NFC Championship Game: How The Bears Will Run Their Way From Chicago to Dallas

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NFC Championship Game: How The Bears Will Run Their Way From Chicago to Dallas
Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith is one win away from reaching his second Super Bowl with Chicago

Yesterday, I talked about the AFC Championship Game.  Today, I will talk about the NFC Championship Game.  Already, I can tell that this game is going to give me a lot of anxiety.  It’s Round 3 of a divisional rivalry that goes back over 60 years.  These teams played each other twice this season, each winning one game.  This weekend, they meet again with a trip to Dallas on the line.  This is my beloved Chicago Bears going against the Green Bay Packers.

 

Record

On paper, these teams had extremely close records.  The Bears went 11-5, and the Packers went 10-6.  The latter team didn’t even clinch a playoff berth until the last week of the season.  Ironically, that final win came at Lambeau Field against the Chicago Bears.

In Week 17, the game between the Packers and the Bears was extremely close.  In a defensive battle, the Packers ultimately won the game 10-3 thanks to a one-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Donald Lee.

Yet, in Week 3, the Bears managed to beat the Packers at Soldier Field 20-17 on a last second field goal by Robbie Gould.  Keep in mind, this was before the offense fully developed and Matt Forte was the threat he is now.  I know that Forte had a great game in Week 17 (151 total yards), but it just shows how much home field advantage matters.

In a Week 3 loss to the Bears, Aaron Rodgers completed 75.5 percent of his passes

On top of that, the Packers needed a win just to make the playoffs.  I don’t know about you but I think that given how the Packers franchise is still somewhat hurting from the Brett Favre fallout, Aaron Rodgers and his squad were hungry for a win.

Now let’s look at their matchups against contenders.  Again, it’s extremely close.  Each team only had three wins against teams that made the playoffs.  Both also had extremely bad losses at some points.  In a sense, they’re evenly matched in terms of record, despite the Bears’ one win advantage.  Thus, it’s too close to call.

Edge: Even

 

Quarterback

Again, the quarterback matchup is extremely close.  The Bears have a talented young gunslinger in Jay Cutler, and the Packers have a future MVP in Aaron Rodgers.  Let’s take a look at how these two fared against each other, starting with the Week 3 game.

In Week 3, Cutler had a very modest game.  He went 16 of 27 for 221 yards, throwing one touchdown pass and one interception.

Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, was nothing short of unbelievable.  He went 34 of 45 for 316 yards, also throwing a touchdown pass and an interception.  Am I the only one who thinks the completions for this game are ridiculous?  34 of 45 completions equals 75.5 percent!

Jay Cutler's 2010 completion percentage isn't far off from that of Rodgers, but he is hampered by a weak offensive line

In Week 17, Rodgers had the advantage again.  He went 19 of 28 for 229 yards, throwing a touchdown pass and an interception again.  Cutler did not fare as well, completing 21 of 39 for 168 yards and zero touchdown passes and two interceptions.

I’m going to be honest.  As much as I love Jay Cutler, he’s not as good a quarterback as Aaron Rodgers.  He has a great arm, but the accuracy just isn’t there.  Both are extremely talented quarterbacks, but Rodgers continues to get better week after week.  After completing 65.7 percent of his passes this season (compared to Cutler’s still-respectable 60.4), this round goes to #12.

Edge: Packers

 

Running Game

As I mentioned before, the Packers have really struggled with the rushing offense since losing Ryan Grant for the season in Week 1. Yet still, especially in the postseason, they seem to have found an answer in young James Starks.

In a sense, Starks’s performance in the playoffs has been pretty decent.  He ran for 123 yards in the Wild Card Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and 66 yards in last weekend’s Divisional Game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Still, I’m not totally convinced that the Green Bay running game is back on track.  The rushing defenses they have faced, despite being ranked 15th and 10th, respectively, are still fairly young squads.  This time around, Starks is going to be facing the second-best run defense in the NFL.

James Starks has been a spark for a weak Green Bay running game, but this weekend he's facing a defense that knows how to stop the run

The Bears have multi-tool back Matt Forte going against an 18th-ranked run defense, and I’m sure he’ll be quite the handful as he was in the Week 17 game.

