NFC Championship Game 2011: How the Chicago Bears Will Send Green Bay Packing
Later today, at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Bears will take on the Packers for the third time this season. Each team took one game a piece during the regular season, and now it's win or go home. Both teams are just one game away from the Super Bowl.
The public perception is that Green Bay is playing too good right now to lose and the Packers are the favorites to win the Super Bowl. However, if you take a closer look, the shine of the Packers wears off and Chicago starts to glow. The game will be close, but the Chicago Bears are going to win this game outright. I'm going to list you the top seven reasons why.
7. Terry McAulay's Crew
Who? The same referee crew that was there for the early season game between these two teams, when the Packers were flagged for a franchise-record 18 penalties. Four of them were false starts, which speaks more about the crowd than the officials. Three of them were holds, including one that took points off the board. There was six total holds called, so expect a handful again here with this crew
The flags really hurt the Packers on defense. On the opening drive, a pass interference penalty called on Woodson kept the drive alive and led to three points. In the fourth quarter, the Packers had an interception, but they got flagged for roughing the passer, which gave the Bears the ball back and let them get the tying field goal.
Then it happened again on the final drive of the game. This time, the Packers intercepted the ball but were called for pass interference. The Bears drove from there to kick the winning field goal.
The Packers are going to be well aware that McAulay's crew will be calling this game, and are likely to be slightly less aggressive because of it. The referees shouldn't affect the game, but they will, and it will favor the Bears.
6. Home Field Still Exists in Chicago
Soldier Field is notorious for being torn up. It's used quite often outside of just NFL activities, and isn't in very good shape. As a fan, one can see the obvious effect a bad field has on a game. When you see a few guys fall down, so do the players, and everyone slows down a little to be able to keep their footing.
For the Bears, this means two different advantages.
While the field is bad, it's also their home field. They know where the soft spots are and where the field is more held together.
The other advantage is that a slow field hurts the Packers' gameplan. The Packers want to spread the field with their four good receivers and use their speed to their advantage, but the poor field conditions will make that less effective.
5. Rodgers Can't Stay That Good
The biggest reason people like the Packers to make the Super Bowl is because of Aaron Rodgers' performance last week. Going 31-of-36 for 366 yards and three touchdowns without throwing a pick will impress people. Unfortunately for the Packers, in NFL playoff games over the last few years, great offensive games tend to be followed up by poor showings.
Since 2000, quarterbacks coming off playoff games with QB ratings above 130 are just 3-9 the week after. Those quarterbacks average a 75.16 in the follow-up game and have thrown for 18 total interceptions to just 17 total touchdowns. It is difficult for a single player to have great games in back-to-back weeks against playoff level competition.
4. The Packers Offense Can't Stay That Good
Worse than the historical statistical evidence against the quarterback is the evidence against high scoring teams. Since 1996 (link is ESPN insider only), teams that score over 40 in a playoff game are terrible the next week, going just 2-18 against the spread. The Packers are 3.5-point favorites in this game.
Common sense backs this up as well. Score 40, and people expect you to do it again, but come playoff time, it's unlikely you'll find two defenses you match up that well against in a row. In two games combined this year, the Packers only scored 27 against the Bears. Theoretically, the Packers could win in a close game by less than four and not cover that spread, but it still doesn't bode well for the Pack's chances.
3. The Bears Didn't Need the Week 17 Game
While the Bears did have their starters playing in Week 17 and appeared to be playing hard, they didn't need to win the game. They had the No. 2 seed all locked up. The Packers, on the other hand, still needed to win this game to claim the six seed or risk losing their spot to the Giants or Bucs if either team won. In the end, all three teams won and went to 10-6, but the Packers got the six seed based on tiebreakers.
This should be a distinct gameplanning advantage for the Bears. They have two games of tape on what the Packers are trying to do against them. The Packers only have one tape from early in the season where they know the Bears are trying, and a second tape where they aren't sure what the Bears are doing.
However, the Packers have to prepare for both possibilities. For example, the Bears left their base Cover 2 for a Cover 3 and it was very effective in the Week 17 game. Because of that, the Packers have to be prepared to beat both the Cover 2 and Cover 3.
The same idea applies on offense. The Bears had a week to see how the Packers would line up defensively against whatever look they put out there. Expect Mike Martz to come back to some of those formations this week, but with totally different and more effective plays.
2. Lovie Smith Is a Better Head Coach Than Mike McCarthy
Lovie has already been to a Super Bowl and gets his whole team motivated to win games. His Bears beat the Cardinals in the infamous, "They are who we thought they were" game. Most teams would fold after their quarterback did what Grossman did that day, having committed six turnovers. The Bears didn't fold. They scored two defensive touchdowns and one on special teams to become the first team to ever overcome a 20-point deficit without scoring on offense.
McCarthy is a great offensive coach, but not a great head coach. His teams are just 5-16 in games decided by four points or fewer. That is due to poor clock management. In the Wild Card round against the Eagles, he let the clock run down near end of the half, took a timeout and took a shot deep, and then went back to letting the clock run and kept a timeout in his pocket. He also had a brutal stretch at the end of the Patriots game with Matt Flynn at QB, only getting three plays off over the course of 53 seconds.
In playoff games, the pressure goes up for everyone on the field, coaches included. I am confident in Lovie under pressure, but have no faith that McCarthy will make it through this game without screwing something up.
1. The Bears Have a Huge Edge on Special Teams
The Bears special teams unit is the best in the league. They have been beyond amazing this year. Devin Hester is "back." After going all of 2008 and 2009 without a special teams touchdown, Hester has scored three punt return touchdowns this year, including one in that first game against the Packers. He'll also be handling kickoff return duty Sunday, and the Packers let up a kick return touchdown to Eric Weems in last week's game against the Falcons. Hester has more special teams touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history, and is a threat to go all the way every time he touches it.
The threat of Devin Hester is almost as important as his long returns and touchdowns: Partially because opponents are avoiding Hester, the Bears' starting field position on average is their own 34-yard line. That means their offense doesn't have to go as far to score, and even when their offense falters, they still can win a field position game.
Pick: Bears +3.5
Final Score Prediction: Bears 24, Packers 20