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Fearless Rick's NFL Conference Picks - Early Game

Rick Gagliano | January 23, 2011

All times Eastern - Click here for late game.

Sunday, January 23

Green Bay Packers (-3 1/2, 43 1/2) at Chicago Bears, 3:00 pm - As far as the Chicago Bears are concerned, the Packers need to beat them. After all, the Bears took the division title and split the regular season series with them, each team winning at home, so with the NFC Championship to be played at Soldier Field, Chicago feels they have an edge and probably aren't taking too kindly to being home underdogs according to the oddsmakers in Vegas.

That being understood, the Bears will be facing the most dangerous offensive team in the league, easily the most dangerous of those still standing. Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers may have had the best game of his career last week in Green Bay's crushing 48-21 victory over the #1 NFC seed, the Atlanta Falcons.

Rodgers was 31-for-36, for 366 yards and three touchdowns, plus he rushed for another on a 7-yard option midway through the third quarter. After a XXX fumble on their first drive, the Packers scored touchdowns on their next five possessions and scored on all but one, when Mason Crosby missed from 47 yards out. He made amends by hitting the next two.

What the Bears will be facing is probably the most accurate passer since Kurt Warner, coupled with the best receiving corps since Warner lined up with the "Greatest Show on Turf" and won Super Bowl XXXIV. Wideouts Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones are all rangy, tough and capable of buring opposing defenses inside and out, short and deep. Unless Rodgers is pressured consistently by the Bears' front line and blitzing linebackers, the Packers will gallop up and down the Soldier Field sod like its a track meet.

To counter Rodgers' arm and his armada of pass-catchers, the Bears will resort to two tactics - a ball control offense to limit the Packer offense's tine on the field, and a stunting defense designed to keep the Packers off-balance when they do have the ball.

At the heart of this scheme are two offensive players - quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Cutler, like Rodgers, is at the peak of his game, as evidenced by his 15-for-28, 274 yard, 2 TD performance in the Bears' one-sided, 35-24, win over the Seattle Seahawks in last week's divisional game. The Bears were up 35-10 before allowing two late, meaningless touchdowns and totally dominated a seattle squad which scratched and clawed their way to a 7-9 record and the NFC West title.

The Bears proved much the best last week, but will be facing a much different and more dangerous foe this time around. Cutler will have to direct the offense, employing Forte - who rushed for 80 yards on 25 carries against Seattle - primarily on first down and short yardage situations, but having to put the ball in the air to keep the Packer offense from gaming only the run.

Success for Cutler and Forte will come if the offensive line is able to cut some holes in the Packer defense for Forte and allow Cutler to operate in short yardage situations on second and third downs. If Green Bay stuffs the run, Cutler will be under intense pressure against one of the best secondaries in the league and also a defense which isn't shy about bringing linebackers, safties and cornerbacks into the opposing backfield.


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On defense, the Bears will rely on holding the middle with Tommie Harris and the outside edge with defensive end Julius Peppers. Their secondary is also adept at keeping plays in front of them. Corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman are strong in coverage, but the Packers will line up with four and even five wideouts, putting extra pressure on safety Danieal Manning and linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher to make plays and/or cover much faster men.

From the scores of their previous two encounters these tactics seemed effective. In the first meeting, in which the Bears emerged the 20-17 victor, Rodgers threw for 316 yards, but produced only one TD and was picked off once. The Packers also committed 18 penalties in that game, leading to their demise.


Be.


In the regular season finale at Green Bay, the Packers prevailed 10-3, the Bears held the Pack scoreless until the 3rd quarter, when Mason Crosby kicked a 23-yard field goal. Rodgers got the win - and a Packer playoff berth - with a 1-yard strike to Donald Lee early in the 4th quarter. While the Bears again kept Rodgers in check with just one TD and one pick, Cutler and the Bears' offense could only muster 3 points and 227 yards of offense.

The rivalry here is deep and intense, and though the Packers seem to be flying high at the moment, the Bears plan to bring Rodgers and Co. down to earth. Besides the Packer offense and the hottest QB on the planet, there's trouble for the Bears against the Packer defense. while not highly-touted and probably overshadowed by the offense, Green Bay's defense is statistically better than the Bears' both in points allowed (15.0 to 17.9) and yardage allowed (309.1 to 314.3). The Bears have the edge on rushing defense, but that's nullified by the Packers having a stats edge in passing yards allowed. They ranked fifth in the league at 194.2 yards per game, while the Bears were in the middle of the league, at 224.3.

Since the Packers do the majority of their offensive damage though the air, it is paramount for the Bears to keep the ball out of Rodgers' hands, though that seems a tall task at this juncture. If Rodgers plays up to expectations, the Packers will dominate and Cutler will be tasked with having to throw into a ball-hawking defense which produced an NFC-best 24 interceptions. Since Cutler has often displayed a tendency to err in his throws, it would not be a surprise for the Packers to pick him off more than once and give Green Bay's potent offense excellent field position.

The Bears have a lethal weapon in return man Devin Hester, but the Packers will likely keep the ball away from him or try to hem him in with coverage on any punts.

This one may be close for a while and the Bears could benefit from a windy day if the weather's on their side, but there appears to be little in the way of stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since they lost to Denver, 31-24 in 1998.

Prediction: Packers 31 Bears 21

All times Eastern - Click here for late game

Copyright 2010, 2011, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.

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