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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Score to settle: Seahawks vs. Bears

By Mike Sando

Cutler
In their 23-20 win over Chicago in Week 6, the Seahawks sacked Jay Cutler six times.
The Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears needed 130 offensive plays, 18 punts and more than three hours to decide their Week 6 matchup at Soldier Field.

Sizing up their impending divisional-round playoff rematch shouldn't require so much trouble.

"I think Seattle is going to get killed," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "I’m not a believer at all."

Uh, oh. This could get ugly.

"Matt Williamson is the perfect person to offer counterbalance on the Seahawks," NFC West blog regular fundadfor2 wrote. "He couldn't think less of our team or players. Heck, he did a list showing the top 15 or 20 rookies this season, and Earl Thomas wasn't to be found. Neither was Russell Okung. Matt seems to have an axe and is looking for a grinding wheel."

Not quite.

Williamson once ranked the Seahawks 11th when our 11 other panelists had them 17th to 27th. He did single out both Thomas and Okung for praise during various installments of his weekly rookie watch. It's possible Williamson is basing his thoughts on what he saw from Seattle during its nine double-digit defeats this season.

Of course, the Seahawks did win at Chicago 23-20 in that Week 6 game. And they did just shock the New Orleans Saints 41-36 in the wild-card round, with Matt Hasselbeck outdueling Drew Brees.

"Chicago had best hope that this doesn't come down to the QB position," fundadfor2 wrote. "Matt Hasselbeck has been very good in the playoffs, and Jay Cutler -- well, I do believe this is his first sniff of the postseason. The game is different. The pressure is different. ... Cutler is up and down, and I don't expect him to have one of his better days."

This conversation began on the NFC West blog Monday when I threw open the subject for discussion. I also reached out to Williamson and ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, the former Seahawks quarterback and current co-host on 710ESPN Seattle. Huard outlined four keys to the game from Seattle's perspective:
The early kickoff didn't seem to hurt Seattle much against Chicago in Week 6. I don't think it's a big factor for the playoffs. Seattle is arriving Friday, just in case.

And in a surprise, Seattle has collected 22 of its 37 sacks on the road this season, including a season-high six against the Bears. Defensive backs collected 4.5 of those six sacks, however, and Seattle has become more reliant on its defensive ends to pressure quarterbacks lately.

Matt Forte
Matt Forte finished the regular season strong, gaining at least 90 yards in each of the Bears' last three games.
"The Bears win because of their running game and defense," adambballn wrote. "The Saints didn't have the ability to take advantage of the Seahawks' bad run defense due to the amount of injuries they suffered at running back."

No doubt, New Orleans ran out of options at running back with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve. The Saints lacked balance. Drew Brees attempted 60 passes. That played into the Seahawks' strengths in a loud environment. Brees was good, but not good enough to match one of Hasselbeck's most impressive efforts.

"The answer is simple," jogan13 wrote. "Stop Cutler, make him make bad decisions and you will win. The Bears don't play well from behind, especially if they are throwing a lot. Keep the pressure on Cutler, throw in some zone blitzes. In the end, the Seahawks will win by 14 or more."

Sounds optimistic. Cutler actually has much better passing numbers when trailing. He has seven touchdowns and eight picks when leading, but 13 touchdowns and eight picks when trailing. Elias Sports Bureau has all the situational numbers here.

One question I have is whether Martz's pass-happy instincts will prevail under pressure.

"Too many Bears fans ignore the Martz factor," DiLune2 wrote. "NFC West teams/fans are very familiar with him. He will lose his mind in big games. He will absolutely forget he has a running back because he wants to prove how smart he is. I don't see why people expect a different result from him this weekend."

Lovie Smith hit the override button on Martz near midseason. The Bears have become much more of a running team since carrying only 14 times against Seattle. Cutler passed for seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 107.6 rating on play-action attempts this season. That reflects a running threat.

Running back Matt Forte joined Walter Payton as the only players in Bears history with at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.

"Martz has changed everything he believes in and is playing in a wintry town," Williamson said. "Cutler has been very good and the line, though still a weakness, is starting to sort of jell. The defense is top three in the league behind Green Bay and Pittsburgh. They rush four, Julius Peppers is an animal, their defensive line is good, they are good at all levels, they are great tacklers, they are exceptional at causing turnovers and even though Seattle's special teams are fantastic, Chicago is the only one I have ahead of them, mostly because of Devin Hester.

