Five Key Players to Watch vs. Packers

DE Julius Peppers (Joe Robbins/Getty)

There will be big names on each sideline in the NFC Championship Game. But if the Chicago Bears find a way advance to the Super Bowl, one of these five players likely was the difference vs. the Packers.

According to the old adage, great players make great plays in big games. And as far as the Bears and Packers are concerned, Sunday's NFC Championship Game battle at Soldier Field is as big a game as has ever been played in the 89-year, 181-game history of the rivalry.

Both teams have an abundance of players capable of grabbing the spotlight, but the Bears have five in particular who could have the biggest impact on the outcome:

1) Defensive end Julius Peppers: No less an authority than seven-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has been one of Peppers' biggest fans since Day 1 of training camp, raving about his proficiency in all phases of the defense.

"We thought he was good when he came here," Urlacher said. "He was everything we thought he would be and more. He's always in the backfield. He's getting held if it's a pass. They don't call it all the time, but it looks like he gets held every play to me. He's been awesome, and he doesn't say much. He just goes about his business, does his job, is a good teammate and works hard."

Peppers has had six seasons with more than the eight sacks he got this year, but he's capable of taking over the game if the Bears put the Packers in obvious passing situations.

2) Running back Matt Forte: It seems the more the Bears went to Forte later in the season, the better the offense ran. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry over the final six weeks, fifth best in the NFL, and was third in the league over the same period with 718 yards from scrimmage. Forte tied for the team lead with 51 receptions, and his 10.7-yard average was third among all running backs.

"He's been outstanding throughout," coach Lovie Smith said, "especially lately the way he's running the ball, catching the ball and picking up blitzes, which we'll have to do quite a bit this week. He's done everything you would like a complete running back to do."

3) Quarterback Jay Cutler: His 111.2 passer rating last week against the Seahawks was Cutler's fifth over 104.0 in his last seven games, and he's 22-0 as a starter when his passer rating is 100.0 or better, including 12-0 as a Bear.

"Jay Cutler should be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "He's a tough guy. He's made a lot of throws, but I like the decisions he's made on when to take off and run the ball. He was outstanding last week, and we'll need him to play that way again this week."

WR Devin Hester
Andy Lyons/Getty

Cutler averaged a team-best 4.6 yards per carry while rushing for a career-best 232 yards, plus a personal-best 43 yards last week.

4) Devin Hester: No one has more of a flair for the sensational than the NFL's all-time leader in kick-return touchdowns. Hester's total of 14 doesn't include the 92-yard touchdown return he had on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI or the 108-yard missed field goal he returned for a score in 2006.

"This would be a typical Devin time to do it, right?" Bears tight end Greg Olsen said. "It seems like in the bigger games, when we really need him, is when he makes those returns. Certain guys have that knack, and he's one of them."

Special teams coordinator Dave Toub knows that better than anyone.

"That's who he is," Toub said. "He performs. He's an entertainer. When the bright lights come on, he steps it up."

5) Cornerback Charles Tillman: Not only did "Peanut" tie for the team lead with five interceptions, he piled up 127 return yards after his picks, the third-highest total in the league. Even more noteworthy is that since Tillman entered the league in 2003, he has forced 24 fumbles, more than any other defensive back in the NFL.

"That's all we talk about, taking the ball away, causing fumbles, and Peanut is the best at it in the NFL, at getting the ball out," Urlacher said.

Tillman tied for the team lead this year with three forced fumbles, tied for second with two recovered fumbles and was second with 11 pass breakups.

"You can teach it," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Tillman's knack for punching or ripping the ball out. "But he just does it extremely well and it magnifies it to the other players, the urgency to get the ball out. I don't know if there has been anybody ever in this game as good as this guy at how he takes the ball away, and then add in all of the other things he can do."

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