It seems only fitting that the war over the NFC’s Super Bowl slot will be waged between the two teams that comprise the league’s oldest rivalry.
And yet, Sunday’s NFC Championship matchup between Green Bay and Chicago seems oddly out of place. After all, the sides have played one another nearly 180 times, but only once in the postseason prior to this year.
Nonetheless, this should be a good one—made all the better by 10 bold predictions served up by yours truly.
The Monster of the Midway surrendered only 90 yards on the ground per game in the regular season, second in the league.
The Packers were only fair at stopping the run, ranking 18th in the NFL, but have since given up 126 total to the Eagles and Falcons, who averaged 5.4 and 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season, respectively.
With freezing temperatures expected to compensate for the absence of precipitation in the Chicago area on Sunday, the conditions at Soldier Field won’t exactly be conducive to winging the ball around 35 times. If the running backs are forced to take center stage, the game could be decided by which front seven plays more soundly.
Matthews, the league’s defensive MVP and defensive player of the year, has added three sacks to his regular season total of 13.5 in two postseason games. He’ll match that in just 30 minutes of play versus the Bears, who have given up 59 sacks in 2010 and struggle mightily against teams with speed rushers.
A perfect hybrid of defensive end bulk and linebacker speed, Matthews will terrorize Chicago’s tackles all day, making it tough for Jay Cutler and the Bears’ passing game to sustain any sort of success.
Not so much a bold prediction as it is an extension of what has been a tremendous season for Urlacher, whose 125 tackles are his most since 2006. Now 32, Urlacher is not the same player that won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors five seasons ago, but he still gets it done in the middle of that Chicago defense.
Assuming the defensive line keeps him clean, Urlacher will be all over the place on Sunday. That is, if he also avoids any lingering effects from an apparent hip injury suffered last week against Seattle.
Starks, a rookie from Buffalo, had his coming out party just two weeks ago, rushing for a career-high 123 yards on 23 carries against Philadelphia. The workload was increased in Atlanta, but Starks was considerably less effective against the Falcons, finishing with only 66 yards on 25 attempts.
Will the trend continue with Starks, who has played in the biggest game of his life each of the last two weeks?
What about after he fumbles away the ball twice in the first half?
Starks definitely has the size (6’2”, 218 lbs) and speed to beat NFL defenses, but it will be interesting to see if Mike McCarthy sticks with him if the jitters become too much.
You could argue that Williams has been Green Bay’s best defensive player thus far in the playoffs.
The fourth year corner’s interception of Michael Vick in the end zone sealed the win at Philadelphia, and his pick-six last week, which was one of his two interceptions of Matt Ryan, effectively set the tone for the entire second half in Atlanta.
On Sunday, his victim is Jay Cutler, who has a habit of throwing into traffic and has been picked off by Green Bay defenders three times this season, though Williams has yet to get one.
Considering the proficiency with which Rodgers has thrown the ball the past two weeks, that may seem like a modest total, but 60 yards or more of it could come on the ground.
There may not be a quarterback outside of Michael Vick who is better than Rodgers at avoiding on-coming defenders in the pocket. If the Bears don’t execute containment, he could easily escape the tackle box and pick up real estate with his scrambling ability.
But the sword is double-edged. If given too much time, Rodgers could utilize his vision and a corps of talented wideouts to pick apart a Bears pass defense that allowed an average of 224 yards during the regular season.
With the exception of DeSean Jackson, Hester is perhaps the game’s most electrifying player, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field at any given moment.
Sunday will be spectacular, if only commonplace.
Green Bay place kicker Mason Crosby has a big leg, but he has recorded only four touchbacks in 84 chances, though one of his kickoffs has yet to be returned for a touchdown. As a team, the Packers allow nearly 22 yards per kickoff return.
And the forecast doesn’t improve with punter Tim Masthay, who averages nearly 45 yards per kick, but had 31 of his 71 punts returned during the regular season, an indication that Hester will get plenty of chances to do his thing.
In two games against Green Bay this season, Forte rushed for 120 yards on 26 carries, an average of more than 4.6. That number will increase during Sunday’s rubber match, but does that necessarily mean that the Bears’ leading rusher will be more effective overall?
Actually, it may not matter. Forte has averaged less than four yards per carry nine times this season, but Chicago has won six of those games. If all holds true, whatever Forte gives the Bears beyond his season average of 4.5 yards per rush may be an added bonus.
The 3-4 defense has exploded in popularity over recent seasons, but only a few who choose to incorporate it are actually capable of doing the scheme justice. For the abnormal alignment to work, the right players need to be in place, with speed and power striking an equal balance.
Thanks to defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Green Bay pulls it off beautifully, and is perhaps playing the best of any unit remaining in the playoffs. The Bears’ offense, which only scored 35 or more points twice during the regular season, hasn’t been the wide-open passing circus it was built up to be when Mike Martz signed on as offensive coordinator.
And on this day, the team speed and overall athleticism of Caper’s unit gets the best of Chicago and Martz, whose offense lacks the weapons he was provided with in St. Louis and has been forced to turn to the run on far too many occasions.
The Bears enjoy the home field advantage, but the Packers are a runaway train with no intent of coming to a halt anywhere but Dallas in early February.
The Packers have held Chicago to 20 points in two games and have too much talent on defense to surrender any more than that on what should be a cold and blustery day in the Windy City.
On the other side, as well as the Green Bay defense is playing, Aaron Rodgers has been just as spectacular. He’s thrown for more than 540 yards, six scores and zero interceptions so far in the playoffs, and is rapidly fulfilling the many favorable prophecies prognosticators foretold prior to his taking over for Brett Favre.
Because of the game’s setting and the long-standing bitterness of this rivalry, the game will enter the fourth quarter still up for grabs, but Green Bay seizes control over the final 15 minutes and spends Sunday evening awaiting its Super Bowl opponent from the AFC.
Prediction: Green Bay, 28-13