Eight key players to watch in the NFL Divisional Round

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It’s the playoffs, where team matters more than individual players. But there are several key players that hold their team’s hopes in their hands this weekend and we’ve listed eight of them (one for each team) below.

In no particular order…

1. Terrell Suggs, Ravens
The Ravens have been waiting for this guy to return to form and he finally has. Suggs looks hungry, motivated and determined to get the Ravens to a Super Bowl. If Baltimore’s front seven is able to take away Rashard Mendenhall and force the Steelers to be one-dimensional this Saturday, then Suggs needs to get after Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Wallace is a true homerun threat and can score from anywhere on the field, so Suggs and Co. can’t give Big Ben time to throw. Getting pressure on the quarterback is always vital in football, especially in the postseason where one or two plays can decide the outcome of a game.

2. Troy Polamalu, Steelers
I realize this is an obvious one but I don’t care: Polamalu is the key to whether or not the Steelers will be playing in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. He’s vital to their defense because when he’s not on the field, it’s a completely different unit. When the Steelers and Ravens met in Pittsburgh late in the season, it was his forced fumble of Joe Flacco that set up Pittsburgh’s offense to score the eventual game-winning touchdown. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word but he’s also been battling an Achilles/ankle injury so he’s not 100 percent. If he’s able to fly around the field and create havoc like he normally does, then Baltimore will have a tough time moving the ball this weekend.

3. James Starks (Packers)
The football world is now enamored with this young man – and for good reason. The past two games, Starks has given Green Bay something it’s been searching for all year: balance. The Packers have already proven that they can win when Aaron Rodgers has to throw the ball but it’s much tougher on a defense when they can’t sit back in coverage on most downs. In the first meeting between the Packers and Falcons, Atlanta didn’t have to respect the run. But after Starks rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries last weekend against the Eagles, the Falcons may not have the luxury of dropping extra defenders into coverage.

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Butkus defends Sayers in war of words with Urlacher

Things are getting interesting in the “Windy City.” After Gale Sayers ripped his former team earlier in the month for their poor play last season, current Bear Brian Urlacher discredited Sayers by pointing out that the running back never won in his career.

Now Dick Butkus is getting into the mix.

From the Chicago Tribune:

On Thursday, Butkus responded from his Southern California home, telling the Tribune: “It’s a real reach to say: ‘What did Gale do?’ (Shoot), Urlacher wasn’t even born yet, what does he know?

“I say things to other people, too, about the Bears. It’s total frustration. You think (Sayers) is saying it because he hates the Bears? You get so tired of sitting there watching them.”

“Gale is absolutely right when you talk about a linebacker who has played nine years and he is coming back off an injury,” Butkus said. “There should be some concern whether he can reach his ability again.

“I’ve gone through it. To go nine years and come out with knee injuries … you know your ability is going to be hampered a little bit. (Urlacher) is dead wrong right there. Maybe that’s why he was trying to deflect that part of it by saying: ‘Well, what does he know? He never won.’

“It’s a little defensive move on his part. His pride got hurt.”

Urlacher looks like a child here. He didn’t like what Sayers had to say, so he decided to make this situation into a Sayers-vs-the-Bears thing. It’s not. Sayers was asked about the Bears, he gave his honest opinion and that should have been the end of it. Whether Urlacher, Jay Cutler or Lovie Smith agreed with him or not, there’s nothing for them to say. Urlacher should have viewed the situation as if Sayers was a part of the Chicago media and was just voicing his displeasure with the way the Bears played last season (which, by the way, wasn’t very good).

Butkus is right – Urlacher is being defensive because he was called out and his pride hurts. Instead of proving his mettle on the field, he jumped into a war of words with a former Chicago great, which wasn’t too smart.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Urlacher rips Sayers for criticism of Bears

Brian Urlacher wasn’t amused by the way former Bears’ great Gale Sayers laid into the team a couple of weeks ago and the linebacker decided to return the favor by levying a few parting shots of his own.

From the Chicago Tribune:

“Let me ask you a question: ‘How many championships did Gale Sayers win?”’ Urlacher told the Tribune. “How many playoff games did he win when he played? None. None. None.

“Does it bother me? There are enough people throwing daggers at us right now, why does one of our ex-players have to jump in? There are enough experts talking (crap) about us, so why does a Bear, an all-time great, have to jump in? I just don’t like that.”

