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NFC Championship Game 2011: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears Preview

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJanuary 21, 2011

By now, it's well documented that the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will play for the 183rd time on Sunday in the NFC Championship game.

There's also probably been at least that many articles written previewing the latest showing in the NFL's longest running rivalry. 

However, for those of you who are sick of reading articles like the "Top 10 Reasons the Bears/Packers Will Win" or "Which Quarterback has the Hottest Girlfriend," you're in luck. 

This article won't be in that format. 

In this preview, we'll go over the important things the Green Bay Packers need to do to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon. You'll get my own prediction at the end as well. Nothing more, nothing less. 

I hope that is a refreshing start. Now lets get right to it. 

Must stop the Bears' running game

The Packers have lost six games this season. In those six games, the opponent has averaged 117 yards rushing per game.

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In several of those games, the Packers let inferior opponents beat them because of their inability to stop the run. The most glaring examples are against Detroit (190 yards) and Miami (150).

However, look at the Packers most impressive wins (in no particular order) this season:

  1. Atlanta (12th in rushing), 48-21: Falcons rush for 45 yards, Michael Turner 39 yards.
  2. Philadelphia (fifth), 21-16: Eagles rush for 81 yards, Lesean McCoy 46 yards.
  3. New York (sixth), 45-17: Giants rush for 90 yards, Ahmad Bradshaw 31 yards. 
  4. Minnesota (10th), 31-3: Vikings rush for 93 yards, Adrian Peterson 72 yards.
  5. New York (fourth), 9-0: Jets rush for 81 yards, Ladainian Tomlinson 54 yards.

That's a lot of stats and numbers, but it paints a clear picture. If the Packers stop the Bears' running game on Sunday, they'll have a great chance at advancing to the Super Bowl.

On the flip side, if Matt Forte and company get some traction on Sunday, the Packers could be in for a long afternoon.

The Bears won't put up a ton of points regardless if they run or not, but in terms of helping Jay Cutler, neutralizing the Packers' blitz and controlling the football, the Bears' run game could be the overlooked factor on Sunday. 

And don't forget about Week 17 either. The Packers held the Bears to only three points, but Forte rushed for 91 yards and had Chicago in control for the majority of the first 40 minutes.

The Bears, for some reason or another, stopped running the ball in the second half and the Packers were able to tee off on Cutler and eventually win the game. 

You'd have to believe the Bears saw on tape that success on the ground. Expect a hearty helping of Forte and the Bears' run game on Sunday. 

Goal: Hold the Bears under 100 yards rushing

Patience on Offense

There will surely be plenty of fans anticipating another 48 point explosion, but that isn't happening on Sunday. 

The Bears have a defense that dwarfs both the Falcons and Eagles, and the Packers have struggled figuring out Lovie Smith's Cover-2 look. 

The Packers had to work for each one of the 27 points they scored against the Bears this season, and on Sunday they'll need to work just as hard. 

The Bears run a disciplined defense that doesn't give up many big plays, meaning the Packers are going to need to be very patient on offense. 

That patience will start with Aaron Rodgers. Expect him to utilize the dump off pass considerably more than we've seen from this offense in the past. But don't worry, that'll be a good thing. 

Flashback to Week 3. Rodgers threw for 316 yards, but his longest completion was 28 yards to Jermichael Finley. As you know, Finley won't be partaking in this game. 

Outside of Finley, Rodgers' longest completion was just 18 yards to James Jones. Other than those two throws, Rodgers didn't complete a pass that went for more than 11 yards. 

That's the kind of offense the Packers need to employ on Sunday. If executed, it should keep the Packers out of dangerous third-and-long situations and will reduce the chance for costly turnovers and sacks.

Short, high percentage passes will be the vehicle for Green Bay's offense to be successful.

Goal: No offensive turnovers

Don't let special teams beat you

The Packers got lucky last week—Eric Weems 102 yard kick return touchdown turned out to be a moot point. 

However, they won't be as fortunate this week if they let the likes of Devin Hester or Daniel Manning break a big return. 

Like I stated above, the Packers won't be scoring 48 points. Heck, they might not even get to half of that total. But this isn't just about the offense. 

With how good the defense is playing, the Packers can't allow the Bears cheap points. If the onus is solely on Chicago's offense to score points, Green Bay can take plenty of confidence in their ability to stop them from doing just that. 

In the end, this only magnifies the importance of special teams. 

One big return that scores points for Chicago, or puts them in prime position to score could be the difference in the game.  