Edge: Bears

 

Passing Offense

I’ve said a lot the past couple of weeks about how the Green Bay receiving game is one-sided, one-dimensional, etc.  In their matchups against the Eagles and Falcons since, Greg Jennings & Company have made me eat my words.

Against Atlanta, Rodgers made use of seven different receiving targets en route to a 48-21 rout.  He did the same the previous week in Philadelphia, making use of ten different targets.  Long story short, Rodgers has an amazingly accurate arm and knows how to spread the ball around.

The Bears are good at that too, despite being a run-first offense.  Last weekend against the Seattle Seahawks, Cutler made use of six different receivers in the Bears’ 35-24 win.  Oddly enough, it was Greg Olsen who led the team in receiving yards as he caught a mere three passes for 113 yards—including a 58 yard touchdown pass—in an offense that is not considered to be tight end friendly.

Still, as much love as I have for the Bears and their receivers, I can’t get away from the fact that they’re still very young and adjusting to Mike Martz’s new offense.  Green Bay’s receivers have been playing together for a long time and know how to get open.

In the Bears' Week 17 loss, the winning touchdown was caught by an unlikely target in Donald Lee

Edge: Packers

 

Defense

Right here, we have the most interesting matchup of all.  Two teams are facing each other in what is sure to be a game full of hard-hitting, trash talking, and what former Bears coach Mike Ditka used to call “smash mouth football.”

I already know that this game is going to come down to who plays better defense; the Bears and Packers have two of the best.  In 2010, Green Bay finished 5th in total defense, while Chicago finished 9th.

Both teams have amazing linebackers and secondaries as well as decent pass rushers.  Either way, it’s going to be a bloodbath on the field come Sunday.

Yet, I want to talk about the run defense of each team.  Why?  Because I’ve been watching a lot of ESPN and listening to a lot of sports radio about this game, and most experts believe that it’s going to come down to which team fares better on the ground.  Thus, we’re going into the running defenses and coverage linebackers of both teams.

Mike McCarthy, Green Bay’s head coach, employs a 3-4 defense.  On his linebacking squad, his two main coverage men are AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop.  Both had extremely good seasons with Hawk registering 111 tackles to go with three interceptions, and Bishop finishing with 103 tackles and two forced fumbles.

AJ Hawk is the leader of a Green Bay run defense that finished 18th in the NFL, despite the team being 5th in total defense

Still, despite an amazing linebacking corps that also featured dangerous pass rusher Clay Mathews, the Packers run defense only managed to finish 18th in the NFL.  In the Week 17 game, Green Bay allowed Matt Forte to run for 91 yards—on 15 carries—and receive for 60 yards.  Am I the only one who finds that strange? 

How does a team with the 5th best defense in the NFL, not to mention four linebackers I have nightmares about on a regular basis, only finish 18th in run defense???  Either way, something is obviously not right.

Now let’s have a look at Chicago’s run defense that finished 2nd in the NFL.   Unlike McCarthy, Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith runs a 4-3 defense and I’m wondering if the extra man up front will come to be the difference in this weekend’s game.

At linebacker, you have two dangerous hard-hitters in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher.  Briggs finished the season with 89 tackles to go with two forced fumbles and two interceptions, while Urlacher punished running backs and receivers with 125 tackles along with an interception and two forced fumbles.

Up front, newly acquired defensive end Julius Peppers made games miserable for opposing quarterbacks as he finished 2010 with eight sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Who will win?

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Long story short, despite finishing lower in the rankings, the Chicago defense is better rounded than that of Green Bay.  While the Packers seem to rely on intimidation and the opposing offense making mistakes, the Bears rely on the exact opposite, good old-fashioned blunt force trauma.

The Bears hit hard, get sacks, intercept passes and force a lot of fumbles.  Against a weak Green Bay offensive line, I expect them to live up to their nickname and truly be the Monsters of the Midway.  I’m anticipating some bone-crushing hits and a great game from a good core group of men, some of whom have been playing together for nearly ten years.

With a true gift in home field advantage, I’m giving the defensive battle to the Pride and Joy of Illinois.

Edge: Bears

 

So once again, I’ve analyzed each aspect of the game down to a tee and it’s time to make my score prediction for what is sure to be an epic matchup.  Before I give it, I’d like to give my reasoning behind it:

Offense wins games, defense wins championships.

 

Score Prediction: Bears 17, Packers 13

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