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Epicenter of Humanity: Overlooked stars

1/22/2011
Clay Matthews, left, and Tommie Harris will play important roles in Sunday's playoff matchup. US Presswire

As we approach the NFC Championship Game -- anyone else feel like we're on sundial time? -- I'm dealing with a smash-up of post ideas. So let's combine a few angles into a look at four players who can be tied together in a unique way.

Listed below are four big-time performers who, for various reasons, have been overlooked in the hype of Sunday's matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Player: Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris

2010 season highlight: Three sacks in the Bears' past two games, including two in last Sunday's divisional playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks

Important because: A havoc-wreaking "three-technique" defensive tackle is a boon to any defense, especially one that uses a four-man rush as much as the Bears (nearly 75 percent of the regular season). Whoever plays that position for the Bears has a tremendous opportunity, given the attention most opponents pay to defensive end Julius Peppers.

Overlooked because: A three-time Pro Bowler, Harris lost his starting job this season because of low productivity. According to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com, Harris urged coaches to reinstall him as a starter last month. He already has more sacks in the playoffs (two) than he had during the entire regular season (1.5).

Quotable: "It's great. When Tommie is Tommie, he's good. He's really good. He played great last week. I think the last couple of games coming into the playoffs he was playing well, too. If we can get him playing to his level, he's like [Peppers]. You have to double team him or he's going to get a sack on you. It's good to have him back." -- Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher

Player: Bears tight end Greg Olsen

2010 season highlight: A 113-yard performance in last Sunday's victory against the Seahawks, including a career-long 58-yard touchdown reception.

Important because: The Packers' injuries at linebacker and safety this season have at times left them vulnerable against tight ends, as Football Outsiders noted last week. (We should point out that Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez managed only one catch last Saturday, however.) In two regular-season games against the Packers, Olsen caught 10 passes, including one for a touchdown.

Overlooked because: As a tight end in Mike Martz's offense, Olsen has had to wait his turn and block more than at any point in his career. He caught 41 passes, a record for a Martz tight end, but still the fewest in a season since his rookie year.

Quotable: "It's a game of momentum. You get that confidence and that going forward definitely comes week to week. I don't expect the game plan, just like it wasn't really different for the most part last week. Each week, guys have different opportunities to make plays. Each week we don't go in saying, 'Hey, we're going to try to focus on getting the ball to him or whoever.' Last week it happened to be me that got some chances to make some big plays. I would welcome those chances again, but you never know who it's going to be." -- Olsen

Player: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews

2010 season highlight: Three sacks in each of the Packers' first two games this season. Finished the year with 13.5, fourth in the NFL.

Important because: It goes without saying that an outside pass rusher is one of the most valued commodities in the NFL. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will know where Matthews is on every play. Although he slowed down during the middle of the season, Matthews has four sacks in the Packers' past three games. He overwhelmed Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Winston Justice in the wild-card round, forcing Eagles coaches to bench him in the fourth quarter.

Overlooked because: Matthews had six sacks in the first two weeks of the season and then 6.5 over the following 14. A shin injury limited his practice time and effectiveness, taking a bit of the public focus off what was still an All-Pro season.

Quotable: "Just had a tremendous start. He was pushing through the leg injury, and he missed a bunch of practice time there in the middle of the season, and of late has been able to get the practice reps that he needs and has really picked his game back up here down the stretch." -- Packers coach Mike McCarthy

Player: Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji

2010 season highlight: From an entertainment standpoint, Raji's most memorable play might have been his debut as a goal-line fullback last week against the Falcons. But his best game was probably a two-sack performance against the New England Patriots in Week 15.

Important because: As with Harris, Raji stands to benefit from attention paid to the defense's premier pass rusher, in this case Matthews. Raji has been a durable and active pass rusher, and his 340-pound frame makes it tough to move him out of running lanes. He is a rare three-down player on a defense filled with personnel specialists.

Overlooked because: Nose tackles in a 3-4 scheme don't get many opportunities and therefore little attention. But the reality is the Packers ran their nickel defense nearly 75 percent of the time this season, moving Raji to his more natural position over the guard. He won't be a national secret much longer.

Quotable: "He's been tremendous. Obviously he's really continued to progress his game this year, taking it to what I believe is a Pro Bowl level, how he performs on the field. He is making plays in the backfield, not only in the pass game but is being disruptive in the run game as well. He's only helping guys like myself out tremendously in the fact that all 3-4's start with a big guy in the middle who can eat up double-teams and get pressure and collapse the pocket. That's what he's been doing as of late, and I look for him to continue his progression as well with him and myself only being second-year players." -- Matthews