Matchups for the NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field:
When the Packers
have the ball
Until the playoffs began, the Packers were a pass first, second, third and all the time team. QB Aaron Rodgers (12) did not have a go-to running back all season after Ryan Grant was hurt. Rodgers even was the second-leading rusher during a 10-6 season.
But in Philadelphia for the wild-card round, rookie RB James Starks (44) emerged with 123 yards rushing, and he had 66 tough yards against Atlanta. The Bears must be aware that Green Bay will try to run, although Rodgers not only is the Packers' main weapon, he's been the top quarterback in the playoffs.
A pass rush is a must for the Bears, which means DLs Julius Peppers (90) and Israel Idonije (71) have to be factors early and often. LBs Brian Urlacher (54) and Lance Briggs (55) had strong years and need to get after Rodgers.
Greg Jennings (85), Donald Driver (80), James Jones (89) and Jordy Nelson (87) are a formidable receiving corps, but Rodgers will find anyone in a Packers uniform. He also has scrambling skills and will take off when a play breaks down, making something out of nothing. Again, Urlacher and Briggs will be the keys to short-circuiting Rodgers' runs.
Green Bay's offensive line has improved throughout the season, with RG Josh Sitton (71) the standout. He'll see lots of DTs Tommie Harris (91) and Anthony Adams (95).
The Bears need to be aggressive in coverage with CBs Charles Tillman (33), Tim Jennings (28) and D.J. Moore (30) certain to be busy. Chicago's best secondary player is safety Chris Harris. If Harris is able to roam despite a hip injury, he could be a difference maker.
When the Bears have the ball
Chicago was 4-3 going into its off week, and the offense got something of an overhaul. Coordinator Mike Martz and coach Lovie Smith reined in QB Jay Cutler (6), cutting down his erratic play; revamped the offensive line, where C Olin Kreutz (57) is the leader; and became more dependent on RB Matt Forte (22).
Forte responded with 1,069 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Cutler also responded and the Bears won seven of nine to win the NFC North ahead of Green Bay.
Cutler, who like Rodgers is mobile - he had two TDs rushing and two passing against Seattle last week, tying a record set in 1954 and '55 by Otto Graham - has advantage over his quarterback buddy (they text each other frequently, although presumably not this week). Greg Olsen (82) is an elite tight end, even if he doesn't get much notice. Olsen was unstoppable against the Seahawks.
The Packers can be run on and that's what Chicago wants to do from the outset. If Green Bay gets stingy on the ground, WRs Johnny Knox (13), Earl Bennett (80) and Devin Hester (23) need to win matchups with top-notch CBs Charles Woodson (21) and Tramon Williams (38), whose 70-yard interception return helped do in Atlanta last Saturday. That's a very tough chore for Chicago.
One key could be backup RB Chester Taylor (29), who along with Forte can be dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. Checkdowns could provide a lifeblood for the Bears, except that sensational LB Clay Matthews (52) is certain to be nearby. Matthews is the Pack's difference maker on D.
The edge here belongs to Chicago. Atlanta's Eric Weems returned a kickoff for a TD against the Packers last week, and Chicago has a superb punt returner in the record-setting Hester. He ran back three punts for scores and could see action on kickoffs, too. Danieal Manning (38) normally is used on kickoffs.
Chicago also covers well, Green Bay not so much.
Robbie Gould (9) made 25 of 30 field goals and has range. The tricky winds at Soldier Field won't bother him, but they also shouldn't be a factor for Green Bay's Mason Crosby (2), who hit 22 of 28 tries. Both have made plenty of clutch kicks.
Both punters, veteran Brad Maynard (4) for Chicago and first-year player Tim Masthay (8) for Green Bay, are efficient if not spectacular. Maynard certainly has the edge in experience.
Smith and the Packers' Mike McCarthy each should get support in Coach of the Year balloting.
Not much was expected from the Bears this season, even after they started 3-0. But their play in the final two months of the schedule was impressive as they showed they can win with offense or defense, complemented by strong special teams.
Martz, in particular, deserves some credit for taming his own gambling instincts and, in turn, taming those of Cutler. The improvement on the offensive line also stems from the coaching.
Rod Marinelli might get ridiculed for overseeing the only 0-16 team in NFL history while he was the Lions' head coach, but he's a fine defensive coordinator who got the most out of Peppers, not always an easy assignment.
McCarthy and his staff have dealt with an unfair number of injuries - 15 on injured reserve including six key defensive players, Grant and TE Jermichael Finley - yet found the kind of depth that carries teams deep into the playoffs. Green Bay has peaked in the last month, with Rodgers playing the best football of his career.
Dom Capers' defense is fast, smart and aggressive, led by second-year LB Matthews, veteran Woodson and NT B.J. Raji (90).