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Playoffs is the time to make your name

The last time the Denver Broncos were in the playoffs, Bertrand Berry actually was out of the NFL. He was ignominiously released by the St. Louis Rams in the summer of 2000, exiled to the sofa in front of the family room television for his weekly football fix.

So if you think Broncos coach Mike Shanahan is thrilled about the opportunity to claim another Super Bowl ring, well, imagine the unabashed excitement of Berry at being able to again cash a paycheck twice monthly. Or consider the potential earnings of Denver's right defensive end -- a full-time starter for the first time since 1999 -- when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in only a couple more months.

For the justifiably ignorant, Berry arguably is the most anonymous of the NFL's leading sackers for 2003, his 12 sacks fifth-most in the league but still not enough to appreciably strengthen his profile with most fans outside the Mile High City. But the sixth-year pro now is on the radar screen of the offensive tackles who have had to block him this season.

And a strong performance in the playoffs, where the resurgent Broncos could pose a real threat to AFC teams seeded higher in the bracket, clearly would enhance his reputation.

"This year, I think I silenced most of the critics, showed a lot of the doubters I could play in this league and be productive," Berry said. "But the playoffs, well, that's a big stage. I mean, everyone is watching, right?"

Indeed, and Berry could become the latest in a long line of relatively unheralded players who dramatically upgraded their Q-factor in postseason play. The Tampa Bay Bucs, for instance, might not have won Super Bowl XXXVII without the contributions from relative role players like defensive end Greg Spires, wide receiver Joe Jurevicious and "nickel" cornerback Dwight Smith.

Nearly every year, the postseason turns a has-been into a hero, or includes a contest in which the big play is authored by a little-known performer. The suggestion by the late Andy Warhol, that everyone inevitably experiences 15 minutes of fame, was made as he paused from painting giant Campbell's soup cans long enough to watch a playoff game on television. OK, that's not true, but it could be.

Given what has transpired in 2003, when Berry actually has started more games than he had in all of the previous five seasons of his roller coaster career, there is no reason why he can't dominate a playoff contest. Signed in 2001, basically to provide depth, Berry instead has given first-year coordinator Larry Coyer the second half of a deadly outside pass rush tandem, teaming with star left end Trevor Pryce to terrorize quarterbacks.

With just 13½ sacks coming into the '03 season, and never more than 6½ in any year, there was scant reason to believe Berry would register the kind of campaign he has had. But the former college linebacker moved to defensive end in 1998 when he played for the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him in the third round the previous season. And he has learned the defensive end craft, and has honed a variety of pass rush moves, in the ensuing seasons.

His 12th sack of the season, notably enough, came in the Broncos' rout of the Colts last Sunday night. There is a good chance the two teams could reprise that matchup in the wild card round of the playoffs Jan. 3 or 4. If Berry isn't openly lusting for yet another opportunity to face the franchise that cut him in 2000 feeling it had sufficient defensive line depth and viewing the veteran as just a special teams performer, he definitely wouldn't mind seeing Indianapolis again in the postseason.

The Colts, good or bad, at least know all about Berry and what he can do. They might well serve as a foil for Berry, a guy who is deceptively explosive off the edge and who plays a lot bigger than his 250 pounds, to introduce his game to the rest of the country. In fact, three-quarters of the Denver front four is comprised of "who's he?" type guys, with starting tackles Darius Holland and Mario Fatafehi not even on the original training camp roster.

Here are some other lesser known players who could impact the playoffs:

  • QB Anthony Wright (Baltimore): When the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, they combined a suffocating defense, the legs of tailback Jamal Lewis, and a quarterback who did not open that 2000 season as the starter. Sound familiar? Wright isn't going to make too many plays, but does just enough in the passing game to keep opponents honest, and he is 4-2 since replacing the injured Kyle Boller as the starter. In what seems to be shaping up as a Super Bowl tournament with plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks, Wright is one of a potential six starters with no postseason victories, and one of four who never has started a playoff contest. Three other Ravens players to watch: left guard Edwin Mulitalo, inside linebacker Ed Hartwell and fullback Alan Ricard, a punishing lead blocker for Lewis.

