1. Stopping the Bears Rushing Attack
The biggest key to Sunday's NFC championship for the Packers is stopping the Chicago rushing attack. Matt Forte is a dynamic player who cannot and will not be over looked he has been a key offensive weapon for the Bears against the Packers this season in the teams' two previous matchups.
Chester Taylor is very dangerous in third down situations on screens and draws. He is a savvy veteran who has demonstrated throughout his career that he can get the tough extra yard necessary to pick up key first downs.
The Packers' defensive game plan Sunday will be centered around stopping the Bears from running effectively and forcing them to become one-dimensional.
If the Packers can not contain Forte, Taylor and even quarterback Jay Cutler, who has been a factor scrambling against them in the first two meetings, the Bears will be able to control the clock keeping Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the dangerous Packers offense on the sidelines where they are of no danger.
The Packers held the Bears' rushing attack in check in the first meeting when Forte carried 11 times for just 29 yards and Cutler was their leading rusher with 3 carries for 37 yards.
However, in the second meeting, the Bears were able to run the ball effectively, totaling 110 yards rushing. Forte went for 91 yards on 15 carries although it should be noted that Packers starting defensive end Cullen Jenkins missed the second game with a calf injury and is expected to play on Sunday.
When the Packers are in their base 3-4 they line up defensive ends Howard Green (340 lbs) and Ryan Pickett (330 lbs) alongside nose tackle BJ Raji (337 lbs) a total of 1,007 pounds on the line. The Bears will find it hard to run against that personnel so they will likely try to run out of their 11 personnel, which will bring the Green Bay nickel defense onto the field spreading the defense a bit.
My guess is the Packers will run a lot of 3-2-5 nickel on early downs to counter the threat of the run, they generally use a 2-4-5 nickel in more likely passing situations. If the Packers can neutralize the Bears' rushing attack as they did to Atlanta last week in the divisional round, they will have a great chance of returning to the Super Bowl in just the third season since moving on from a legend.
2. Matching up with the Bears 11 Personel in the Passing Game
Jay Cutler's two favorite receiving options are wide receiver Johnny Knox and tight end Greg Olsen.
Taking them out of the game with a combination of cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins will be key. Williams has shown he can single-handedly shut Knox down, and I fully expect Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers to match Williams up with Knox again, eliminating the Bears' most consistent deep threat.
Knox did have 4 catches for 94 yards in the Week 3 meeting, but he was held without a catch more recently in Week 17. That leaves either Collins or Woodson matched up on Olsen, as I expect the Packers to be in their nickel package most of the game.
Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz really favors the three-receiver, one back, one tight end personnel grouping. I think either player can get the best of the Olsen matchup despite his well-above-average athletic ability for a 6'5" 255 pound tight end. He has been okay against the Packers this year, catching 10 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
That leaves undrafted rookie nickel back Sam Shields matched up with electric receiver Devin Hester. However, Shields is no slouch in the speed department, running a 4.3 forty coming out of college, and should be able to stick with Hester who has 1 catch for 16 yards in the teams' first two meetings this season.
The matchup to watch in this scenario, however, will be against the Bears' running back, either Matt Forte or Chester Taylor, who are both dangerous receivers out of the backfield, spilt out wide, or in the slot off motion.
Forte has been busy against the Packers this year with 10 catches for 74 yards, catching 8 for 60 in Week 17. Either a linebacker, likely Desmond Bishop or AJ Hawk, or safety Charlie Peprah, will have to cover the Bears back. That will be a tough matchup for the Packers and most likely where the game will be won or lost.
If the linebackers or safeties can keep the back in front of them and not miss tackles, the Packers should be in good shape. However, if Forte and Taylor win their matchup the Packers will be forced to use Collins to cover the back, which would drastically reduce Capers' options in blitz packages and spell trouble for Green Bay.
3. Holding Devin Hester in Check on Special Teams
In the first meeting in Chicago between these two teams in Week 3, Packers punter Tim Masthay made a couple of mistakes on punts and Devin Hester made him pay, returning one of the low kicks for a touchdown and completely changing the coarse of that game.
Hester averaged 31 yards on three returns, including the 62-yard touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter with the Packers leading 10-7. Masthay finished with a terrible line that night in Chicago, 3 punts for an average of 19 yards, a long of 58 and none inside the 20-yard line.
