NFL Nation: 2011 quick takes nfc

Quick Take: Packers at Bears

January, 16, 2011
1/16/11
7:58
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears NFC Championship Game:

1. The numbers are in. The Packers and Bears have made the playoffs in the same season in only four years of the rivalry's 89-year history. Next Sunday will mark the second postseason game between them; the Bears won a 33-14 Western Division playoff in 1941 at Wrigley Field. This season, the teams split the season series, with each team winning at its home stadium. Overall, the Bears own a 92-83-6 advantage in the series. One more number: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 7-3 when the game-time temperature is 30 degrees or below. He has 25 touchdowns and five interceptions in those games.

2. The game will feature two quarterbacks coming off historic performances. As we suggested Saturday night, Aaron Rodgers played one of the better playoff games of this generation, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards while accounting for four touchdowns in a 48-21 victory against the Atlanta Falcons. Rodgers' 81.6 completion percentage was the fifth-best in NFL postseason history, and he became the first quarterback to throw 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games. Meanwhile, the Bears' Jay Cutler also accounted for four touchdowns in a 35-24 victory against the Seattle Seahawks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Cutler became only the second quarterback in NFL history to both pass and run for multiple touchdowns in a playoff game. The other was Otto Graham, who did it in 1954 and 1955 for the Cleveland Browns.

3. Familiar, shamiliar. The Bears and Packers have been playing each other for nearly a century, but don't rule out a few schematic surprises. It will be especially interesting to watch the back-and-forth between a pair of notorious mad scientists, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "With the coaches that are going against each other, coach Martz and coach Capers, there will be some new stuff out there," Bears center Olin Kreutz said. "So we'll be ready." Sunday, Martz provided a preview with three Wildcat plays -- including a pass from tailback Matt Forte -- and an early emphasis on targeting tight end Greg Olsen.

Quick Take: Packers at Falcons

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
10:06
PM ET
Three things to know about Saturday's Atlanta Falcons-Green Bay Packers divisional-round playoff game:

1. Tough draw. Of the three teams they could have drawn out of the wild-card round the Packers probably are the team the Falcons least wanted to see. Seattle, which went 7-9 in the regular season and would have had to travel across the country, would have been the top choice. There also were some people in the organization wishing the Falcons would draw their NFC South rival, the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans won in Atlanta late in the season and some Saints posed for pictures on the Falcons’ logo. The Saints said it wasn’t a sign of disrespect, but the Falcons didn’t see it that way. There would have been plenty of motivation for revenge if the Saints were coming back to the Georgia Dome. Although they are the No.6 seed, the Packers are hot right now and that makes them more dangerous than Seattle or New Orleans would have been.

2. The sequel. When the Packers came to the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan took a huge step in his growth process. With the game tied, 17-17, and 49 seconds left, Ryan calmly led the Falcons on a six-play drive to set up a game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant. This game could be another huge challenge for Ryan as he tries to establish himself as an elite quarterback. He can win his first playoff game. Ryan’s only other playoff appearance came in a loss to Arizona in his rookie season.

3. Not a rookie anymore. One player I think could make a big difference in this game is Atlanta rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. He started the season well and was showing signs he could make some big plays happen. But Weatherspoon got banged up and missed some time. When he came back, he was used as more of a situational player in a rotation with Stephen Nicholas. But the bye week gave Weatherspoon some time to get rested. He’s fully healthy and he should be comfortable with the defensive system by now. Don’t be surprised if he plays a bigger role in this game.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Bears

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
9:35
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday afternoon's Seattle Seahawks-Chicago Bears divisional-round playoff game at Soldier Field:

1. It's hard to imagine the Bears overlooking the Seahawks. In Week 6, the Seahawks pulled off a 23-20 victory at Soldier Field, sacking quarterback Jay Cutler six times and limiting him to 17 completions in 39 attempts. The Bears' defense, meanwhile, never sacked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and didn't force a turnover. The Bears are a much different (and better) team now, but surely they're aware of how well Hasselbeck played in knocking the New Orleans Saints out of the playoffs Saturday. They aren't likely to be overconfident. Just ask former Bears defensive end Alex Brown, who was on the losing end Saturday as a member of the Saints. By the way, if you're interested, the line on this game opened at 9.5 points.

