Look for unsung heroes in Dallas-Green Bay battle

ROB MAADDI, AP Pro Football Writer

From Dennis Thurman to Blair Thomas, unlikely players have stepped up to help the Dallas Cowboys beat the Green Bay Packers in past playoffs.

Don’t be surprised if the star of Sunday’s divisional playoff game at Green Bay isn’t Tony Romo or Aaron Rodgers, DeMarco Murray or Eddie Lacy, Dez Bryant or Jordy Nelson.

Many lesser-known players have produced plenty of clutch postseason performances over the years. Thurman and Thomas are just two examples in this series alone.

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When Emmitt Smith went down with an injury against the Packers on Jan. 8, 1995, Thomas replaced him and ran for 70 yards and two touchdowns to lead Dallas to a 35-9 win. Thomas had just 137 yards rushing and two TDs the entire season split between New England and the Cowboys.

A decade earlier, Thurman intercepted three of Lynn Dickey’s passes to help Dallas beat Green Bay 37-26 in a playoff game on Jan. 16, 1983. He returned one of those picks 39 yards for a TD.

Here are potential unsung heroes for each of the NFL teams playing this weekend:

RAVENS: Joe Flacco may be the new Joe Cool in the playoffs, but safety Will Hill could be the key to victory for Baltimore. Hill is responsible for trying to stop Rob Gronkowski. If Hill keeps the All-Pro tight end in check, the Ravens have a better shot at the upset.

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PATRIOTS: Shane Vereen’s numbers have steadily declined this season, but the Patriots need one of their running backs to deliver against a run defense that allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are also part of New England’s committee backfield. Vereen has extra motivation Saturday night facing former college teammate Justin Forsett.

PANTHERS: Luke Kuechly and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner are All-Pro linebackers so most of the focus is on them. But another linebacker, Thomas Davis, will play an integral role for Carolina’s defense. Davis has to help slow down Marshawn Lynch and contain Russell Wilson. While Kuechly draws the attention, Davis’ performance can go a long way toward lifting the Panthers to a major upset.

SEAHAWKS: Rookie wide receiver Paul Richardson had 10 receptions for 112 yards in Seattle’s last two games after catching 19 passes the first 14. Richardson has big-play talent. The Seahawks had only one player – Doug Baldwin – catch more than 40 passes this season, so Wilson spreads the ball around.

COLTS: Tight end Coby Fleener had 291 yards on nine of his receptions and gained first downs on 40 of his 51 catches. Andrew Luck and the Colts have a deep threat in T.Y. Hilton and the dependable, veteran hands of Reggie Wayne. Fleener, Luck’s teammate at Stanford, is a go-to type of guy who can make a difference in a shootout.

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BRONCOS: Rookie cornerback Bradley Roby knocked down Luck’s fourth-down pass to Wayne to seal Denver’s 31-24 win over Indianapolis in Week 1. Now Roby has a chance to be the star in his first playoff game. Luck will likely target Roby more than the formidable duo of Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.

COWBOYS: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has turned into Jerry Jones’ good-luck charm. Christie governs a state filled with fans of the Giants and Eagles, but he grew up rooting for the Cowboys and sat with Jones in the owner’s suite last week. His awkward, celebratory hug of Jones when the Cowboys sealed a win against Detroit was the punch line for quite a few jokes this week.

PACKERS: Fullback John Kuhn earned All-Pro honors for doing the dirty work to help Green Bay’s offense soar this season. Kuhn doesn’t get the ball much – 24 carries, 4 catches – but he’s vital to the Packers’ success because he’s an excellent lead blocker and pass protector.