However, in the second meeting in Green Bay Masthay earned a game ball for his efforts. This time he was masterful, brilliant even, if such words can be used in regard to a punter's performance. Masthay used punts angled toward the sidelines to again and again nullify the threat of a game-changing Hester return—which, in that must-win Week 17 game, could have ended the Packers' season.
Hester finished with 2 returns for 34 yards, one of 19 and one of 15—pretty good, but neither were game-changers. Masthay finished with 8 punts for a 36.6 yard average with a long of 56 while landing 4 of his 8 punts inside the Bears' 20-yard line. That's a dream line for a punter facing Hester.
Once again, the stakes will be high for Masthay and if he can navigate the windy conditions in the windy city and keep Hester from having an impact on the game, the Packers will likely be headed to the Super Bowl.
4. The Packers Receivers Must Get Six vs. the Bears' Cover 2
In the two games this year against the Bears, Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 545 yards, connecting on 53-of-73 pass attempts. However, he has thrown for just two touchdowns which matches his interception total against the Bears this season.
First-time Pro Bowler Greg Jennings has 6 catches for 115 yards in the two games against the Bears this season, ageless veteran Donald Driver 13 for 102, emerging playmaker James Jones 6 for 63, and emerging deep threat Jordy Nelson 5 for 59.
But, the group has just one touchdown reception, a Jennings 7-yarder in the Week 3 matchup which seems an eternity ago. Jennings was stopped just short of the goal line twice in the Week 17 game, big plays in a tightly contested contest. If the Packers' diverse group of receivers can get into the end zone for six 3 times in Sunday's NFC Championship game, the Packers will be headed to the Super Bowl.
I believe the Bears' back seven is no match for the Packers' talented passing attack which along with Jennings, Driver, Jones and Nelson, is likely to include tight ends Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree and Donald Lee, along with running backs Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn, James Starks and Quinn Johnson.
Although both linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are above-average in pass coverage, the Bears' corners are suspect with the exception of Charles "Peanut" Tillman.
Tillman had a ridiculous interception that put his immense talent on full display in Week 17. He is also a danger to strip the ball anytime he is involved in making a tackle, having done so 24 times since 2003, the most in the NFL over that time span.
However, the other starter Tim Jennings and backups D.J. Moore, Corey Graham and Zach Bowman are no match for the Packers' deep stable of talented pass catchers and I expect Rodgers to have a big day through the air.
5. Packers Offensive Line Must Outplay Bears Offensive Line
I know it sounds funny because they won't actually play against each other on Sunday, but I think it's important that the Packers O-line does a better job handling Julius Peppers and company in both the run and passing game than the Bears O-line does against Clay Matthews III and company.
Although I believe the pass is more important to the Packers offense and the run is more important to what the Bears offense wants to get done in this game. The Bears would prefer to control the ball and keep the Packers' high-powered offense off the field while the Packers would just like to score points however they can get them. Not to say the Bears wouldn't; I just don't think the Packers offense faces the same pressure the Bears offense does to run the ball and the clock and keep the opposing offense on the sidelines.
The Packers defense matches up much better with the Bears offense than the Bears defense does against the Packers offense. If Green Bay tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga, guards Josh Sitton and Daryn Colledge and center Scott Wells can keep Aaron Rodgers' jersey clean, the Packers will be headed in the right direction.
Rodgers has been sacked just twice this season against the Bears, both in the Week 17 meeting. In the running game, they only need to open up a few holes for rookie running back James Starks, who had 5 carries for 20 yards in the Week 17 game. If the rushing game becomes a viable threat, expect the Packers offense to have a big day Sunday especially off of play action.
On the other hand, the Bears offensive line will have their hands full with the Packers defense, who will send rushers from every angle. Having Woodson on Olsen gets him even closer to the quarterback as a starting point, allowing for him to blitz and Collins to cover behind him, or vice versa.
While outside linebackers Clay Matthews III (16.5 sacks) and Erik Walden (4 sacks) will be constants in the rush along with defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins (7 sacks), and BJ Raji (7.5 sacks) with a bit of Desmond Bishop (4 sacks) and AJ Hawk mixed in. Certainly the Bears offensive line faces a stern challenge against the Packers defense Sunday and I think they will wilt under the intense pressure, allowing Cutler to be sacked around five times.