Sunday, January 16, 2011
NFC playoff Q&A: No stopping Packers
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
The NFC playoff picture just became much clearer and not merely because we now know the participants in next Sunday's championship game. It's because we can see that the Green Bay Packers are the team to beat. Anybody who saw that team's 48-21 demolition of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons should've come away with that impression. The Packers can't be stopped.
Now that doesn't take anything away from the Chicago Bears. They did what they were supposed to do by extinguishing the hopes of the upstart Seattle Seahawks as quickly as possible. In posting a 35-24 victory, the Bears looked cool and efficient, which is exactly the attitude you want at this time of year. Now they have to be equally steady against a Packers team riding a dangerous wave of both emotion and momentum.
Given the long history between these two NFC North rivals, it should be a game that lives up to the hype. But before we get to next Sunday's meeting, here are 10 questions worth pondering in the interim:
1. Will Aaron Rodgers stay this hot?
Yes. Even without the help of a cozy dome or a wounded secondary -- the Falcons didn't have nickelback Brian Williams available Sunday -- Rodgers has an eerie vibe to his game right now. He riddled Atlanta for 366 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-36 passing. He displayed the kind of savvy decision-making that made the Packers practicably unstoppable on every possession in the game. Most important, he kept pushing his teammates even when that game was no longer in question. As proof, Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings said Rodgers shot him a nasty glare after Jennings slipped on a route when the score was 42-21. The message, as Jennings explained later, was clear: The Packers aren't about to let up at this time of the year. "He was pretty perturbed, but that's his mindset right now," Jennings said. "It's scary when you have a guy who's approaching things like that."
Jay Cutler's decision-making has been impressive in the Bears' past five wins.
2. What does Jay Cutler have to do to beat Green Bay?
Keep playing as efficiently as he has been. Cutler wasn't electric Sunday -- he threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns -- but the Chicago quarterback's decision-making was especially impressive. He didn't force many passes into tight coverage and he also scrambled at times to keep the chains moving. In short, he managed a great game, which is what it takes to defuse the Packers' constant blitz packages. What's also too often ignored about Cutler is how consistent he has become. Aside from two games down the stretch -- a blowout loss to New England and a meaningless season-ending defeat at Green Bay -- he has posted a quarterback rating of 100.0 or higher in each of his past five wins. That means the meltdown performance that his critics keep waiting for isn't going to happen this coming weekend.
3. Can Green Bay's defense stay this hot?
Yes. As well as the Bears' offense played in Chicago's win over Seattle, the Bears don't have nearly the weapons that Green Bay faced in the Packers' first two playoff wins. Green Bay first contained Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers then shut down a Falcons offense that boasted four Pro Bowlers who all turned invisible Saturday (quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez). At this stage, it's fair to say the Packers have hit their stride on that side of the ball. "Every week we put in a good game plan and we've just been going out and executing," said Packers Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins. "We're really playing at a high level."
4. Which Greg Olsen will show up Sunday?
It all depends on how smart Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants to look for a second straight week. Olsen is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end when used correctly and he displayed that with three receptions, 113 yards and a 58-yard touchdown against Seattle. Granted, he often was working against a past-his-prime safety in Lawyer Milloy. But that doesn't change the overall results. Olsen could've had far more games like that this season -- when he caught only 41 passes -- if he hadn't been so involved in pass protection early on. Against a talented Packers secondary, he'll have to be on top of his game.
5. How much will a third consecutive road game affect the Packers?
Not as much you'd think for a squad that went 3-5 away from Lambeau Field this season. Green Bay has been in playoff mode since there were three weeks left in the regular season. Aside from losing a close game at New England with Rodgers sidelined, all the Packers have done since that point is rip off four straight wins. What's most impressive about that run is that all four of those victories came against teams that won at least 10 games this season. The Packers also know that home-field advantage doesn't matter much at this point if you run into the wrong team. They were favored at home in the 2007 NFC Championship Game, only to watch the New York Giants advance to and eventually win that season's Super Bowl. "That experience is going to help us a lot," Collins said. "That game left a bitter feeling in a lot of people in this locker room and we want to finish the job this time."
6. Who could be Chicago's surprise hero in the NFC Championship Game?
We'll go with defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Talk about coming back from the dead. Harris lost his job earlier this season but now he's had three sacks in his past two games, including two in the win over Seattle. There was a time when the 27-year-old Harris -- who has been to three Pro Bowls -- was as dominant an interior defender as you could find in pro football. More recently, he has been known for being injury-prone and underachieving. It looks as if he has gotten the message from his benching. Now the Bears need him to keep proving that his best days aren't behind him.
Packers receiver Jordy Nelson has become a security blanket for Aaron Rodgers.
7. Who could be Green Bay's surprise hero in the NFC Championship Game?
Don't be surprised if wide receiver Jordy Nelson comes up big in this contest. Though he's basically the Packers' fourth receiver, he still caught 45 passes this season and he had eight receptions to go along with a touchdown in Saturday's win. In fact, Nelson looks as though he's becoming a nice security blanket for Rodgers, who often found the 6-foot-3, 217-pound receiver against Atlanta when all other options failed. That's a huge weapon to have against a Bears defense that will look to stifle big-play targets such as Jennings. Given the likelihood of inclement weather, Nelson's talents as a possession receiver will be even more critical.
8. What's the most important matchup in this contest?
The Bears' offensive line versus the Packers' front seven. Many people know that Chicago has had pass-protection problems throughout the season (the Bears gave up a league-worst 56 sacks) while Green Bay has been proficient at harassing quarterbacks (the Packers' 47 sacks tied them for second most in the league). What tends to get overlooked is how the Bears contained a steady array of Packers blitz packages in a 20-17 win on Sept. 27. Green Bay had three sacks in that game, but Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (13.5 sacks this season) didn't have any. If the Bears can keep Matthews & Co. off Cutler, this game will go to the Bears.
9. How much will familiarity matter on Sunday?
It will be huge. These teams know each other's strengths and weaknesses so it will be hard to pull off any surprises. They also understand how little the outcomes of their regular-season meetings will impact this contest. The Bears won the first game but the Packers didn't help themselves with 18 penalties. Green Bay then exacted some revenge with a 10-3 win in the season finale, but the Bears didn't have anything to play for that day (even though head coach Lovie Smith kept his starters in all game). The one thing that can be predicted in this game is the slim possibility of a blowout. This one will be tight from start to finish, particularly because that frigid Soldier Field weather isn't going to rattle Green Bay.
10. Who is going to win the NFC championship?
It's hard to pick against the Bears. When you come into the postseason with a first-round bye and two games at home, your chances of advancing in the playoffs skyrocket. But each of the past five years the NFL postseason has given us one surprise team that has roared through the playoffs with little initial fanfare. Right now the Packers look very much like that team. And come Sunday night, they'll be representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLV. "We are a championship-caliber football team," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "And we feel very good about what we've done and the brand of football that we play."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.