The Two Most Important Players On Sunday
You can have Super Sunday. To me, the best day of the NFL season is Championship Game Sunday.
The four best teams — or at least the four best survivors — all going at it for the right to play in the Super Bowl. As disappointing as some of those Super Sundays have been, the conference title games are invariably fraught with drama and excitement.
They also tend to turn on the performance of just one or two pivotal players. The fun is trying to identify them beforehand. With that in mind, allow me to present you the two athletes who are most likely to influence Sunday’s outcomes:
In the AFC Championship Game:
PITTSBURGH’S TROY POLAMALU. At full strength, this former USC All American is the best playmaking safety in football and one of the ten best players in the league. No one can disrupt an opposing offense the way he can, whether it is free lancing his way to an interception or sky diving over a 330-pound offensive lineman to sack the quarterback.
Ah, but the key question is: Will he be at full strength against the New York Jets? He certainly wasn’t last week. The Steelers managed to beat the Ravens despite a very un-Polamalu-like performance. Bothered by a bad ankle and a sore Achilles, he suddenly looked slow and tenative and was even run over a couple of times by Baltimore ball carriers, something rarely seen in Polamalu’s sure-tackling career. Maybe because he wasn’t anywhere near 100 per cent, the Steelers’ Dick LeBeau kept him back in the secondary, instead of allowing him to rove on his own.
How, and where, he plays against the Jets could determine who wins this game. When he is healthy, Polamalu can be an intimidating presence, and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez will have a much tougher time if he has to worry where the All Pro safety is on every play. But if Polamalu is still slowed physically, it becomes much easier for Rex Ryan’s team to throw and run the ball consistently.
Check it out early. If you see that No. 43 jersey and his long mane of hair flopping wildly into your picture on every play, the old, near-100 per cent Polamalu is back. And the Jets are in trouble.
If not, if you have to strain to find him, the way it seemed last week, it could be a long, difficult afternoon for the Steelers.
In the NFC Championship Game:
CHICAGO’S JAY CUTLER. Yes, he has my vote as the most improved player in the league, thanks to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who has done wonders for him, creating the kind of environment that has allowed him to thrive. And yes, he had a terrific game last week.
But that was against the Seahawks. And this week he draws the Packers. That’s like speeding by someone in a Prius, only to find the next car in front of you is a Ferrari.
Even on his best days, Cutler is prone to the big mistake. He actually made one early in the game with Seattle, but the pass he threw directly to a Seahawks defensive back on the goal line was dropped. He won’t be as fortunate if that happens against Green Bay.
In four games in two years against the Pack, Cutler has four touchdown passes and nine interceptions. But this is the new, improved version of the quarterback, right? Well, we’re about to find out.
Playing at home, where he is on the fringe of becoming a Chicago icon, Cutler will have to play a smart, error-free game against one of the three or four better defensive units in the game in order to outscore Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ quarterback who is playing the game’s toughest position better than anyone else right now.
If Cutler can do it, the Bears probably will win. If he can’t, get ready for an invasion of giant cheeseheads on Super Sunday.
— STEVE BISHEFF