to get the ball in his hands for most of the game as a means to keep things close until the fourth quarter and prevent the Broncos from experiencing the turnover woes that have cost them in recent weeks.

McGahee is having his best season in nine years as a pro, and it's no secret why. The Broncos have relied on their ground attack during the seven wins that got them into the playoffs. Now, McGahee must have some massive production if Denver wants to have a chance against the Steelers.

Houston Texans: Wideout Andre Johnson

It's been a long, frustrating year for one of the NFL's best wide receivers. He missed six games with one hamstring injury, only to return for two more before suffering another setback to his other hamstring. After limited action in the regular-season finale, Johnson is expected to get after it in Houston's big postseason debut. What should you expect? Huge things.

Johnson single-handedly can help the Texans overcome all of the adversity they've faced at quarterback recently by providing a great target. He has always been a calming player in big moments, and there's no reason to think it won't happen again Saturday when the Texans play the Bengals.

New England Patriots: Wideout Wes Welker

The Patriots most certainly realize they'll need to ride the success of their offense if they want to make another run at the Super Bowl. Much of that production, of course, is expected to come from Wes Welker, who already has had an incredible year with 1,569 yards. Of course, nobody will be dissatisfied if Welker simply plays solid. But if the Patriots are going to really make a dent in these playoffs, it might be up to Tom Brady's favorite target to have the best four games of his career.

It's plenty possible, too. Welker is now an experienced, savvy veteran who might be peaking at the perfect time. This, no doubt, will be the moment when New England needs him most.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back Isaac Redman

The Steelers have always been exceptional when it comes to replacing one player with another -- whether because of the end of a career or a season-ending injury. In the wake of Rashard Mendenhall's torn anterior cruciate ligament, that'll need to happen once more. Little-known running back Isaac Redman, who joined the Steelers as a rookie free agent in 2009, will have the opportunity to show Pittsburgh that he belongs. He's expected to replace Mendenhall as the go-to back. That, in itself, is a huge opportunity. But if Redman is going to succeed, while ultimately allowing the Steelers to do the same in the postseason, he'll need to refrain from fumbling. That's something he did twice this past week despite rushing for 92 yards on 19 carries. If he can keep the ball safe, though, Redman might just have the skills and the team around him to make a nice name for himself.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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