2. For what it's worth, the Bears beat every team they played twice this season at least once. That make sense? They swept the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings while splitting their season series with the Green Bay Packers. So they are 5-1 in this scenario. Does that mean they're destined to beat the Seahawks on Sunday? You decide.

3. That Week 6 loss might have been the height of Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz's hubris. Martz called 39 passing plays and only 14 runs despite the pass-protection issues his team was having. The Bears have since balanced themselves out and should have a chance at some decent success on the ground Sunday. The Seahawks allowed an average of 118.9 rushing yards per game during the regular season, the second-most among playoff teams. If Cutler needs to throw 39 passes in this game, the Bears should be worried.

Quick Take: Packers at Falcons

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
9:07
PM ET
Three things to know about Saturday night's Green Bay Packers-Atlanta Falcons divisional-round playoff game at the Georgia Dome:

1. The Packers have been eagerly looking forward to a postseason rematch with the Falcons after a close and highly entertaining game in Week 12. In that Nov. 28 contest at the Georgia Dome, the Packers drove 90 yards on 16 plays for a game-tying touchdown with 56 seconds remaining. But the Falcons won on Matt Bryant's 47-yard field goal after a long kickoff return and a face-mask penalty put them about 20 yards from field goal range. "We thought we left a lot out there on the field in that game," cornerback Charles Woodson said Sunday. "There was some stops that we could have made all throughout that game defensively that we didn't make the stop on. ... We felt like we left some football out there on the field. This time that won't happen."

2. The Packers are in a groove. Green Bay will have a short week of preparation, while the Falcons will have had two weeks off by game time. But the Packers wouldn't have it any other way. The way they see it, Sunday evening's victory was their third consecutive playoff win. In truth, they went into postseason mentality in Week 16, knowing they could guarantee an actual postseason berth by victories in their final two regular-season games. Defeating the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in successive weeks seemed to have them in the appropriate mindset Sunday and moving forward. "No doubt about it," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. Said cornerback Tramon Williams: "I'm not sure if anyone wants to play us right now."

3. Two of the savviest young field generals in the NFL will square off in this game. Rodgers produced a 122.5 passer rating Sunday in winning his first playoff game. Meanwhile, the Falcons' Matt Ryan has lost only twice at the Georgia Dome in his three-year career. It could be the first of many postseason battles between these two quarterbacks.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Bears

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
8:16
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday's Seattle Seahawks-Chicago Bears divisional-round playoff game at Soldier Field:

1. Seattle heads to Chicago with confidence. The Seahawks claimed their most impressive victory of the regular season, 23-20, at Soldier Field in Week 6. The defense sacked Jay Cutler six times and held Chicago to zero third-down conversions in 12 chances. Seattle used extra defensive backs in its blitz packages to great effect. Defensive backs had 4.5 of the six sacks. Marshawn Lynch made his Seattle debut in this game and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt. Mike Williams caught 10 passes for 123 yards in his first breakout game as a Seahawk. Rookie left tackle Russell Okung started and finished a game for the first time in his NFL career. This performance embodied coach Pete Carroll's vision for the team.

2. The Bears are a different team now. Chicago ran the ball only 14 times against Seattle, matching a season low. The Seahawks controlled the game -- Chicago scored on a punt return in the final two minutes to make it closer -- but the Bears never really tried to run. Chicago has made a more concerted effort to balance its offense as the season has progressed. The Bears averaged 29.8 carries per game over an eight-game period ending in Week 16. Matt Forte rushed for at least 91 yards in five of the Bears' final six games. Seattle lost its best run defender, Red Bryant, for the season two weeks after playing Chicago.

3. The Seahawks are 3-1 in rematches. Seattle won both its games against the Cardinals and has never been swept under Carroll. They beat the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints in rematches after losing the first time. They won the tactical battles in both victories, including when they used play-action fakes to get tight end John Carlson open for two touchdowns against New Orleans' gambling defense in the wild-card round. The Seahawks' one defeat in a rematch this season: a 40-21 blowout at San Francisco featuring four Hasselbeck interceptions.

