We've discussed the expected chess match between the Chicago Bears' offense and the Green Bay Packers' defense. We've noted the recent success of the Bears' defense in limiting production from the Packers' offense. Come Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, those battles will be fought closely and could turn on the slimmest of margins.
In reality, the biggest advantage either team will have over the other is on special teams. The Bears are top-notch and, well, the Packers haven't always been.
You would probably recognize that distinction anecdotally after watching both teams this year, but to put it into numbers: Our friends over at Football Outsiders ranked the Bears' special teams No. 1 overall during the regular season. The Packers ranked No. 27 on that scale. Take a look at the chart for more details based on regular season statistics.
On Sunday, the Bears will have the best three special-teams players on the field. Cover man Corey Graham led the NFL with 22 special-teams tackles, according to press box statistics, while returners Devin Hester and Danieal Manning helped the Bears achieve the best average drive start in the league.
The Packers, on the other hand, never established a kickoff returner this season. While punt returner Tramon Williams is an explosive player, he averaged only 7.9 yards per return. And the Packers' coverage has had some disastrous moments, most recently in allowing a 102-yard kickoff return to Eric Weems in the second quarter of an eventual 48-21 victory this past Saturday over the Atlanta Falcons.
"It doesn't make me nervous because these impact returners can do that at any time," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum told reporters Thursday. "Our ball placement wasn't quite by design and we had a couple breakdowns in the structure of the coverage. The big thing is that after that play, we were productive in our kickoff coverage."
You could argue that it only takes one special-teams breakdown to lose a game, but it's only fair to note the Packers had been moving to a better place in the latter stages of the regular season. In fact, they had a particularly productive game in Week 17 against the Bears, downing four of Tim Masthay's eight punts inside the 20-yard line, limiting Hester to 35 yards on two punt returns and getting a 41-yard punt return from Williams.
"That was really good production," Slocum said. "If we could get that [Sunday], I think that would really help us."
Without a doubt. But suffice it to say, the Bears will make a repeat performance awfully difficult.