Goal: No game breaking kick or punt returns


Win at the line of scrimmage

This game is going to be won and lost with the big uglies up front. It's that simple.

Here's why. 

The success of each quarterback—Rodgers and Cutler—is going to depend on the respective protection they receive. 

And Packers' fans will hate and most likely disagree with this, but Cutler can be an elite level quarterback when he's protected.

He's still going to make a boneheaded decision every now and than—Brett Favre did as well—but he's got an arm that rivals that of any in the NFL. He can make all the throws.

When he has time to showcase that arm, he's put up some impressive performances. Three specific games stick out for Cutler:

  1. In a 27-20 win against the Cowboys, Cutler throws for three touchdowns and compiles a 136.7 rating. 
  2. Cutler throws for four touchdowns, nearly 300 yards, and a 146.2 rating against the red-hot Eagles in a 31-26 win.
  3. Finally, Cutler shreds the Jets' vaunted defense for three touchdowns and 104.2 rating in a 38-34 win.

Take them for what you will, but you can't discount these performances. Why was he able to be so effective in those games? 

He was only sacked seven times in those three games combined. That's well under the rate of 45 sacks in 13 games he endured throughout the season. 

It isn't rocket science. Sack Cutler, keep the pressure on him and he'll revert into the mostly average quarterback he's been this year when on the run. 

For the offense, however, an important key to scoring points is going to be keeping Rodgers upright.

The Bears in both meetings did a good job at keeping the heat on the Packers' signal caller, and the results were evident. Green Bay averaged only 13.5 points against Chicago compared to nearly 26 against their 14 other opponents in the regular season. 

The Bears' front seven is as good as the Packers have seen and it will again challenge the offensive line. Their play can impact this game in several different ways. 

In the first situation, the Bears' defensive line dominates the Packers' front much like the Lions did over a month ago. The Packers don't win the game if that happens. 

In the second, the Packers' line wins some battles and loses some battles. That's been the case in both games with Chicago this season, and it'd be a coin flip at that point to decide the winner. 

In the final case, however, the Packers' line dominates the Bears up front. We've seen them accomplish this most recently in Philadelphia, but also against the Giants in the Packers' first do-or-die game. This final scenario stamps the Packers' ticket to the Super Bowl without a doubt. 

Overall, the tone of this game is going to be set in the trenches. It won't be the pretty boy quarterbacks or the flashy receivers.

It'll be those five overweight hogs on each respective offensive line who decide which storied franchise goes to the most glamorous event in sports. A tad bit ironic, but Vince Lombardi and George Halas probably wouldn't have it any other way.

Super Bowl Goal: Sack Cutler three or more times, less than two sacks on Rodgers

Conclusion

It's hard enough to believe that Sunday will mark the first time the Packers and Bears will play to decide who goes to the Super Bowl, much less that it will also be just the second time they've played in the postseason. 

The Packers and Bears share 89 years of history, 21 NFL Championships and 47 Hall of Famers, yet Sunday's NFC Championship game will mark the most important game between the two in their storied history. 

It's a lot to get your head around, but if the sound of that doesn't get you excited, you should maybe check your pulse. 

(Letting you check...)

So who wins the biggest game in the history of Packers-Bears? 

It's a tough call, but I think the Packers are going to get to Cutler and Green Bay's defense is going to play well like they have all season.

However, I also think the Bears are loving the fact that they've been dubbed home underdogs. They love the fact that everyone is writing them off. They love the fact that everyone is picking the Packers. 

They feel right at home being undervalued and they've thrived in that position under Lovie Smith. 

While I'm convinced the Bears will struggle mightily on offense, it's their other two units—defense and special teams—that is going to carry them.

Julius Peppers, who I think will be the MVP of this game, feels like the forgotten man. In a sarcastic tone, Peppers told the Chicago Tribune, "He's [Rodgers] the greatest. So, you know we have to be at the top of our game to be competitive." 

I'm sure that sentiment is shared throughout the Chicago locker room. 

But don't forget about the Bears' special teams. Hester won't be celebrating in the endzone, and he might not even return a punt, but he's still going to give the Bears' excellent field position by default. 

The Packers' defense will be as good as we've seen in these playoffs, but the Bears, on the heels of the NFL's best special teams and their own disrespected defense, will be celebrating with the Halas Trophy on Sunday night in the Windy City. 

Call me blasphemous, but the Bears beat the Packers, 17-13, and advance to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. 

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