NFL Playoffs 2011: Six Keys For Sunday's NFC Championship Game

Zack PearsonCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2011

NFL Playoffs 2011: Six Keys For Sundays NFC Championship Game

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    Sunday’s NFC Championship is expected to be one of, if not the biggest game played in Chicago. A trip to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas is on the line, as well as ultimate bragging rights between fans.

    This is only the second time the Bears and Packers have met in the playoffs, with the first match up being in 1941 and the Bears winning that game. Sunday’s game will have an atmosphere like no other and will be exciting for the players and fans.

    The two teams split the season series winning one game a piece, both at home. The games were decided by a combined 10 points so all indications point to a close game on the lakefront Sunday afternoon. Whatever team will be able to limit the mistakes and make the key plays down the stretch will be victorious.

    Here are Five keys to Sundays NFC Championship game.

1. Defense

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    On Sunday, two of the top five defenses will square off and could easily be the difference maker in the game. The Packers bring in the third ranked defense, while the Bears feature the fourth ranked defense.

    The Packers have played solid on the defensive side of the ball all season long by disrupting opposing quarterbacks and forcing havoc on them. Using Charles Woodson as a primary blitz corner has given Truman Williams the chance to step up. He’s answered that call plus a little more. Williams has been tremendous for the Packers this season, and has continued that play in the playoffs, where it counts.

    Featuring play makers like Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, BJ Raji, and Williams the Packers can change the game with their defense at any time.

    The Bears look like they have returned to Super Bowl form on the defensive side of the ball for the first time since the 2006 season. Getting a healthy Brian Urlacher for the season has helped them return to form.

    The addition of Julius Peppers has been everything the Bears have asked for, even if the numbers aren’t great. Peppers creates double teams on the offensive line which frees up another teammate. If Peppers dominates on the line of scrimmage, it could cause confusion for the Packers, and an untimely and bad day for Aaron Rodgers.

    Chicago ranks first overall in the NFL in run defense, allowing a stifling 34.0 yards per game on the ground. Chicago has built themselves around stopping the run, and limiting the pass.

    Both defenses will need to step up big if their team wants to win on Sunday. Holding the opposing offense and giving their offense good field position could be a major factor in the game.

2. Jay Cutler Limiting His Mistakes

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    After a horrible 2009 season with the Bears, Cutler has resurrected himself and won over the fans; well for at least the time being.

    Leading this team to the NFC Championship Game was the first step for Cutler to prove the doubters wrong. Winning the game will be an even better step for Cutler. In order to do that though, Cutler can’t make the crucial mistake to cost his team the game.

    Cutler didn’t start off the season well, and had seven interceptions to go with his seven touchdowns through the first seven games of the season.

    Things changed after the bye week however, and Cutler got hot.  He threw for 16 touchdowns and led his team to a 7-2 record to close out the season. Cutler wasn’t only getting it done with his arm, but he used his feet to escape the pocket and keep plays alive.

    If Cutler wants to play in Dallas in February he will need to limit his mistakes. He’s been known as a red zone killer for the Bears by turning the ball over, that can’t happen on Sunday if the Bears want a shot to win. Cutler played well in his first playoff game last week against Seattle. He became the second quarterback, since Otto Graham, to rush and throw for two touchdowns in his first playoff game.

    Cutler needs to use his feet and keep the plays alive. Especially when Green Bay collapses the pocket. Hot reads will be important as well. When Woodson comes off the nickel blitz, Cutler will need to find the hot read and find it fast.

    Chicago has a good chance to win, if Cutler can play good football on Sunday.

3. Running Backs

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    While both offenses feature solid passing games, Green Bay's can be lethal, the running game will be a huge key in Sundays game.

    The Bears have found something in the well that works lately. The one-two punch of running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Forte is the starter, but has been used more often in the receiving game. He’s become a favorite target for Jay Cutler and can create a mismatch for the defense.

