The Stars Come Out

Players To Watch

Ravens Extra -- A Fans Guide To The Nfl Playoffs

January 05, 2007|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

t happens every winter. Some unheralded player rises from obscurity to gain a national profile in the NFL playoffs. This year, there are a host of candidates.

Here is a primer on the stars you know and the would-be stars you don't.

CHARGERS

STAR YOU KNOW

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson enjoyed a magical run this season and was rewarded yesterday with the Most Valuable Player Award. He led the NFL in rushing (1,815 yards) and yards from scrimmage (2,323). His specialty was getting into the end zone, rushing for a league-record 28 touchdowns, catching three more and throwing for two. In an era of arrogant prima donnas, he is as gracious a person as he is a great player.

ASCENDING STAR

Receiver Vincent Jackson stepped in for an injured Keenan McCardell in a big way last month. The 6-foot-5, second-year receiver from Northern Colorado came down with the last-minute touchdown catch that beat Seattle in Week 17 and kept the No. 1 seed for the Chargers. Jackson has six touchdowns among 27 catches, and a 16.8 average gain.

PATRIOTS

STAR YOU KNOW

Tom Brady's mastery at quarterback was never more evident than this season, when he overcame a patchwork receiving corps to win 12 games. Without a No. 1 receiver, Brady still threw for 24 touchdowns. His 3,529 yards represented his lowest total since 2001, however. As usual, he was at his best when it counted the most.

ASCENDING STAR

The Patriots picked Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney with the 21st pick last spring, beating the Colts to the punch. Splitting carries with Corey Dillon, Maroney gained 745 yards and scored six touchdowns. The Patriots could increase his workload in the postseason.

BEARS

STAR YOU KNOW

Brian Urlacher revived the Bears' tradition for All-Pro middle linebackers and tenacious defense. He has been at the heart of the team's resuscitation. This season, he held the defense together through the losses of safety Mike Brown and tackle Tommie Harris.

ASCENDING STAR

Devin Hester set a league record by returning six kicks for touchdowns this season -- three on punts, two on kickoffs and another on a missed field-goal attempt. He's averaging 12.8 yards on punt returns and 26.4 on kickoff returns. He has had trouble with fair catches of late, though, and that bears watching.

RAVENS

STAR YOU KNOW

Limited by injury to six games a year ago, inside linebacker Ray Lewis has reclaimed his status as inspirational leader on another dominating defense. He doesn't have the impact he once had, but Lewis led the team in tackles (152). He also had four sacks and two interceptions in his comeback season.

ASCENDING STAR

Inside linebacker Bart Scott is the hardest hitter on the team and a tone-setter, whether it's stuffing a running back at the line or crushing quarterbacks behind it. Scott made his presence felt with 9 1 / 2 sacks, two interceptions and a generous share of big plays. Because of Lewis and Scott, no one runs up the middle on the Ravens.

JETS

STAR YOU KNOW

Receiver Laveranues Coles had a career-high 91 catches this season, the fourth time he has had 80 or more in his seven-year career. He and Jerricho Cotchery gave the Jets a first-class, big-play receiving tandem. They both caught 29 third-down passes, tying for third best in the league.

ASCENDING STAR

Safety Kerry Rhodes hasn't missed a start since getting drafted out of Louisville in the fourth round in 2005. After a solid rookie year, he became an impact player this season with three forced fumbles, four interceptions, five sacks and 70 solo tackles. He's also a force on kick coverage teams.

SAINTS

STAR YOU KNOW

The Saints were willing to gamble that Drew Brees' surgically repaired right shoulder would heal sufficiently that he could resume his Pro Bowl career. It did -- and he did -- in dramatic fashion. Brees led the league with 4,418 passing yards and was third with a passer rating of 96.2. With a new coach and bucking a dreadful tradition, Brees overachieved by taking the Saints to a division title.

ASCENDING STAR

Receiver Marques Colston was a seventh-round pick out of Hofstra, yet for much of the season, he was the most productive rookie on a team with Reggie Bush. Colston pulled in 70 passes for eight touchdowns and an average gain of 14.8 yards. He had 15 catches of 20-plus yards and three of 40-plus.

COWBOYS

STAR YOU KNOW

Despite leading the NFL in dropped passes, Terrell Owens still was the team's most productive receiver with 85 receptions for 1,180 yards and 13 touchdowns. For all of his haughty self-promotion, Owens comes up big in big games. He has 334 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his past three playoff games.

ASCENDING STAR

On a team with Owens and Terry Glenn, third-year receiver Patrick Crayton has become another reliable target for quarterback Tony Romo. Crayton, a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern Oklahoma State in 2004, has shown play-making ability with 36 catches, a 14.3 average gain, and four touchdowns.

COLTS

STAR YOU KNOW

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