“… Does (Sayers) know how to win football games? Does he? No. How are you going to criticize someone else when you haven’t done it yourself? He’s one of our own, so that’s why it’s so frustrating.”

What’s ironic is that Urlacher was the same person that criticized the Bears last season while he was injured for “changing their identity.” (He was talking about how the Bears transformed into more of a passing team, instead of one that relied solely on its defense.) Now he’s upset because Sayers is giving his opinion (the same opinion shared by many Chicago fans) about the state of the franchise? Yikes.

There are many Bear fans that have been long fed up with Urlacher’s attitude and I can guarantee you that this won’t go over well with them. It doesn’t matter who you are – you don’t criticize former Chicago greats. You just don’t; it’s the ultimate sin in the “Windy City.”

Urlacher is no stranger to controversy and chances are, he couldn’t care less about what people think about him. But he certainly didn’t make any friends with these comments, especially considering he criticized the team last year from the sidelines. He can expect backlash from this and that’s not a threat – it’s a statement of fact.

Gale Sayers rips Jay Cutler, Lovie Smith

When asked for his opinion on the current state of his former team, Gale Sayers recently took the opportunity to bash several key members of the Bears.

From the Chicago Tribune:

“Cutler hasn’t done the job,” Sayers said. “(Brian) Urlacher, I don’t know how good he’s going to be coming back. He’s 33 years old. They need a couple wide receivers, a couple defensive backs. They haven’t done a good job.

“If Lovie doesn’t do it this year, I think he’s gone. He had a good team the Super Bowl year. Nothing came together for him the last couple years.”

While I think he’s being closed minded when it comes to Cutler’s play (a lack of pass protection and poor production from the receivers played as much of a part in Cutler’s struggles last season as his decision making, plus he’s only been there for one year), it’s hard to argue with Sayers’ point about Lovie Smith. Outside of the 2008 season in which they were one win shy of making the playoffs, the Bears have regressed in each of the last three years under Smith since he led them to the Super Bowl in ’06.

While the Bears were aggressive this offseason in signing free agents Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor, as well as trading for Chris Harris and hiring Mike Martz to run the offense, they did very little to address their offensive line woes. Moving Frank Omiyale from guard to right tackle doesn’t constitute filling a hole. It merely creates a need for a legitimate right tackle and Cutler will more than likely fear for his life again this year. (Although he was going to have to do that anyway with the way Martz leaves his quarterbacks unprotected.)

That said, the Chicago faithful expect the Bears to win this year after the flashy moves it made this offseason. But the more likely outcome is that Smith will once again fail and will be replaced after the season. And if GM Jerry Angelo were ushered out the door with him, then that’s a scenario that Bears fans wouldn’t mind seeing.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Urlacher says he wasn’t trashing Cutler

Injured linebacker Brian Urlacher said that the comments he made recently to Yahoo Sports regarding quarterback Jay Cutler were not meant to be derogatory in any way.

This is what Urlacher said (via the Chicago Tribune):

“Look, I love Jay, and I understand he’s a great player who can take us a long way, and I still have faith in him. But I hate the way our identity has changed. We used to establish the run and wear teams down and try not to make mistakes, and we’d rely on our defense to keep us in the game and make big plays to put us in position to win.

” Kyle Orton might not be the flashiest quarterback, but the guy is a winner, and that formula worked for us. I hate to say it, but that’s the truth.”

Urlacher clarified his comments during a phone interview with the Tribune.

“I’m not taking a shot at Jay. I’m not one bit taking a shot at Jay,” Urlacher said. “He throws it better, right? And we haven’t tried to run the ball as much. That’s true.

“But Kyle has won games. His formula works. So I’m not taking a shot at Jay or Kyle.”

There was a rumor earlier in the season that Urlacher wasn’t a fan of Cutler. Both players squashed the rumor, but it’s interesting to hear Urlacher complain about the Bears’ identify (not that he’s wrong) and then immediately mention Kyle Orton. Maybe someone should show Urlacher game film of how bad Chicago’s defense has been this season, because there’s no way the Bears can rely on their D to do anything.

The Bears are changing in front of our eyes. They can’t run the football, they can’t play defense and they can’t protect Cutler. It’s just a lost season – it happens.

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