Just a couple days away from one of the most anticipated games in a long time for Packer fans. I’m confident but still nervous.
- The Packers have been playing well lately. In their last 5 games, they have lost once – to NE at NE with a back-up QB…and they almost pulled off the upset. They have won 4 in a row since then – knocking off teams with a combined record of 44-20. They beat the Giants to essentially knock them out of the playoffs, the Bears with all their starters in Week 17, the NFC East Champion Eagles and the #1 seeded Atlanta Falcons – in Atlanta in a blowout. The Packers have been the hottest team in the playoffs.
- I’ll keep saying it – ever since the Detroit loss, something has changed in Mike McCarthy. The way he talks, the way he responds to the press, his demeanor – and most importantly, the way he coaches. The guy is a changed man. His coaching has been top-notch lately – particularly his play-calling. I think what happened is that he was so upset by the Detroit loss that he stopped caring about what people were saying about him. That loss hit him personally. In a sense, he kind of became like Peter Gibbons in Office Space. He very suddenly seemed far less concerned about what people were saying and less defensive in his press conferences. He even became less guarded when he was talking – speaking a bit more freely. McCarthy has simply grown more confident in himself – and this has manifested itself in his confident play-calling, his willingness to take a chance on the inexperienced Starks and even in plays like the onside kick vs NE. His confidence has spread to his team and this is a big reason the Packers have made it this far.
- Good Jay vs Bad Jay – I wrote about this in my picks column at http://www.dailycaller.com too. The evidence is quite convincing – when he’s good he’s really good and when he’s bad he’s really bad. The difference between his average QB rating in wins vs losses is huge. Before the season I thought the Bears would be good and I thought the Cutler/Martz duo would work out eventually. It has. But Cutler himself is still prone to the multiple turnover game that can really drag the Bears down. Which Jay will show up Sunday? My guess is Bad Jay (not right away, but eventually).
- Cutler’s Mind vs Rodgers’ Mind – next to stopping Forte, this is most important factor in the game. Rodgers has developed his confidence and has improved his body language out on the field. He had moments of frustration this year and he didn’t always hide it well. But over the last 4-5 games in particular, from what I’ve noticed (because I watch for things like this), he has really improved his body language and by extension, his mental approach. I actually think it helped him to stand on the sidelines and watch the NE game – ever since then he just appears to be so comfortable back there. One clear example of his elevated confidence was how he responded after Atlanta scored first last weekend – and then again how he responded when Weems ran back the kickoff. He didn’t hang his head, look doubtful, act concerned. He simply put his helmet on and confidently drove his team down the field for a TD in each instance. Then, of course, he went on to have one of the best playoff games a QB has ever had. On the other side, Jay Cutler has had a few very good games lately and I would even say that he has demonstrated improved body language over the course of the season. But looks of obvious dejection and frustration after a mistake are still just too much a part of who Cutler is. Bottom line is that if one of these QBs makes a mistake (or his team makes a mistake), I think Rodgers will recover mentally from the mistake more effectively than Cutler. And this could be a not-so-small factor in this game.
- Stopping Matt Forte. As I indicated above, I think this may be the most important factor in this game. When Forte plays well and contributes – Chicago usually wins. When he’s quiet and not so involved, the Bears often lose. (Forte was noticeably not involved in 4 of the Bears 5 losses this year – interestingly, the only exception was his 151 yards against the Packers Week 17). Forte is a huge safety option for Jay Cutler. He is an exceptional receiver out of the backfield and someone Cutler looks to both for designed short pass plays and in emergency situations. When Cutler panics, he tends to throw balls away, get sacked or throw picks – just like most QBs prone to panicking. When Forte or Chester Taylor are not available as the safe option, Cutler is likely to panic. My guess is that if Capers successfully gets the D to diminish Forte’s contributions, Cutler will turn it over 2-3 times.
- The Hester/Masthay factor is well documented and I’d skip it except that there is something I need to point out. Chris Kluwe had a fascinating mini-article within one of Peter King’s articles a few weeks back. He was responding to King after King ripped him for punting it to Hester the previous week. While some of it appeared to be Kluwe making excuses, he did get into some of the technical pieces of directional punting and why it’s so difficult. He said that he often hears that punters should just kick it out, but doing this is much harder than common fans realize. He said if it were easier, more punters would do it well. Assuming he’s right here, Masthay did a really good job of at least pinning Hester near the sideline using good hang-time in the last meeting at Lambeau. If he can do that again, I think the Hester factor could be diminished. But one line drive punt to Hester and the game could change quickly. Odd for a punter to feel the pressure he must be feeling heading into this game.
- On the other side – though I’m not keen on Tramon Williams returning punts, he is massively talented and fast and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that in a game of this magnitude, he could step it up a notch and give the Bears a taste of their own special teams medicine. I’m not going to bet on it, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if a determined Tramon did some return damage himself.
- Our O-Line needs to play pretty close to their potential Sunday. These guys are going to be called upon to run block at least decently and to pass block like they never have before. If they can give Rodgers enough time back there and force Chicago to blitz and bring safeties/LBs up, that could seriously open up the passing game. If they allow the Bears’ 4 D-Linemen to penetrate too much, the Packers could be in real trouble.
- The work of our LBs is important as well. I expect the LBs to take the lead role in shutting down Forte, but also Greg Olsen. The Bears don’t use Olsen much, that was an aberration last week, but he can be another safety option for Cutler in a game when I’m imagining Cutler will be quicker than usual to look for his safety options.
- Raji getting pressure from the middle will be big. He ended up with 6.5 sacks on the season – impressive for a DT (though not as impressive as the Lions’ Suh who had 10). Raji is a force and could be extra disruptive poking a hole in the pocket.
- Mike Martz’ play-calling. I think it would be a huge success if the Packers can lure Martz away from the run early. Martz was criticized throughout the season for abandoning the run and setting Cutler up for lots of sacks/picks because of deep drops. Martz responded by actively working Forte back into games and it paid off. But we all know Martz has an instinct, similar to McCarthy in fact, to pass first, run second. Though Cutler could surprise, I would think a pass first offense for the Bears Sunday would most likely result in a decisive Packer victory.
- Clay Matthews – this could be the kind of game when Matthews makes a lot of noise. While Mike Tice and co have likely been working overtime to scheme against Matthews, something tells me this guy is going to be fired up Sunday and tough to slow down. (If Chicago were smart, they’d dump a few screens over the head of or just around Matthews to keep him honest – the same thing the Pack should do to keep Peppers at bay.)