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THE STARS COME OUT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

Were it not for Peyton Manning's fourth-quarter wizardry this season, the Colts' fall from AFC favorite might have hit earlier and been more devastating. Manning overturned three fourth-quarter deficits in October to help the Colts reach 9-0 before they hit the skids. He finished with 31 touchdown passes and 4,397 passing yards, and led the league with a 101.0 passer rating.

ASCENDING STAR

Running back Joseph Addai capably filled the void left by the free-agent defection of Pro Bowl player Edgerrin James. His 1,081 rushing yards led all rookies, and he showed he was a finisher with seven touchdowns. On top of that, he caught 40 passes, six more than James a year ago.

CHIEFS

STAR YOU KNOW

The Chiefs will go as far as running back Larry Johnson can carry them. Since taking over for injured Priest Holmes in mid-2005, Johnson has been the league's most punishing runner. Carrying an NFL-record 416 times this season, he totaled 1,789 yards and ran for 100 yards 11 times. In his career, the Chiefs are 18-6 when he runs for 100.

ASCENDING STAR

Defensive end Tamba Hali led the team in two key categories -- sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (six) -- as a rookie. Taken with the 20th pick in the draft, the former Penn State player beat out Eric Hicks to start all 16 games. An athletic pass rusher, he had one interception and defensed two passes.

EAGLES

STAR YOU KNOW

Because running back Brian Westbrook was injury-prone, the Eagles have been reluctant to turn him loose. But with quarterback Donovan McNabb's season-ending knee injury at midseason, the Eagles had no choice but to give him the ball. Westbrook responded wonderfully, sparking their playoff drive. He has averaged 102 rushing yards since November, excluding a Week 17 cameo appearance.

ASCENDING STAR

An undersized defensive end, Trent Cole led the Eagles in sacks (eight) and hurries (12), and led the defensive line in tackles (84) as a second-year player. He had five sacks in September to win a starting job, then helped fill the void left by a season-ending injury to Jevon Kearse. A fifth-round pick in 2005, he was given a five-year extension in November.

GIANTS

STAR YOU KNOW

Saving his best for last, running back Tiki Barber rushed for a franchise-record 234 yards in his final regular-season game. Barber, who announced he'll retire after this season to work in TV, was fourth in the league in rushing with 1,662 yards. Obviously, he has something left in his tank.

ASCENDING STAR

Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka will be remembered for the two big mistakes he made this season -- letting go of Vince Young on a would-be sack and fumbling after making an interception -- but he made more big plays than bad ones. He led the team with 16 hits on the quarterback and was second with 23 hurries.

SEAHAWKS

STAR YOU KNOW

Running back Shaun Alexander was the blunt force that got the Seahawks to the Super Bowl last season, when he led the NFL in rushing. But Alexander missed six games this season with a broken foot and the Seahawks' running game went down with him. The Seahawks scored only eight rushing touchdowns in 2006, down from 29 a year ago. Alexander still rushed for 896 yards.

ASCENDING STAR

No kicker was more clutch than Josh Brown this season. The veteran hit 25 of 31 field-goal attempts, but more importantly made four game-winning kicks for the struggling Seahawks. He hit a 54-yarder to beat the Rams in October and kicked a 50-yarder at Denver in December. In fact, Brown has hit his past six attempts at a game-winning field goal.

MOST OUTSPOKEN PLAYERS

TERRELL OWENS -- WR, Cowboys -- It's always about T.O.

TIKI BARBER -- RB, Giants -- Became self-serving this season.

LAVERANUES COLES -- WR, Jets -- Caught 91 passes and complained.

JEREMY SHOCKEY -- TE, Giants -- Rips his coach, opponent's coach.

MOST CONSERVATIVE COACHES

MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER -- Chargers -- No lead is safe with Marty.

HERM EDWARDS -- Chiefs -- Learned from Schottenheimer.

LOVIE SMITH -- Bears -- Always goes by the book.

BIGGEST COACHING RISK-TAKERS

BILL BELICHICK -- Patriots -- Likes to go for gadgets on fourth downs.

MIKE HOLMGREN -- Seahawks -- Lost a Super Bowl when he willingly gave up a TD.

SEAN PAYTON -- Saints -- Opened up the playbook in the regular season.

MOST VERSATILE PLAYERS

MIKE VRABEL -- LB, Patriots -- Designated tight end, touchdown catcher in Super Bowl.

REGGIE BUSH -- RB, Saints -- Potential game-breaker as punt returner, receiver and running back.

BRIAN WESTBROOK -- RB, Eagles -- Forerunner of the Bush model.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL PLAYERS

RAY LEWIS -- LB, Ravens -- Dancing again.

DREW BREES -- QB, Saints -- His play elevates everyone.

JEFF GARCIA -- QB, Eagles -- Fiery, efficient and infectious.

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