Quick Take: Saints at Seahawks

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
11:45
PM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Seattle Seahawks wild-card game:

1. Seattle will need more offense. The Saints scored at least 30 points five times in the second half of the regular season. The Seahawks reached 30 points only three times all season. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's status will be key. The Seahawks made him the No. 2 quarterback Sunday night after Hasselbeck did not practice until Friday. Backup Charlie Whitehurst appeared mostly tentative in relief as the offense stalled repeatedly. Hasselbeck played one of his best games against New Orleans on Nov. 14. He completed 72.7 percent of his passes for 366 yards and a 104.9 passer rating in the Superdome. Hasselbeck has four touchdowns and 10 interceptions since that game.

2. Venue matters. The Seahawks would have virtually no chance to win a road game against New Orleans. The dynamics change at Qwest Field. The Saints remain the favorite, of course, but Drew Brees has struggled with turnovers this season. Turning over the ball on the road in the playoffs can swing a game. It's probably Seattle's best hope. The Saints went 1-1 in games played in the West this season, losing at Arizona and needing overtime to beat San Francisco.

3. Tackling must be a point of emphasis. Brees enjoyed a strong game against Seattle last time, but running back Chris Ivory set the tone for New Orleans early. His hard running seemed to catch the Seahawks' defense off-guard. The Saints will have Reggie Bush this time, presenting additional problems (Bush missed the previous matchup). No matter which running back is on the field for the Saints, Seattle must improve upon the fundamentals. The Seahawks did manage to contain Steven Jackson on Sunday night, and Michael Turner had a hard time gaining much traction on the ground at Seattle two weeks ago. But the Saints' offensive line will hold a significant advantage against Seattle's defensive front.

Quick Take: Saints at Seahawks

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
11:34
PM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Seattle Seahawks wild-card game:

1. Is Seattle’s home-field advantage really a disadvantage for the Saints? Qwest Field can be very loud and the weather could be a factor. But this Saints team doesn't seem to know the difference between home and the road.

In the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Saints have lost only four games on the road. One of those losses was at Carolina at the end of the 2009 season when the Saints were resting their starters. The Saints played perhaps their worst game of the last two years at Arizona earlier this season. But the only other road losses came this year against quality teams, Atlanta and Baltimore.

The logistics of a short week and traveling to the Pacific Northwest are a challenge. But the Saints are experienced at handling inconvenient situations. They traveled to London in 2008 (and won) and have practiced on the road several times in recent years when hurricanes were approaching New Orleans. Playing a team that was only 7-9 in the regular season isn't the biggest challenge the Saints have faced.

2. Don’t look for a repeat of the regular-season matchup in which the New Orleans defense allowed 424 yards of offense to Seattle. The Saints won that game 34-19, but the Seahawks moved the ball with ease. Matt Hasselbeck passed for 366 yards in that game.

But the Saints have been better on defense recently. They always are aggressive on defense, but they may be even more aggressive than usual against Seattle. Hasselbeck has been banged up and Charlie Whitehurst doesn’t have a lot of experience. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is likely to throw a lot of blitzes at whoever is playing quarterback for the Seahawks.

3. The running game will be a key. Chris Ivory ran for 99 yards in the regular season meeting. Seattle’s run defense has been among the weakest in the league. The Saints need to exploit that weakness to keep the Seahawks from devoting too much attention to the passing game.

But Ivory and Pierre Thomas both have been banged up and Julius Jones hasn’t done much when given playing time. The Saints have brought Reggie Bush back slowly from his broken leg. But it might be time to give Bush a little added work.

Quick take: Packers at Eagles

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
8:35
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Green Bay Packers-Philadelphia Eagles wild-card game:

1. The Green Bay Packers are responsible for the Michael Vick Phenomenon, circa 2010. It was the Packers, specifically linebacker Clay Matthews, who knocked out Philadelphia Eagles starter Kevin Kolb in a Week 1 game at Lincoln Financial Field. Vick rushed for 103 yards and rallied the Eagles from a 27-10 fourth-quarter deficit. Matthews stopped him on a fourth-down rushing attempt to seal a 27-20 victory, but Vick's performance while Kolb recovered from his concussion ultimately won him the Eagles' starting job. "We're going to have our hands full," Matthews said. "We know what kind of a caliber player he is. We're going to have to shut him down to have a chance."

