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Muhammad won't get caught up in nostalgia

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Muhsin Muhammad hoped the day would come.

Nervous and emotional the first time he played his former team, the Chicago Bears receiver gets another shot at the Carolina Panthers in the divisional playoffs Sunday.

''I'm real focused right now. I'm focused on what we have to do, our game plan," Muhammad said. ''I'm much more focused on what I have to do this time around."

The Bears delivered one of their best performances of the season when they dominated the Panthers, 13-3, at Soldier Field Nov. 20, a signature victory that established them as a force in the NFC.

But Muhammad was nowhere near dominant.

With his nerves and emotions jumbled, he caught six passes for 49 yards and a touchdown but dropped several balls, including a potential score. A few Panthers hugged Muhammad after the game and posed for pictures. And this figures to be another emotional meeting.

''You've got to understand, there's a history there," Muhammad said. ''I played there for nine years. For me to come out and say there was no emotional tie to that team would be a flat-out lie. There was emotion. I came out the first time I saw them since I signed with Chicago. Of course, I'm going to give my buddy a hug. [Wide receiver Steve Smith] and I took a picture after the game. I don't know if we're going to do the same after this game."

Bears coach Lovie Smith said, ''He's a Pro Bowl receiver. This will be a special game for him . . . He's our No. 1 receiver. We need a big game out of him."

Muhammad's name is written all over the Carolina record book.

He left as the Panthers' all-time leader in receptions (578) and yards receiving (7,751) and tied the mark for touchdowns (44). Carolina released Muhammad after he set team records last season with 1,405 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns because it did not want to pay a $10 million roster bonus, and the sides could not agree on a contract extension.

The next day, the Bears signed him. Almost as quickly, Muhammad and starting quarterback Rex Grossman developed a chemistry, with Muhammad attending Grossman's wedding in July.

The problem was Grossman missed the first 13 games of the season after breaking his left ankle in an exhibition game, and Muhammad and rookie quarterback Kyle Orton never really clicked.

At times, Orton missed his target.

Other times, Muhammad dropped passes.

And a run-based offense didn't boost his numbers. After leading the league in yards receiving and touchdowns a year ago, he had 64 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season.

''I've been a journeyman," Muhammad said. ''I've been a role player. I've had a lot of adversity this year. I think you guys have picked out a bunch of the rough spots I've had during the season. But overall, the job that's been asked of me, I think I've done extremely well."

With Grossman healthy, the Bears opened up their offense a bit late in the season. How Muhammad fares against Carolina's secondary could go a long way toward determining whether they advance.

Muhammad was on a plane last Sunday and did not see what might have been the Panthers' most impressive performance under coach John Fox -- a 23-0 domination of the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J. He didn't need to see Carolina force five turnovers, intercept Eli Manning three times, and hold Tiki Barber to 41 yards rushing. Muhammad knows how good that defense is; he had an up-close view.

He practiced against safety Mike Minter and cornerback Chris Gamble.

''They've got some good tacklers," Muhammad said. ''They leave guys in a lot of one-on-one coverage. You just have to be fundamentally sound, make good throws and run good routes . . . If you've got a rush and you get pressure on the quarterback and you force him to throw it early or throw it late, they'll hurt you. [Cornerback] Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble, they'll both catch the ball. They're not going to drop the ball."

And Muhammad vowed he won't, either, this time.

''That game that we played the first time, I thought that we could have played a better game, and I thought I could have played a better game," Muhammad said. ''I wanted to play better against them, I really did. I wanted to play a lot better and I just want the opportunity to do it again."

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