Chicago Bears: NFC Championship Game
Cutler suffered a left knee injury during the second quarter, and tried to return. After one offensive possession, Cutler was held out before the club’s second possession, and replaced by Collins, who went 0-for-4 in two series.
Interestingly, the club didn’t appear to be treating Cutler on the sidelines, but declared him “questionable.” In fact, the team still hasn’t declared Cutler out for the game. (It's a fairly moot point, however. Now that Hanie has entered the game, the Bears won't be able to use Cutler or Collins because of the NFL's rules regarding the third quarterback.)
The Packers, meanwhile, haven’t been able to move the ball effectively after a hot first half by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers' passer rating has dipped to 56.9 and he's now thrown two interceptions.
CHICAGO -- Both teams are warming up here at Soldier Field in preparation for the NFC Championship Game, and footing on the playing surface doesn’t appear to be any more of an issue than it’s been in the past.
A few inches of snow fell overnight and left the south end zone somewhat of a muddy mess. Groundskeepers appear to have painted over both end zones. In the area closest to the visitor’s sideline in the end zone, there are huge divots and chunks of mud from the Packers conducting pre-game warm-ups.
Still, the loose surface didn’t appear to cause any players to slip during warmups.
Just after removing the blue tarp covering the field, groundskeepers opened several bags of reddish dirt to spread in slick areas around the field, and into the divots on the field.
With kickoff approximately a half hour away, the field is already showing signs of wear, but it doesn’t appear to be significant enough to give either team an advantage.
Three keys for the Bears
Run the ball: Establishing Matt Forte and the rushing attack is important for two reasons. First of all it, takes pressure off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who will likely be under a heavy Packers blitz for a good portion of his dropbacks. Secondly, it keeps Green Bay’s red-hot offense off the field, while wearing down its defense. What’s most important for the Bears is to achieve balance between the run and pass. Forte averaged 6.1 yards per carry the last time these teams met, but the Bears pretty much abandoned their running game after handing off to the running back just 15 times.
Eliminate big plays and make Rodgers dink and dunk: Aaron Rodgers completed passes to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson for gains of 46, 25, and 21 yards during the Week 17 matchup. That’s too many long gains. The Bears need to limit Rodgers to minimal dink-and-dunk completions, which extend the plays in a scoring drive while upping the chances for drive-killing mistakes such as sacks, penalties and turnovers. By generating pressure with the front four led by Julius Peppers and keeping seven players in coverage, the Bears should be able to force Rodgers to be patient and settle for they give him. If the Bears find a way to do that, the Packers will have a difficult time putting points on the board.
Three keys for the Packers
Pressure Jay Cutler: Green Bay needs to take full advantage of its ferocious defensive front and ball-hawking secondary by putting plenty of pressure on Cutler, who is susceptible to making questionable decisions when flustered by the rush. Green Bay’s myriad nickel blitzes and multiple fronts typically create confusion in the protection schemes of offensive lines. Given all the struggles the Bears have experienced up front, that would seem to be an ideal formula. The Packers sacked Cutler nine times in two meetings during the regular season. Tack on some additional sacks, and the Packers can increase their chances of walking away victorious.
Establish James Starks: Brandon Jackson gained just 12 yards on seven attempts in the Week 3 meeting between the teams. Starks rushed for just 20 yards on five carries in the Week 17 matchup in which the Packers leaned heavily on the passing game. By establishing Starks, the Packers can prevent Chicago from forcing them to be one dimensional. Then, Green Bay would have the Bears on the ropes because they’d be forced to devote a member of their already-average secondary to run support. In addition, the threat of Starks as a runner would help the Packers to establish play-action and bootleg passes that would get Rodgers on the move, where he’s most dangerous.
The Packers punted eight times in the last meeting between the teams, but Hester was able to return just two of them (for 35 yards) because of a masterful job of directional punting by Masthay.
Masthay knows he won’t be able to get off booming punts in the frigid air at Soldier Field, but considers placement more important than distance when kicking to Hester, the game’s most dynamic return man.
By the numbers158: Total playoff games played between the 46 Bears on the 53-man roster who have postseason experience. Nineteen Bears made their postseason debut last week against the Seahawks.
.632: Chicago’s winning percentage in home playoff games. The Bears are 3-1 in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field.
18: Passes broken up by the Bears defensive line, which ties for third in the NFL. Six of the team’s 21 interceptions during the regular season came as a result of defensive linemen (Peppers 2, Idonije 2, Henry Melton and Tommie Harris) deflecting passes.
21: Quarterback hits recorded by the Packers in the postseason. Matthews leads the team with six.
26: Postseason berths for Green Bay, which has made the playoffs in 13 of the last 18 seasons, and three of the last four years under coach Mike McCarthy.
Throughout the week, I've noticed a few changes in my husband Chris. From the way he walks, to the way he talks, to that "eye of the tiger" look in his eyes, this stranger I once called my husband now exhibits a sense of purpose, focus, determination and confidence that I've never seen, in this magnitude, from him ever before. I must admit that this man -- this stranger -- known as my husband truly has me feeling inspired. I've fallen in love with him and this game all over again.
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Although the Bears put up a valiant effort, Green Bay won the game, qualified for the postseason, and after impressive road victories over Philadelphia and New Orleans, will travel to Soldier Field to take on the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
"It's the biggest rival game in history," Hester said. "It's our third time playing them this year. They won one, we won one. We got to break to tie.
"I've won in the playoffs before. We got one down, two to go. This year, we got to win [the Super Bowl]."
Hester and rest of the Bears' receivers now face the daunting task of breaking through against a physical and talented Packers secondary. Jay Cutler passed for only 168 yards in that Week 17 meeting at Lambeau Field, while Hester and Johnny Knox combined for only one catch for 16 yards. The only receiver who found success was Rashied Davis, who filled in for the injured Earl Bennett, and hauled in seven receptions.