"Simply put," Williamson added,"I think the Bears are a good football team."

OK, but the Seahawks just beat one of those. Hasselbeck burned the Saints' gambling defense for four touchdown passes. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards. Brees had better success against the "Bandit" packages that gave Cutler so much trouble in Week 6, but Brees is better than Cutler, so that wasn't such a shock.

"Lynch will need to have another big game," Hawkfannumber1 wrote. "Hasselbeck will need to be more concerned with turnovers against the Bears' defense, but he also won't need to score as much. I don't think either team will score more that 24 points. The defense will need a different game plan. The Bears will be ready for the 'Bandit' package this time. They will still need to get a ton of pressure on Cutler to get the defense off the field. If Cutler has time, he will play much better. Lastly, don't kick it to Hester."

We should probably mention Leon Washington in here somewhere, too. Opponents have contained Seattle's return specialist in recent weeks. He had a 42-yard kickoff return against the Bears.

That was nearly three months ago. Much has changed.

The Bears were without Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs then. Seattle was without Brandon Mebane, one of the team's best defensive linemen. Okung was making his second NFL start after coming back from ankle problems that have continued to bother him all season. His ability to match up against Peppers proved critical in Week 6.

Russell Okung
Russell Okung's matchup with Bears DE Julius Peppers will be critical for Seattle's offense.
"I think this game hinges on a few things, but the absolute key hinge is Russell Okung," Trynfadethis wrote. "If he can't win his matchup against Julius Peppers, then the Bears dominate. We can assume the Bears will stop the run. That's fine. The question is, if Hasselbeck has time, can they stop Mike Williams, Brandon Stokely, Ben Obomanu, Cameron Morrah and a rediscovered John Carlson? I think it's pretty simple. If the Bears don't change up bigtime on defense, then Seattle will score 24-plus points unless Hasselbeck really just tanks. So then it's on Cutler to score more."

The Bears have scored at least 31 points in two of their past three home games. All three were against playoff teams. They scored 31 against Philadelphia, 38 against the New York Jets and seven against New England.

Cutler did throw six picks over the final four games, though.

"An inexperienced playoff QB (Cutler) with a history of being a head case -- not a good combination," jeff0621 wrote.

"An old QB who hurts himself running five yards with no contact whatsoever -- not a good combination," Les_ Grossman_ countered, alluding to Hasselbeck's ill-fated touchdown run at Tampa Bay in Week 16.

Bears fans and Seahawks fans -- a good combination. Let's bring in a self-described Green Bay fan. Take it away, ZTA.

"With a couple of exceptions, the Bears have been playing solid defense," ZTAclerk wrote. "It's hard to stop the Patriots, as we've seen, and the Jets can be feast-or-famine. Seattle played a really good, balanced game against the Saints and was definitely assisted by the 12th man. If the Seahawks can put together a solid offensive gameplan around a quick Bears defense and keep the special teams from giving the Bears short field, the game can be close. If the special teams fail or the offense lets the Bears' defense dictate the game, I can't see them winning on the road."

ESPN's Trent Dilfer said he thought the Bears would probably hold Seattle to between 13 and 17 points (see video below), putting little pressure on Cutler to do anything out of the ordinary.

The score was 23-20 last time, but Seattle's Jon Ryan punted a season-high 10 times in that game. The 18 combined punts marked a single-game season high for both teams.

Hasselbeck did find Williams for 10 receptions and 123 yards. The temperature was 61 degrees that day, however, and Hasselbeck was rested coming off a bye week. His left wrist had yet to be broken and his hip, which now requires periodic draining, was healthy.

Hasselbeck has thrown 35 interceptions over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. He was hot last week, but consistency has been a problem. Hasselbeck has put together strong performances in back-to-back weeks only once in 2010, and that was after sitting out Week 9. That's why his brilliant performance against the Saints came as such a pleasant surprise for Seattle fans.

"I think what everyone is overlooking is that the Saints' defense completely collapsed in the wild-card game," goldfngr_77 wrote. "How much of that performance was a great offensive outing by the Seahawks (Lynch's eye-popping run not withstanding) and how much was the Saints' defense laying an egg? When you look at the makeup of this Bears defense, they have a lot of playoff experience and many with Super Bowl experience. I don't think you will see them implode at home the way the Saints did on the road, and that will be the difference in the game."

Sounds logical.

Of course, if the wild-card round proved anything, it's that logic doesn't always apply.