Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense trampled over the Atlanta defense for almost two-thirds of the game on Saturday. This type of offensive production has been fun to watch, especially this late in the season. However, it will come to a halt on Sunday in Chicago. Here's why:
Old Man Winter. Soldier Field is outdoors and prone to nasty winter weather. This is a stark contrast from the ideal conditions provided by the Georgia Dome, which still yielded a missed field goal by Mason Crosby. If the snow falls heavily and limits the passing game, Green Bay will have to rely on rookie RB James Starks to move the ball on the second stingiest run defense in the league.
Green Bay's running game was shaky at best all season, and consistently inconsistent. Still, Mike McCarthy needs to use the run to eat the clock just like in Atlanta. If the offense can set up third-and-short situations, or anything less than five yards to go, the quick passing game will be utilized to its fullest extent. From there, it is up to the receivers to hold on to the ball—a problem they have had in the past against Chicago.
Been There, Done That. 10 of Chicago's 11 defensive starters have playoff experience, eight of whom have played in a Super Bowl. Head Coach Lovie Smith, Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz and Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli have all coached in Super Bowls (with Martz and Marinelli capturing rings). This experience is incredibly valuable because it shows that these guys know what it takes to win. The poise gained from such experience can give Chicago a significant advantage in executing its game-plan without mistakes.
Green Bay's offense contains three rookie starters (Starks, TE Andrew Quarless and RT Bryan Bulaga). Its defense gets help from rookies / first-year starters CB Sam Shields, SS Charlie Peprah, and ILB Desmond Bishop. While these players have stepped up and played lights out over the past few weeks, enough can't be said about the nerves coming from more meaningful games. They don't need to be perfect, just limit the imperfections.
Rubber Match. Green Bay and Chicago split the season series with the home team winning each game. This game means more than either of the other two, including Green Bay's victory in Week 17. Even though Chicago's starters played the whole game, they had less to play for than Green Bay, as their No. 2 seed was already locked. Jay Cutler's smirk seemed genuine because he knew that regardless of the outcome, he had the next week off.
Expect Chicago to stop Green Bay repeatedly as the teams are now more familiar with each other than ever. If Chicago can get pressure on Aaron Rodgers with its four-man rush, Green Bay will be in even more trouble, as that leaves the defense more personnel to drop back into coverage. With the additional attention inevitably given to DE Julius Peppers, look for DE Israel Idonije to constantly test Rodgers' ability to escape.
Overall, this game figures to be close. Each offense has been high scoring lately, other than the Week 17 matchup at Lambeau. The defenses have been doing their jobs in getting to the quarterback and causing turnovers. The final will come down to which team takes better care of the ball and limits mistakes. In this defensive-minded division, field position will prove to be crucial since neither offense will move like it did last weekend.