Matty Ice? More like Matty Sliced, as Green Bay’s defense proceeded to throw out that whole myth about Matt Ryan being virtually unbeatable in the Georgia Dome, and cut the third year quarterback, Jolene-style. Meanwhile, Chicago went ahead and ended Roger Goodell’s recurring nightmare by dispatching the Seattle Seahawks in convincing fashion (which included a particularly nasty hit on Seahawks tight end John Carlson).
This leads to Green Bay and Chicago meeting in the postseason for the first time since 1941, and, well, what would be more appropriate? The teams are among the NFL’s oldest and most storied, and their rivalry matches that age. This is a particular case where not only is a Super Bowl berth at stake, but so is the chance to rub it in your rival’s face once more. From Halas and Lambeau to Cutler and Rodgers, the road to Super Bowl XLV has just intensified.
Weird as this may sound, Eric Weems’ 102 yard touchdown return may have been one of the worst things to happen to Atlanta. Green Bay’s defense, for as complex as it is, can be beaten by any quarterback who takes his time to wear them down and recognize patterns. By keeping Green Bay’s defense off the field, that kept Aaron Rodgers on the field, and since Rodgers tends to create mayhem early, letting dominate first half time of possession is always a bad idea. Of course, the pick six before halftime to Tramon Williams did the Falcons no favors. Ryan’s confidence was eroded late in that first half, and he was no longer cavalier about challenging Green Bay deep. You can beat Green Bay by forcing them to try man coverage with a string of completions, but Ryan didn’t have a chance. And Aaron Rodgers going 31 of 36? Jeez.
2. Where was Chicago strongest vs. Seattle?
For a team like the Chicago Bears that employ Mike Martz, who’s added layers of gadgetry to the team’s playbook, it’s amazing just how “Parcells-esque” the team looked on Sunday afternoon. Any team that employs a containment defense while running the ball effectively usually wins. Chicago did their best to contain Seattle, making Matt Hasselbeck throw among wintry conditions (the Seahawks ran only 12 times all game) and forced an aging quarterback to try and play catch-up on the best 4-3 defense in the game today. It wasn’t going to happen. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor combined for 36 carries, and were effective in eating away the clock, which left Hasselbeck no choice but to abandon the running game and try to force his way downfield. Again, that wasn’t going to happen. Chicago was strongest in playing a basic football game, and not trying to be fancy. Sometimes, being conservative just works.
3. Which team possesses the better running attack?
Atlanta did ONE thing right on Saturday, and that’s stymie James Starks, holding him to under 3 yards a carry. Of course, that proved to be little difference since Aaron Rodgers led Green Bay to victory just fine. Besides, Starks ran the ball 25 times, and was effective in getting some short third down conversions that grated on Atlanta’s nerves. Chicago’s combo of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor account for much of Chicago’s 176.0 yards per game rushing, which is the league’s best. Interestingly enough, in the team’s first meeting earlier this year, the pair combined for only 38 yards on the ground in a game that Chicago still won (kicking off the “JAY CUTLER HAS ARRIVED!” frenzy). Forte put up 91 yards in the game that Green Bay needed to win to even be here, so while Chicago may be stronger here, their output can vary against Green Bay.
4. Can Green Bay’s zone defense cover Chicago’s receivers?
To me, this is the matchup that’s most interesting on Sunday afternoon. Green Bay’s defense, as stated before, is an efficient 3-4 zone that calls for a variety of blitzes in different looks. While a slower quarterback may find himself in trouble (i.e. Matt Hasselbeck), Jay Cutler has the advantage of having a crappy offensive line. Wait, advantage? Indeed, Cutler has had to develop a quicker release in order to avoid getting pancaked. This is doubly interesting when you remember that Cutler has some of the fastest receivers in the game in Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. It’s similar to Philadelphia’s fast paced offense, in that Green Bay was wearing down in the second half of the opening round (and nearly gave the Eagles the game), so as the game goes on, there’s a good chance Green Bay struggles to keep up on defense. And going man-to-man won’t help, either.
5. Does Greg Olsen pose a matchup problem for Green Bay’s defense?
Olsen is one of the most complex tight ends in football to cover. Despite being 6’6″ and weighing well over 250 pounds, he possesses inordinate speed, and outran Lawyer Milloy (who is admittedly no longer the player he once was) in somewhat eye-popping fashion for a touchdown on Sunday. Olsen was a wrecking ball in the team’s first meeting earlier this year, netting five grabs for 64 yards and a score, and has no problem streaking down field to bring a linebacker or safety with him if it means opening up the middle of the field for Cutler. Olsen’s also an effective run blocker, and he engages well with Green Bay’s linebackers. To top it all off, there aren’t many tight ends who can stay at home to block Clay Matthews, just to keep the quarterback from getting splattered. Olsen may be the most important part of the Bears’ Sunday effort.
