Friday, January 21, 2011

Packers-Bears Preview

Packers @ Bears

So here we are, a little over two weeks from the Super Bowl, and I’m still a bit shocked at what I’m seeing. Two teams meeting that I didn’t really expect to be in it are here. While many people considered the NFC East to be the superior division before the season, it was clear that at the end, the NFC South was on top. Now you will see the NFC Super Bowl representative come from the NFC North. Go figure.

I never considered the Bears an elite team (And I still don’t) because they have been too inconsistent and nothing really jumps out at me. Jay Cutler runs an offense that is good, not great. The defense has been suspect when you move back to the secondary. And the Bears have suffered some rough losses, including an earlier season loss to Seattle, a brutal loss to Patriots, and an absolute mess against DeAngelo Hall and the Redskins. Actually, if it wasn’t for a horribly dumb rule, the Bears would have lost to the Lions in Week 1 and their entire season could have gone differently. Imagine Detroit in the Championship game? Not for a few years at least. The fact of the matter is that the Bears have made it to the title game with a little bit of talent, a little bit of luck, and making the right moves. They were a big surprise this year, and although I feel they aren’t as good as their record says, they are built for this deep postseason run.

It seemed like it would be impossible for Packers fans to forget that nearly fateful day in Detroit. Their star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers had just gone down with a concussion, and their team had lost a stinker to the woeful Lions. Now they were forced with a different reality. Win two of your next three games, against the Patriots, Giants, and Bears, and you will get to the playoffs. As if that didn’t seem bleak enough, the timetable for Rodgers’ return was unsure, so they would have to ride backup Matt Flynn for the time being. I remember after that game telling anyone who would listen that the Packers were dead. They had no chance. It was too late in the season, and who knew if they could win those games even with Rodgers. A late game loss to the Patriots did not break their spirit, but showed how good the rest of their team was. They played at an elite level against the best team in football with their backup QB, and probably would have won if they had Rodgers for even just the final drive. Catching a break from the Giants choking to the Eagles, they steamrolled New York at home and just squeezed one out against the Bears to continue their season. Now they’re red hot, and want nothing more than to bring the Lombardi Trophy to its true home.

When I look at these two teams, I see a good team that needs to get better and an elite team missing one element of their game. The second team mentioned is the Packers, and that element is the running game. I’ve been saying it all along, James Starks is not a definite answer to the Green Bay running game, and that was shown against Atlanta last week. Starks had 25 carries for 66 yards. He should have pounded away at the Falcons to close out the game for the Packers, but a paltry 2.6 yards per carry was not what they needed. Luckily for Green Bay, they didn’t need that because they have Rodgers. Against Chicago, that could be a different story. Unless the Packers take a lead early, they may have a tough time, being that Julius Peppers’ and the Bears’ defensive line should take away the running game. Basically, Rodgers is going to have to beat the Bears through the air. He has the weapons to, but Charles Tillman and the secondary for Chicago will be playing motivated. They need a lot of help from Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, even though it was James Jones and Jordy Nelson to catch touchdowns last week. They need to tear up the field. Not literally.

The reason I say that is because of the ongoing discussion this week about the grass on Soldier Field. Everyone has said that this is one of the toughest fields to play on because it often has small ditches and is very slippery. Since the Bears are used to, they seem to have the advantage. While the players have expressed the discontent for the field conditions, there has never really been a big deal made about it before. While it is easy for receivers and corners to slip, the Bears have sucked it up and played well on their home field. However, I feel that this will not really be a significant advantage for the Bears. First of all, this is the first time in at least a long time that anyone has complained about Soldier Field. There was nothing said by anyone during the Seahawks game. That’s because the Bears didn’t need another advantage over Seattle. I think that people are making this a bigger deal than it is so that the matchup seems more even. Second off, if you take a look at the game against the Patriots, you’ll see why Rodgers should have no problem. In the wind and snow, Brady torched the Bears for 369 yards and two touchdown passes. Great quarterbacks can play through anything. That is why I believe that Rodgers, with an elite receiving corps, shouldn’t have too much of a problem at Soldier Field.

It seems that Rodgers will do what is expected of him. He will pass the ball. A lot. He will get yards. A lot. And he will score touchdowns. A lot. The Bears will have to be at full force to slow him down, let alone stop him. But what about the Green Bay defense versus the Chicago offense? Dom Capers will square off against Mike Martz one of the most anticipated coaching battles of the playoffs. Cutler is going to have headaches all day. The schemes the Packers use are nearly unstoppable, and with a suspect offensive line, Clay Matthews and company should get to Cutler early and often. That means Cutler will have to make smart decisions with his receivers and his running back, Matt Forte. Cutler should throw a lot of passes to Forte in the backfield, but unless he can get something going on the ground, it will be a rough day for the both of them. Add in the fact that Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams should be all over Johnny Knox and Devin Hester, Cutler is fighting a huge battle on offense. It’s going to come down to whether or not Martz can decrypt Capers’ blitzing and coverage scheme. And quite frankly, with everything that’s going in that defense, he may not succeed until it’s too late.

On special teams, the Bears have the luxury of having Devin Hester return punts. However, there is a simple solution to that: punt it out of bounds. If Tim Masthay can just punt it out of bounds, or at least near the sidelines, Hester should be a non factor. Weather pending, he should have no problem.

Two of the best coaches in the NFC square off in this one and the advantage has to go to Lovie Smith. Smith has taken an average team, a one dimensional offensive coordinator, and low expectations to the brink of a Super Bowl. He has the experience of leading a team there before. That team was led by Rex Grossman. That gives him a slight advantage over Mike McCarthy and an excellent Green Bay coaching staff. McCarthy has kept his team focused through its struggles, and has full confidence in his star quarterback, a man he has believed in for years now. This Sunday, we’ll see two battles between some of the NFL’s best coaches. Let’s just hope it didn’t go the same way that the Rex Ryan-Bill Belichick matchup did.

Plain and simple, the Packers are a better team. They can pass the ball better than nearly anyone in the league, and have a truly complete defense. The Bears have advantages in coaching, special teams, and home field. But those are things that a good team overcomes. The Packers are just too good to be stopped by this team, regardless of minimal advantages they have. When it comes down to game time, it will be up to the players on the field, and not Smith. Rodgers should have another huge day passing for three touchdowns again. However, don’t sleep on Cutler and the Bears. He should throw a few of his own. But Cutler is too prone to turning the ball over, which the Packers will make him. Green Bay should take this one, although it will be a lot closer than most people expect due to their absence of a solid running game.

Prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20

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