Chris Wesseling spotlights NFL players to watch during the AFC and NFC title games
The central question for the Bears: Which Jay Cutler will show up? In his first postseason appearance last week, Cutler joined Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only players in history to run and pass for two scores apiece in the same playoff game. The last time Cutler faced the Packers, though, he took six sacks, threw two picks, and failed to top 170 yards.
Jets defensive end
Teammate Trevor Pryce called Ellis' manhandling, two-sack performance against the Patriots "the best game I've ever seen a defensive lineman play, period." The Steelers have far more pass protection issues than the Pats. Ellis and the Jets should continue to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush, allowing Rex Ryan to get creative with his coverage schemes.
Bears running back
The Packers have shut down LeSean McCoy and Michael Turner the past two weeks, but they have to figure Forte will touch the ball 20-25 times Sunday. Forte has averaged nearly 150 yards per over his past four games. The Bears rushed 176 yards last week, pushing their record to 10-0 this year in games where they topped 20 rushing attempts.
Holmes certainly won't lack for motivation. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP is returning to Pittsburgh less than a year after the Steelers shipped him out for a fifth-round pick. Holmes is coming off another playoff performance with a pivotal touchdown catch, and he's now scored in four of five career postseason appearances.
Steelers defensive end
SI's Peter King recently dubbed injured veteran Aaron Smith the best run-blocking end in football. The Steelers' defense hasn't missed Smith the past three months, in large part because Hood has fortified the line in his stead. With four sacks in the past five games, the 2009 first-rounder is an under-the-radar threat to Mark Sanchez this week.
Bears tight end
Olsen spent the regular season underutilized in Mike Martz's offense only to explode for 113 yards against Seattle. Expect him to remain Martz's X-factor. Green Bay's defense shuts down No. 1 receivers, No. 2 receivers, and even slot receivers, but they've been vulnerable to the tight end. Roughly one-quarter of Olsen's 41 receptions this season came in two matchups with the Packers.
Hall of Famer Mike Ditka called Rodgers' 366-yard, 3-TD game last week the best playoff performance he's ever seen. Rodgers' 10 touchdowns are the most in history through three postseason games, and he's joined Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with a 120.0+ passer rating in 3 straight playoff games. This is his stiffest test yet.
Arguably the rangiest inside linebacker in the NFL, Timmons broke out with 135 tackles, 11 passes defenses, three forced fumbles, and three sacks. Timmons keyed a run defense that finished within 35 yards of the best total since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. He'll be charged with shutting down the Jets' vaunted ground `n' pound attack.
Quiz: Who led the NFL in receiving yards in the second half of the season? Answer: Wallace. The NFL's top downfield playmaker burned the Jets for 102 yards in their mid-December meeting when Rex Ryan wasted shutdown corner Darrelle Revis on a declining Hines Ward. Expect Ryan to correct his mistake this time, leading to a Wallace-Revis showdown Sunday.
With two touchdown-killing interceptions and a pick-six of his own in this year's playoffs, Williams is finally starting to gain the national recognition he deserves. Charles Woodson may have been the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, but Williams has taken over as the Packers' top cover corner. He'll be charged with shutting down deep threat Johnny Knox on Sunday.