6. Will Green Bay’s zone blitz disrupt Jay Cutler?
How can a team with the best rushing attack in football also have the worst offensive line in 2010? And for that reason, how is Matt Forte not the front runner for league MVP? The Bears have given up 56 sacks and have allowed 92 hits on their quarterbacks (good for about 3.5 sacks and 6 hits a game), and this would theoretically play into the Packers’ hands. Charles Woodson, as said before, is the best blitzing corner in the game, and Cutler has to anticipate the constant disruption from all sides of the field. Dom Capers doesn’t get enough credit for the depth in which he’s put into the defensive playbook. Speaking of the woeful offensive line, Roberto Garza and Olin Kreutz may be somewhat reliable veterans, but both men are frequently penalized (Kreutz is a somewhat dirty player, so get him frustrated and he’ll set the Bears back).
7. Can Chicago’s zone blitz finally get to Aaron Rodgers?
To the other side, you have Rodgers that is almost unflappable. His offensive line hasn’t been great shakes either (though superior from last year, thanks to a center switch and drafting Bryan Bulaga), but Rodgers really deserves “icy” reputation that Matt Ryan seems to have. How many times does Rodgers casually sidestep when the blitz becomes intimidating? Rodgers takes a moment to notice the oncoming charge, and then stoically move to where he needs to be. As far as the playoffs go, this is the best linebacking corps he’s gone up against, with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs patrolling the middle, and both are capable of taking away an outside scramble. Though not a sack-heavy team (only 34 for a team that also includes Julius Peppers), the Bears force you to throw when you’re least comfortable, and that accounts for the 21 interceptions. Rodgers’ confident demeanor will definitely be tested.
8. Rodgers vs. Cutler: who’s more likely to have the better game?
Two young quarterbacks, both can scramble, both are accurate passers, and both have compensated for weak offensive lines by developing quicker throws and better reading skills. Cutler’s attributes have to match up with a “go ahead and guess” zone blitz that’s about as predictable as a seizure, and Rodgers may have all day to throw through his own efforts, but that might die in the face of having little to no open targets. Cutler was able to maintain decent command of a Packers’ defense in week 17 that needed a win, before letting the second half get away in a game where the Bears didn’t need to win. Rodgers, playing a team that had no motivation to win, still threw a pick, ate two sacks, and couldn’t get a lead until later in the game. If the Bears step it up to their normal level, Rodgers just might come undone.
9. Which team is more likely to make defensive mistakes?
Green Bay and Chicago are both exuberant teams, and as such, they both get whistled for their share of penalties (98/758 and 93/790 respectively). The Packers are a bit jumpier, and would be more likely to be drawn offsides if Jay Cutler can drag them with a hard count. The Bears’ troubles come in the secondary, where they’ve been prone to a number of interference penalties. Aaron Rodgers may have a field day on streaks and post-routes where he leads the receiver, trying to not only spread the field, but draw Chicago into making desperate moves to prevent a home run. Cutler and Rodgers are both smart enough to take advantage of any lack of discipline shown on the other side of the ball. If the game ends up being a high-scoring affair, I’d say at least ¼ of the yards given up by either side will be from penalties.
And now we come to any opposing team’s biggest nightmare from the Bears. Sticking Devin Hester on the other end of the field on punt returns is enough to cast a shadow of doubt over the punter’s head. Hester’s broken three punts for touchdowns this season, and is averaging a staggering 17.1 yards a return (on a reasonable 33 returns). Tim Masthay, the Packers’ young punter, isn’t the best at angling punts, nor is he particularly known for showcasing a strong leg (37.6 yards a punt per net average), so this raises a few eyebrows. 25 of Masthay’s 71 punts have gone inside the 20, but Hester wouldn’t hesitate to try and take one or two of them back, given that he can outrun anyone on the field. Any score that Green Bay can net for itself can immediately be nullified by one regrettable punt that goes Devin Hester’s way.
I’m 0-2 in picking Green Bay’s playoff games. I figured the Philadelphia Eagles would edge them out, and then I was way off when I said Atlanta would hem them in and host the championship game. Do I continue my string of bad picks and take Chicago? And if I did take them, would that be a bad pick? I look at it like this: the Bears were able to frustrate Aaron Rodgers for nearly 3 whole quarters in a game that meant nothing to them. The more I think about it, the more I figure perhaps Rod Marinelli understands Rodgers’ tendencies better than anyone else. I think we’re going to see a game with more finesse than we’re used to seeing out of the Bears and Packers (especially historically), but I think Jay Cutler stuns the world, outplays Rodgers, and with great defensive output, brings the George Halas Trophy home.
SCORE: Bears 23, Packers 17
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