The Bears and Packers have the most storied rivalry in NFL history. The showdown in the NFC Championship Game is their 182nd meeting, but only their second in the postseason. Which players will be the most important in determining victory?
The Bears offense has become more efficient as they have relied on their running game in the second half of the season. The Bears had trouble protecting Jay Cutler early in the season.
The Packers' 47 sacks ranked second in the NFL this season, one behind Pittsburgh. They have eclipsed that pace with eight sacks in their wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Are the keys to victory transparent or will someone or something surprise us in the NFC Championship Game? Here are 10 key players to watch.
Greg Jennings is the player most likely to make a big play offensively on either team. After a bit of a slump in 2009, Jennings bounced back in a major way this season. He finished his fifth NFL season with 76 catches for 1,265 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns. The ability of Charles "Peanut" Tillman and Tim Jennings to keep Jennings off the scoreboard will be important for Chicago.
In the Mike Martz offense, the running backs play a big role. Martz turned Marshall Faulk into a superstar and probable Hall of Famer. Forte has been the focal point of the Bears offense and with Cutler, they are the keys to a Bears victory on offense. He had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season and scored nine times. Last week against Seattle, he finished with 134 total yards.
The Bears offense will be focusing on Matthews at all times, just like the Packers offense will do with Julius Peppers.
In just two NFL seasons, Matthews has become one of the league’s most feared pass rushers. He finished the season with 13.5 sacks, but none against the Bears. He has three sacks in the Packers' two postseason wins. If the Packers can get to Cutler, they might force him to make bad throws against a secondary with three players headed to the Pro Bowl.
Aaron Rodgers has become one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He fell just 68 yards shy of a third straight season with 4,000 yards. He might be the best NFC quarterback.
Rodgers have been virtually unstoppable in the playoffs. He has completed 77.8 percent of his passes for 546 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. He is much more reliable than Cutler.
Rodgers takes what the defense gives him and is patient. He also has more weapons than Cutler, as Greg Jennings is quickly becoming one of the NFL's best receivers.
The Packers' secondary consists of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah. Peprah is the only Packer starter in the secondary not headed to the Pro Bowl.
The players combined for 14 interceptions this season, and Woodson returned an interception for a touchdown for the fifth straight year.
They all support the running game well. If the Packers' pass rush can get to Cutler, their secondary could be good for one or two picks.
Hester is a once-in-a-lifetime player. His ability to change the direction of a game is important for a team whose strength lies on the defensive side of the ball. He averaged over 34 yards per kickoff return and 17 yards on punt returns with three touchdowns this season.
A long return by Hester can change the complexion, momentum and score of the game in a matter of seconds.
Clifton has been the mainstay of the Packers line for over a decade. He was matched up against the Eagles' Trent Cole and the Falcons' John Abraham the first two weeks of the playoffs. While both are Pro Bowl type players, Julius Peppers is arguably the NFL's best defensive end and maybe the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
If Clifton can keep Peppers' meetings with Aaron Rodgers to a minimum, the Packers' chances of winning increase significantly.
Peppers was signed for games like these. Although his stats don’t tell the whole story, Peppers is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Peppers didn’t record a sack against Green Bay this season and only finished with two tackles. His ability to disrupt the Packers offense could determine the outcome of the game.
After playing a significant role in just one game this season, Starks has become the Packers' starting running back in the playoffs. During the regular season, Starks had just 29 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns. In the postseason, he has 48 carries for 189 yards. If the Packers get their running game going, it could be a long afternoon for the Bears.
Jay Cutler’s erratic performances were the downfall to the Bears' mediocre 2009 season. He has been much better in 2010, but his occasional lapses have hurt the Bears. He gets himself in trouble by relying too much on his arm. He had often made poor decisions in the past that get his teams in trouble.
Cutler has thrown for 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions in wins and one touchdown and nine interceptions in losses. If Cutler is patient, takes what Green Bay gives him and doesn't force the ball against the NFL's best defensive secondary, he will give the Bears an even chance to win.