2. Before winning in Week 1, the Packers had lost nine consecutive games in Philadelphia. (And we won't even bring up 4th-and-26.) But the only thing that matters is what this Packers team has done this season. And in 2010, the Packers were 3-5 on the road. But two of those victories came against playoff teams -- the Eagles and New York Jets -- and overall the Packers are 21-19 on the road since coach Mike McCarthy took over in 2006. This is a team that won't be unsettled by playing in a relatively unfamiliar environment.

3. Many observers will use "attacking" and "multiple" as adjectives to describe the Eagles' defense. But the same thing can be said about the Packers. In Sunday's 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, the Packers blitzed a defensive back on 19 plays, including 16 in the second half. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is every bit as unpredictable as Eagles coordinator Sean McDermott, who has inherited and expanded the scheme created by the late Jim Johnson.

Quick Take: Packers at Eagles

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
8:13
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday’s Packers-Eagles wild-card game:

1. Can the Philadelphia Eagles recover from two consecutive losses to end the season? I don't think a season-ending loss to the Cowboys on Sunday will have a major impact because the Eagles left most of their stars on the sideline. In fact, it was pretty impressive that a bunch of backups nearly handed the full-strength Cowboys a loss. But the loss to Minnesota last Tuesday is still baffling. The Eagles actually had something to play for in that game, and they didn't show up. If Michael Vick continues to recover from his quadriceps injury and DeSean Jackson's foot heals, the Eagles should regain their devastating speed. Resting the starters against the Cowboys was the right move. Now, the Eagles will face one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers. The Chicago Bears held the Packers down for much of Sunday's game, but Rodgers was able to connect with Greg Jennings on a gorgeous throw to set up the winning touchdown.

2. Michael Vick began his remarkable season against this team. When Kevin Kolb left the Eagles' season-opener against the Packers with a concussion, Vick was sensational in relief. He threw for 175 yards and a touchdown to go along with 103 rushing yards. He famously said after the game that he thought the Eagles would've won had he been on the field the entire time. Andy Reid ended up making Vick the starter, and the rest is history. But this week, the sixth-seeded Packers will be game-planning for Vick. Cornerback Charles Woodson may be headed to the Pro Bowl, but I believe that Tramon Williams has had the better season. The Packers' defensive backs will try to be physical with Jackson and Jeremy Maclin at the line of scrimmage. The Packers held Jay Cutler and the Bears to a field goal Sunday in bailing out what is normally a prolific offense. Why did the Bears play their starters when nothing was on the line? It's probably because they desperately wanted to keep a dangerous team such as the Packers out of the playoffs. I think the Eagles would've preferred playing the Giants a third time to playing the Packers again.

3. The Eagles' secondary is about to encounter perhaps the best group of receivers in the league. The Packers' receivers do a tremendous job of running after the catch, as the Giants learned last week. If Rodgers gets in a groove early, the Eagles could be in trouble. The Eagles have given up 31 passing touchdowns this season, which ranks them right behind the Cowboys in terms of worst in the NFC. Rodgers thrives on finding his receivers on crossing routes and watching them add 20 or 30 yards to the play. The Eagles' defensive backs must do a much better job tackling against this group. The Eagles have the offensive firepower to keep up in a shootout, but Reid doesn't want it to come to that. Philadelphia's biggest flaw is its defense, and the Packers have the weapons to expose it. Fortunately for the Eagles, the Packers' offensive tackles have struggled at times. This is the type game when defensive end Trent Cole's ability to get leverage will help in a big way. And the Eagles must figure out a way to keep defensive end Juqua Parker from playing too many snaps. D-end Darryl Tapp made some nice plays against the Cowboys on Sunday and the Eagles need him to continue his strong play. But I can't imagine a better first-round matchup than this. If you can think of the last No. 6 seed that looked this scary, let me know.

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