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Bears-Packers 2011 NFC Championship Playoff Preview

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I’ll first start by giving the Chicago Bears coaching staff some much deserved kudos for Sunday’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks. With all of the pressure as overwhelming favorites and a 10-point spread to cover, the Bears staff successfully game-planned a masterful game despite giving Vegas bettors some excitement at the end.

If Lovie Smith and company can submit another winning formula for one more week’s worth of time, Chicago fans will be scrambling for flights to Dallas this time next week. Here are this Chicago sports fan’s five observations going into the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1) You Can Only Hope To Contain Aaron Rodgers

The guy who patiently waited for Brett Favre to leave town has all the momentum in the world right now, and many signs point to Mr. Rodgers continuing his success against the Bears next week. However, if the Bears can take some notes on how Rex Ryan and the surging Jets took care of Brady and the Patriots in their playoff upset, perhaps the Bears can limit the Packers’ gifted QB to only a few touchdown passes.

Some additional wrinkles in the Bears’ Cover Two scheme might be enough to force Green Bay to rely a bit more on their running game, and I’d rather see the sixth round rookie Sparks with the ball in his hands than Rodgers. Just as opposing teams should be blitzing Bears QB Jay Cutler more, the Bears should apply a significant amount of rushing pressure on Rodgers. If Tommie Harris comes out of nowhere again for two sacks next week, things will be looking up for the Monsters of the Midway. 

2) Win The Coin Toss, Take The ball, And Score A TD On The First Possession

OK, so you can’t really control this one, but all I know is that good things seem to happen when the Bears jump out to an early lead. They seem like two completely different teams on both sides of the ball when the score is either in their favor or against. When leading, the offense is relaxed, playmaking is consistent, and Cutler is slinging the ball with ease. The defense is aggressive, excited, and plays with huge swagger.

When chasing points, the offense gets tentative, offensive coordinator Mike Martz has the potential to panic, and Cutler begins to rely solely on his physical gifts. This often forces the defense to really dig in, and more times than not this season, they have saved the team. In the playoffs, there is far less room for error unless you have a 25-point lead, in which case, you tease out the “Wildcat” formation and call for Matt Forte
to test his arm out. 

3) Use The Crowd, But Make Sure It’s The Right Crowd

Bears fans have been labeled by the organization as the “4th Phase” as they provide the “lifeblood of the Chicago Bears.” Next Sunday, I expect Soldier Field to be one of the most energetic atmospheres ever witnessed in a playoff game. Unfortunately, I suspect that there will not be an unending sea of orange and blue filling the stands. As I write this, tickets are being snatched up by the always well traveling Packer nation, so Bears fans will need to be prepared.

As it goes in playoff football, it is customarily challenging to win three playoff games on the road to advance to the Super Bowl. However, as the 2006 Steelers proved, it can be done, and this year could mark the first time a pair of #6 seeds make it to the big game. The Bears would serve themselves well if they applied #2 from above and allowed their crowd to drown out any possible cheering coming from the thousands of cheeseheads in attendance.

4) Offensive Line, Keep Bonding Together

With all of the time that Cutler got in the pocket in the Seattle game, it’s no wonder he ended up in the box score for four touchdowns (2 passing, 2 rushing). If the offensive line continues to bond, gel, or do whatever they’ve been doing to improve since the New York Giants debacle—insert Ferris Bueller Principal Rooney voice: nine times—Cutler may get enough time to dissect a Packers defense that will be much less forgiving than the Seahawks one.

The gaps will be smaller, and the window for opportunity that much narrower, though we’ve seen how accurate Cutler can be with his rocket arm. The question will remain whether he has enough time to plant and fire. Interestingly, with his two rushing touchdowns and 43 yards on eight carries against Seattle, Cutler may have shown enough mobility to factor into the Packers’ game planning this week. If Green Bay fears the QB’s running game ever so slightly, they may blitz a bit less, and this will allow the O-line to get settled in.  

5) Check The Weather. It Is The Windy City, After All

No, I’m not going to clamor for blistery winds, snow showers, or fog to roll in for next week. Anyone who follows the Bears knows the truth behind “Bear weather” is that they actually don’t tend to play better, and when you’re playing against a team who hails from the “Frozen Tundra,” it’s not likely you’ll be the favored team in cold weather.

What I’m hoping for is that the Packers will either kick to Devin Hester, or those Soldier Field winds will keep the ball in play just enough to give the most electrifying player in football a chance to change the game. Even fielding just two punts on Sunday, Hester’s 26-yard return marked a key point in the first quarter, allowing the Bears to start on the 50-yard line and march just half of the field for their second touchdown and a 14-0 lead. With a closer game surely in the cards for next week, the battle for field position becomes even more important. 

Conclusion

As three-point favorites, the visiting Packers are the favorite despite being the #6 seed on the road coming into a hostile environment. Given their performances over #3 seed Philadelphia, and #1 Atlanta, both on the road, they are hitting their stride at just the right time. Fortunately, I believe that the Bears are also firing on all cylinders as well, and if we see most or all of the above observations come Sunday, I’ll be back to write about a Super Bowl preview matchup.

Photo credit: Technorati.com (Dwayne Dunham)

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