Sunday, January 23, 2011

NFC Championship Preview

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This Sunday, January 23rd, 2011, the Chicago Bear and Green Bay Packers will meet for the 181st time in their storied franchises history.  The Bears currently hold the season lead 92-83-5 in a series that has really been quite even throughout the years.  So why all the hype for this 1 measly game?  Easy – the stakes are the highest they have ever been.  One of these young QBs is going to be taking his team to the promised land, and have a chance to build his own legacy for his team.  The Bears are coming off what was practically a walk through win in the blustery snow and ice against the overmatched Seahawks.  The Packers are coming out of a blowout win against the top seeded Atlanta Falcons where the Packers defense was able to stifle one of the better offenses in the NFL for most of the game and in a game where Aaron Rodgers and the offense were clicking on all cylinders.  Now they will make the short trip back to Soldier Field, a place where they narrowly lost back in Week 3 in a game that saw the Packers commit a franchise record 18 penalties and were actually in position to win the game before a late game turnover led to Robbie Gould’s game winning field goal.  Both teams had best forget about their opponents production or lack there of from this game because things have changed with both of these teams. 
Let’s tackle the Bears first.  These Bears aren’t the Monsters of the Midway, but don’t take that to mean they don’t depend heavily on their Top 10 defense to keep them in games (their offense is ranked 30th in the NFL).  Matt Forte put together a strong season posting over 1600 all purpose yards.  There are 3 major keys to this game from the Chicago perspective.  #1 – Control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  This is a 2 fold challenge.  The offensive line MUST keep Jay Cutler on his feet and keep a pocket around him.  This won’t be easy against the blitz crazy Dom Capers led defense of the Pack.  Capers is going to bring pressure from all kinds of different formation and will try to confuse the Bears as to where the pressure will come from.  If the Bears can contain Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and keep them away from Cutler, that would be a HUGE accomplishment.  On the other side of the ball, they have to find a way to get a pass rush against Rodgers to force him into some early throws.  Normally I would put stopping the run into this mix, but let’s be honest, the Bears are VERY efficient at stopping the run and the Packers running game is anemic at best, so I don’t expect to see the Packers going to a run first offense this weekend, but if you give Aaron Rodgers all day in the pocket, they’ll run out 4 or 5 wide receivers and pick you apart all day long.  #2 – Win the turnover battle.  The Packers don’t tell the ball over a lot (Rodgers had only 11 picks in 15 starts) and as a team had only 6 fumbles this season (though some did come against the Bears).  Cutler can not play this game and throw caution to the wind.  The secondary of the Packers is too strong and too talented.  If Cutler unravels and has a few bad turnovers, he could put his team into a huge hole (ask Matt Ryan about hasty decisions and making bad decisions). #3 – Get the big special teams play.  This might be tougher than it sounds, but Devin Hester needs to have an impact on this game.  I fully expect the Packers to keep any and all punts away from him (Kickoffs are another story) but he needs to be the special playmaker he can be and flip the field position for his team. 

Now onto what the Packers have to do to punch their ticket to Dallas.  There are 2 main things the Packers need to accomplish in order to win this game and really they go against the 3 things I mentioned the Bears need to do to win.  #1 and most important.  Create pressure and rattle Jay Cutler.  In their 2 earlier games they have sacked Cutler 9 times and forced 3 interceptions.  Green Bay has the #5 ranked defense in the NFL and while they are middle of the pack against the run, they are very talented against the pass.  They are tied with Pittsburgh for QB sacks this season and the sacks have come from 16 different defensive players though 14 have come from stud OLB Clay Matthews.  The #2 for the Packers to focus on, protect Aaron Rodgers and keep the offensive tempo at their pace.  Chicago does not want to get into a shootout with this potent offense.  Instead I suspect they will heavily relay on Matt Forte to control the clock for them.  The Packers needs to use their high flying offense to control the ball and put additional pressure on Cutler and the Bears by making them play from behind.  If Green Bay gets out to an early lead, it could be a long game for Bears fans.
By 10:00pm EST time on Sunday night we’ll have our Super Bowl matchup.  Will both #6 seeds still alive, it’s possible that we could have an all #6 seed Super Bowl.  However, that is not the way I am leaning for this weekends matchups.  Stay tuned for Wes' preview of the AFC Championship game but until then.....
My Predictions are :
Pittsburgh Steelers 24 --- New York Jets 17
Green Bay Packers 31 --- Chicago Bears 14

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