Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three Keys to Beating the Bears

The journey to Sunday’s NFC Championship game was an unexpected one.  The Packers were the pre-season darlings, with many predicting them not only to go to but win the Super Bowl.  After a 3-3 start and a laundry list of key players on IR, the hype died down.  And after losing to the Lions, suddenly the Packers’ chances of even making the playoffs were in jeopardy.

But really starting with the Patriots game, even though it was a loss, the Packers seemed to have embraced a new attitude.  They are playing confident yet loose.  And it has resulted in an impressive four-game winning streak that has them at the brink of what everyone expected 5 months ago: a victory away from a trip to Dallas.  With both reigning conference champions as well as both #1 seeds eliminated from the playoffs, the path to the Super Bowl is more apparent than ever.  But the Packers cannot overlook the Bears.  No team knows them better or has played them tougher this year.

There are 3 keys to beating the Bears, and none involve a baseball bat.
The Bears appeared to be a train wreck earlier this season.  The Mike Martz-Jay Cutler combination was resulting in sacks, turnovers and losses.  But, to their credit, they got back to “Bear football” – handing the ball to Forte and leaning on their defense and special teams.  The Bears haven’t been getting much respect in the media this week (most stories seem to start out “Can the Bears Stop Aaron Rodgers?”), but they’ve earned their way to this point as much as the Packers have.

So with that prelude, here are the 3 keys I see to a Packer victory:

  1. Force Cutler into mistakes – Although Jay had a big game against Seattle (274 yards passing, two passing TDs, two rushing TDs, and a 111.3 passer rating), it was against Seattle.  The Packers need to bring un-relenting pressure, as they did in their second meeting where Green Bay racked up 6 sacks.  As in the Falcons game, it will all start with taking away Matt Forte and forcing the Bears into passing situations.  The Packers have been pretty effective against Cutler in their two meetings this season – allowing him to throw for just one touchdown while picking him off three times.  Cutler’s average passer rating in those two games: 63.0. In addition to stopping the run, getting a lead early could be a real advantage.  The Bears were 28th in the league in passing offense, with only 188 passing yards per game.  If we can force them to pass, I like our chances of returning the Bears’ offense to the sack, penalty and turnover machine it was earlier in the season.
  2. Get Rodgers to play like Rodgers – So far, Aaron has shown the ability to play big in big games, but he has also shown some tendency to struggle and get frustrated against tough defenses, as he did in both Bears games this year, as well as the Jets game.  In his press conference this week, Rodgers talked about how he feels he’s been playing more relaxed and having fun since needing to sit out with the concussion.  That has been apparent in his performances.  In his career as a starter, Rodgers is 4-2 against the Bears, with both losses by only a 3-point margin (20-17 each time).  He’s also blown them out, 37-3, in his first game against them.  Regardless of how this game unfolds, he needs to continue to play relaxed, not get anxious if the game is close, and just play the way he’s been playing.  Nobody has been hotter.  If he plays well, he can beat anyone.  
  3. Don’t let Hester beat you – Hester’s return for a touchdown killed us in the first game against the Bears this year.  Against Atlanta, the Packers were able to bounce back after a kick-off return for a touchdown, but overcoming such a mistake against the Bears will be much more difficult.  If the Bears get a lead on a turnover or special teams play, their defense is good enough to hold the line.  Tim Masthay has had some masterful moments as the season progressed, including the week 17 game against the Bears.  He will need to have a great game in terms of placement, distance and hang-time to keep Hester from having a moment.

Overall, I like our chances.  But I’m suspecting it will be a dog fight.  Chicago left everything on the field in the last two match-ups and there’s no reason to believe they won’t play with great intensity.  But there’s no team I’d rather play for a trip to the Super Bowl than the Bears.  What a spectacular culmination to an incredible season this is shaping up to be.

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