Bears offense vs. Packers defense
It was Week 17, Bears at Lambeau Field, the Packers defense among the best in the league at sacking the quarterback, and Mike Martz had Jay Cutler dropping back to pass 47 times despite never trailing by more than a touchdown and actually winning for more than a half. Cutler’s 39 pass attempts were abnormally high and were the most he had in a single game since he threw 40 against the Redskins the week before the transformational bye. In fact, he threw 13 more passes against the Packers in Week 17 than he did against the Patriots, and the Bears trailed by 33 against New England. Something smells fishy about that game plan, as if Martz didn’t want to show the Packers his balanced plan in the event that they met up in the playoffs. It’s because of that deception that I feel the Bears will have a few tricks up their sleeves and be able to hang with the Packers in this game. Most of all, the Bears should just be able to grind the ball on the ground and keep Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense on the sideline. It’s not any surprise at this point in the season that the game will hinge on how well the offensive line protects Jay Cutler. The Packers finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks in the regular season and they dropped Cutler nine times in the teams’ two meetings. Defensive player of the year candidate, Clay Matthews, finished fourth in the regular season with 13.5 sacks. A “try hard” guy with a constant motor, Matthews doesn’t give up until after the whistle. He has been the glue that has held the linebacking corps together through all the injuries they’ve endured. He’s joined by A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, and Erik Walden in the Packers’ 3-4 alignment. The Packers are strong up front with ends Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins and nose tackle B.J. Raji is a destructive force in the middle. In the secondary, cornerback Tramon Williams has been having a great season and led the team with 6 interceptions in the regular season. Safety Nick Collins is a Pro Bowler and cornerback Charles Woodson — also a Pro Bowler and last year’s defensive player of the year — is the leader of the defensive backfield. Much has been made of how good the Packers’ offense is, but the defense ranked fifth overall in the regular season and allowed the second-fewest points. The only way to neutralize this defense is to run the ball effectively to wear them down and complete quick passes to spread them thin over the middle of the field. Something tells me the Bears will struggle with defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ blitz packages, though.
Bears defense vs. Packers offense
I’m an avid Chicago Bulls fan, so allow me to reference former Bulls player and current TV broadcaster Stacey King: “Big-time players make big-time plays.” The Bears have three Pro Bowl players on defense in Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and they need all three to make big plays, specifically Peppers who was paid a boatload of money for this specific reason: to make the Cover 2 defense work by being a destructive pass rusher. The Bears cannot blitz too often to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers because Rodgers handles the blitz better than most quarterbacks in the league. The Bears are going to need seven defenders in coverage to contain the array of weapons that Rodgers has at his disposal. Wide receivers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones are about as talented a receiving corps as there is in the league and they’re so in sync with Rodgers that I feel they’ll eat up large chunks of yards in the passing game unless Peppers, Israel Idonije, Tommie Harris, Anthony Adams, Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton can collapse the pocket on Rodgers in a hurry. The Packers think they’ve finally found their running back after struggling to move the ball on the ground since Week 1’s injury to Ryan Grant. But James Starks is, well, just another guy. Any running back can look good — as Starks did against the Eagles in the wild card round — if the offensive line blocks and the defense takes poor angles and misses tackles. That’s why the shelf life of an NFL running back isn’t too long. They’re easily dispensable. But after racking up 123 yards against Philadelphia, Starks had just 66 yards on 25 carries (2.64 yards per carry) against Atlanta. The Bears, who finished the regular season with the No. 2 run defense, ought to shut down Starks and make the Packers one-dimensional. Then it’s up to the defensive line to force the issue and the secondary to make plays like they’re capable of doing. Something tells me the Bears will struggle to get to Rodgers. One of the best quarterbacks at picking up yards with his legs and also one of the most accurate passers while on the run, Rodgers will give the Bears’ defensive line fits as he escapes their grasp one too many times in this one.
The only phase in which the Bears hold the clear advantage, the special teams will need to win this battle and win it big. If the Packers have even a solid performance in the third phase, it’ll likely spell the Bears’ demise. It’s the Packers’ intention to kick the ball away from Devin Hester, or, if they do kick it to him, they want to kick it high enough and at a shorter distance so that he has to either fair catch the punts or have players waiting in his lap when he looks to return the kick. The Bears will probably use their combination of Hester and Danieal Manning to return kickoffs, but look for Hester to get more opportunities if he’s not seeing the ball on offense and he’s unable to return any punts. Tramon Williams is good punt returner who returned one punt for 41 yards against the Bears in the Week 17 game. In a game in which field position will mean everything for the Bears, allowing Williams to flip that position with one big return could be devastating. Packers rookie punter Tim Masthay, after struggling early in the season, has turned in one of the best years for a punter in Packers history. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Masthay’s 37.6 net average in the regular season tied the highest mark for a Packers punter since the NFL began keeping the statistic in 1976. Masthay, as many rookies are prone to do, made a mistake kicking to Hester in the Bears’ Week 3 victory which set off Hester en route to breaking the return touchdown record this season. One can only hope that in a big game like this he’ll make the same mistake twice.
The Bears have benefitted from a variety of breaks throughout the season and some people want to look at that as a bad thing. Most Super Bowl champions have a great deal of luck on their side and the fact that the Bears have won 12 games this season and are two wins away from becoming champions is a far cry from what a lot of critics thought they’d do this year. Even I, who predicted a 10-6 season when the Bears signed Julius Peppers in free agency but later dropped my prediction to 8-8 following poor execution in the preseason, am guilty of doubting the Bears in late August. Only the most hardcore meatball fans — whose opinions are hardly taken seriously — could have predicted our beloved Bears would be hosting the NFC Conference Championship game this season. And yet, here they are, at home against the rival Packers with a win separating them from their second Super Bowl appearance in five years. The intangibles are all in place for the Bears. They have the home field advantage — in both crowd support and the sloppy field on which they graze. Lovie Smith has loaded his staff with experienced and knowledgable coaches who could bring out the best in the players in big games such as this one. Despite the fact that the Packers play in cold weather, too, they are not a team that is built for it. In a temperature-controlled climate and on a fast, artificial turf as the Packers had last week against the Falcons, we saw how explosive that offense could be. But against a better defense and in conditions better suited for hibernation, the Packers should be brought back down to earth. Maybe I’m more concerned about the ramifications of a Bears loss to the Packers in a game of this magnitude than I am of the team itself. Maybe as I watch Rodgers operate against other defenses in the league, I fail to realize he’s going up against inferior opponents. Or, maybe I feel the key to the game — line play — is going to go in favor of the Packers and it will cost the Bears the game. It’s been one heck of a ride this year and I’m hoping one more time — just like my preseason doubt — the Bears prove us all wrong.
Final Score: Green Bay 23, Chicago 20