  • LB Mike Vrabel and CB Tyrone Poole (New England): A typical pair of Bill Belichick veteran additions, signed at relatively modest prices, who have found ways to stand out in the Patriots defense. The loss of Rosevelt Colvin to a season-ending hip injury got Vrabel more pass-rush chances and, after never garnering more than 4½ sacks in any season, he has a team-best 9½ this year. Poole figured to be little more than a "nickel" defender, but won a starting job opposite Ty Law and has six interceptions (as many as his celebrated cornerback partner) and also 53 tackles.

  • SS Greg Wesley (Kansas City): This has been a season of resurgence for the strong safety position, but few have been as consistently good as Wesley, who probably should have merited more Pro Bowl consideration. The rare combination of a strong safety who is a big hitter and not a liability in coverage, he has 103 tackles, five interceptions, two sacks and three fumbles forced.

  • WR Brandon Stokley and SLB Marcus Washington (Indianapolis): Beset by injuries much of the season, Stokley has made plays down the stretch and is a solid No. 3 wideout behind Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. People sometimes forget it was Stokley who scored the first touchdown for the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, beating Giants corner Jason Sehorn with one of his nifty double-moves. Washington is good against the run but often plays better moving forward and is a force off the edge on the blitz.

  • WR Freddie Mitchell and DE Brandon Whiting (Philadelphia): Regarded as a first-round bust entering the season, Mitchell had only 33 catches for 388 yards during his first two seasons. This year, he has 31 receptions for 451 yards, has blossomed into a pretty dependable No. 3 receiver, and had made some clutch plays on third down. Mitchell even has thrown a touchdown pass. Whiting began the season injured but, in a year when the Eagles' defense looked like a M*A*S*H unit, he recovered and added stability to a front four unit in flux. Stout enough against the run, Whiting has just one sack, but can get into the backfield and is often at the bottom of the pile when the ball is on the ground.

  • WRs Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson (Green Bay): Ferguson was an underachiever for two seasons and Walker had only 23 catches in his 2002 rookie year. The two have combined for 76 receptions, 1,195 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003, a season in which the Packers offense has relied more on the running game than in previous years. Walker in particular has come up big in recent games.

  • DT Robaire Smith and DE Carlos Hall (Tennessee): The former has teamed with Albert Haynesworth to provide the Titans with two terrific interior players and are a prime reason that Tennessee is the league's best team stopping the run. As evidenced by his 4½ sacks, Smith can occasionally squeeze the pocket from the inside. Hall hasn't been as consistent as he was in '02, when he tallied eight sacks as a rookie, but is still disruptive. If Jevon Kearse continues to be plagued by foot problems in the playoffs, Hall could get more pass-rush opportunities, and he is tough to handle coming off the edge.

  • WLB Will Witherspoon, SS Mike Minter and WR Steve Smith (Carolina): Although his hair-trigger temper remains a concern, Smith is the Panthers' best big-play threat. He has 86 catches for 1,094 yards and seven touchdowns and can make plays in the punt return (9.5-yard average) and kickoff return (28.1) games as well. Minter has always been very solid, rarely gets the attention he deserves, and is an underrated two-way defender. The athletically gifted Witherspoon is becoming one of the NFL's best young weak 'backers and has 95 tackles. Not used very often on the blitz, he is excellent in coverage, and can hang with backs deep up the field.

  • WRs Dane Looker and Mike Furrey (St. Louis): OK, so they won't make anyone forget Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl, the Rams' No. 3 and 4 wideouts of past years, and the Mike Martz offense probably makes them better than they should be, but this pair of itinerants (Looker bounced all over the place, including two stints in NFL Europe, and Furrey is a former Arena League player) has stepped up lately. Looker has grown into an effective possession receiver, an angular receiver who reminds some of Proehl, and both run precise routes.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.