Chicago Bears. Green Bay Packers.
It’s the first time the NFL’s longest rivals have faced each other in a playoff game since 1941. Yeah, even before the United States entered World War II. Members of the fan bases are calling this game the most important in both teams' history.
Back on Nov. 12, I revised my Super Bowl prediction to the Jets and Bears (previously the Jets-Cowboys). I’ve always been a Jay Cutler guy, and I’ve repeatedly said this team is a much better version of the 2006 squad who advanced to the Super Bowl.
I think the Bears are going to win a close game. I love the coaching the Bears have over the Packers, and I love the home-field advantage the Bears are working with. But there are obviously scenarios in my mind where I can picture Green Bay winning.
I went ahead and put in order the top 10 players/units that are going to have the biggest outcome on this game.
Who matters the most?
1. Chicago QB Jay Cutler
If history is correct, this game is entirely on Cutler’s shoulders. In games where Cutler’s passer rating is over 100.0, his teams are 22-0.
Cutler grew up rooting for the Bears and had a historic four-touchdown performance last week against the upbeat Seattle Seahawks. The diabetic quarterback grew up rooting for the Bears and understands the importance of this rivalry as much as Joe the brewer in row 22 does.
In the Bears' five losses, Cutler had one TD, nine INTs and a quarterback rating of 50.3. The Packers are going to be sending pressure on nearly every drop back come Sunday afternoon. Early in the game, Cutler needs to eat sacks rather than throw his typical jump-ball. If Cutler struggles, the Bears will lose.
2. Green Bay CB Tramon Williams
Before the playoffs started, Charles Woodson would have been in this spot. But Williams himself was selected as a first alternate for the 2011 Pro Bowl and his knack for big plays has been sealing games for the Packers this postseason.
Williams wasn’t fazed by a Michael Vick pump fake in his fourth-quarter pick, and against Matt Ryan, Williams pounced and went the distance, essentially blowing the Falcons' game wide open before halftime.
Coming into the season, many experts thought the Packers would miss the services of cornerback Al Harris. But Williams’ six interceptions have been a crutch Green Bay has relied upon. If Williams—a Louisiana Tech grad—makes a play (especially early on), all the momentum will shift the way of the Cheeseheads.
3. Chicago WR/KR Devin Hester
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy called Hester "the best football player on the roster.” And that’s no disrespect to Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher.
Joining Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles, Hester has the incredible ability to score from anywhere on the football field. And he’s no stranger to the big stage, having taken a punt and kick back in the 2006 NFC Championship game and Super Bowl respectively.
It’s funny to remember that Hester entered the league as a raw cornerback under the tutelage of Deion Sanders. Hester might be the hardest thing to duplicate in an opposing NFL practice. I expect the Bears to try and give him the ball on offense at least 10 times. And I’m also calling that he will have a special teams touchdown.
4. Chicago Offensive Line
Jay Cutler was sacked on six different occasions the last time these teams played in a Week 17 loss at Lambeau and nine total times in the two meetings. Center Olin Kreutz has been leading the line and rookie Chris Williams switched to left guard midseason, a move that has translated to big success for the Bears offense.
Whoever wins this game will win the turnover battle. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers main goal is trying to get Cutler to throw dumb passes that hang in the air, allowing for interceptions. If the Bears O-line isn’t able to get a push on first and second down, then the Packers are going to have a field day on third-and-long situations.
5. Green Bay Run Game
Last week it wasn’t a necessary component because Aaron Rodgers completely dismantled the Falcons. Still, it was the vital reason why Green Bay snuck past the Eagles.
The Bear defense is going to try and force the Packers to run the ball, maybe by even stealing some of Rex Ryan’s recent coverage schemes that left both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady bewildered.
Was running back James Starks a one-hit wonder? I’m the biggest advocate of saying that stars can be born in the playoffs. Also watch out for John Kuhn, one of the best fullbacks in the sport. If the running game is continually stuffed early on, I’d watch for the Packers to implement the hurry-up offense.
6. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers
Why is he so low on this list? Because we pretty much know what we're getting from Aaron Rodgers. He’s going to have at least two touchdowns and around 300 yards. Nabeel said he was a top-two quarterback in the league, and I’m starting to buy it.
There is a very minimal chance that he plays poorly, being that the weakest part of the Bears defense is their secondary. Add in that he had one of the most efficient NFL playoff performances in history last Saturday—31/36 and three touchdowns. Rodgers has been effective by scrambling out of the pocket this season, too.
Or is his dominance guaranteed?
The Chicago defense has given Rodgers his fair share of problems the past two seasons. Rodgers has only been able to throw three TDs in his last four games against the Bears and lost at Soldier Field in Week 3, throwing the ball 45 times.
He is the best passer in the league against the blitz, meaning Chicago is going to heavily rely on its front four. Which brings me to…
7. Chicago DE Julius Peppers
Not too many people thought the signing of a 30-year-old defensive end was going to be the piece that put the Bears over the top. But it did. Peppers' leadership, strength and late-season surge (six of eight sacks in final nine games) is an immense reason why Chicago always seems to grab momentum.
SI’s Peter King awarded his defensive MVP to Peppers for how he made the rest of the defensive line a dynamic unit. The Bears held opposing quarterbacks to a third-best 74.4 quarterback rating all season, and the Chicago faithful can thank JP.
If you give Rodgers time to throw the ball, he will dice up your defense like an onion. And yes, Rodgers will make you cry like an onion. Peppers needs at least three quarterback hurries, a sack and possibly a forced fumble.
8. Chicago Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz
A year off in 2009 totally revitalized Martz, who was considered one of the top NFL offensive minds in the early 2000s with the St. Louis Rams' "greatest show on turf." Martz' job is to limit any Jay Cutler turnovers that he can.
The Bears have to strike first in this game. It will keep the crowd hyped up, and it will loosen the pressure on the Chicago defense. Martz did a fabulous job of implementing tight end Greg Olsen last week, who had a dormant 2010 season mainly as a pass blocker.
Martz also has been using Matt Forte as his poor-man’s version of Marshall Faulk. Chicago has become a much more balanced team since November, but I expect Forte to have a minimum of six receptions.
9. Green Bay Playmakers
There’s an abundance of playmakers, who take turns relishing in the position Rodgers puts them in. Last week it was James Jones, who conquered his case of the dropsies to haul down an acrobatic catch in the corner of the end zone in Atlanta. This week it could be Donald Driver or Greg Jennings. You never know who to zero in on as a defense against the Pack attack.
The thing that separates the Packers receivers from other groups is their innate ability to make plays after the catch. Forty-nine percent of Aaron Rodger's yards this season came from plays his receivers made with their legs.
I’m expecting the Bears' corners to play a bunch of bump-and-run coverage. Green Bay has just one receiver over 6’1”, and that’s Jordy Nelson, who caught eight passes and a touchdown in Atlanta.
10. Place Kicking
Packers kicker Mason Crosby was 22/28 on the year, but four of those misses came on the road. Bears kicker Robbie Gould was 25/30 on the year, but four of those were at Soldier Field.
Putting it nicely, most high school facilities have nicer turf than the Bears do. Outside of Devin Hester, though, the Bears are not built on speed, but rather strength and smarts. This game is going to come down to a field goal.
Chicago 23, Green Bay 21
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