    The Bears are using Taylor on goal line sets, and to spell Forte on other running plays. Taylor has stepped up big for the Bears and given them a valuable option as Forte rest’s.

    The Bears need to draw up screens and short patterns for both backs and could be successful Sunday.

    The Packers lost Ryan Grant in Philadelphia in week one, and haven’t had a solid replacement yet. James Starks played well in the Packers playoff win against the Eagles, but hasn’t provided that run game that Grant has provided in previous years.

    While Green Bay is good enough to rely on the arm of Rodgers, a nice run game to mix things up could be key. Chicago provides a tough challenge for Green Bay in the run game, so I expect them to rely on Rodgers. Although, McCarthy could have his occasional “first quarter establish the run game love affair” and that could cost Green Bay.

    It’s more important for the Bears to establish the run game early and often in the game, because if Cutler’s struggling, the run game will have to be good. Green Bay can use the pass game more effectively, so Chicago will need to have a great day on the ground.

4. Which Team Can Set The Tempo Early

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    With a atmosphere expected to be through the roof Sunday, setting the tempo for the game early could work to a teams favor.

    For the Packers, who are the visitors, they will look to silent the Bears fans at Soldier field and ignite the Packer faithful who are making the trip. Green Bay would like to establish an early run game, to get their passing game going. Chicago can’t let that happen, or they will be in trouble.

    Letting Aaron Rodgers get into a rhythm could be a game over for the Bears. Rodgers has so far proved he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league, and letting him get in a comfort zone will hurt the Bears. If Green Bay can set a nice temp early on for them, they will be on the path to victory.

    The Bears feed off their “Fourth Phase” fan base, and there’s no doubt Soldier Field will be rocking for the Bears. Chicago needs to feed off the home crowd and get an early jump on Green Bay.

    A couple three and outs for the Bears defense would be ideal, and the offense will need to capitalize on the Bears defensive stands. Chicago will try and set an early tempo by using the run game to set up the passing game for Cutler. Last week, Cutler connected with Greg Olsen on the Bears third offensive play for a long touchdown bomb that gave them momentum, and they never looked back.

5. Special Teams

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    This phase of the game could ultimately decide the game, like it has many times for the Chicago Bears. They are ranked in the top five special teams units in the NFL, and will go against a bottom five special teams in Green Bay.

    Chicago will rely on Devin Hester to take one to the house, or set them up with great field position. While the Packers look to avoid kicking to the best return man ever. Hester is dangerous, and has the ability to take it all the way at any time. Green Bay would be smart to NOT kick to Hester, and trust their defense to stop Chicago’s offense.

    Both punters and kickers also play a key role in this game especially in field position.  The Bears have one of the best punters in the league, Brad Maynard, who will be key in pinning the Packers down into bad field position. On the other side, Packers punter Tim Masthay will have the job to keep the ball away from Devin Hester.

    It will certainly be a battle that will be fun to watch for both teams, and one that like I said earlier could determine the game.

6. Aaron Rodgers

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    Rodgers enters the game as arguably the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now, and as won two straight road playoff games. Rodgers is the only quarterback to post a 100+ rating in his first three playoff games.

    Rodgers is a key for both the Bears and the Packers, as expected. The Bears defense looks to shut Rodgers down, and force him into mistakes and quick decisions. The problem is that Rodgers is so good against the blitz, it might hurt the Bears when they do.

    The key for the Bears will be to get pressure on Rodgers and knock him out of any rhythm he establishes. This is where Julius Peppers comes in. Peppers will need to be the man to step up and deliver the pressure. Big time players show up in big time games, and Julius…this is a big time game.

    Peppers won’t be able to do it all himself, that’s where players like Tommie Harris and Israel Idonije must step up and make the plays. Same goes for the whole defensive core.

    For the Packers, it’s pretty much obvious their offense relies on Rodgers and his ability to find the open receivers and hot reads. Rodgers can win the game for the Packers, so it’s key for him to play a great game