Sunday, January 02, 2011

Packers vs. Da Bearz Preview

Today is the day on which the Green Bay Packers will grab a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Or not. Standing in their way, with already a bye week secured, is the NFC North champs (really, can you believe it???) Chicago Bears. Oddsmakers are figuring, despite the statements of coach Lovie Dovie Smith to the contrary, that Da Bearz will be resting many of their starters for a good portion of the game; this translates into the Packers being slotted as 9-1/2 point favorites. Yowza!

The Packers need this game, Da Bearz don't. Yes, there is an outside chance that Chicago could grab the #1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But do they want to risk injury to key players on the outside chance that Atlanta loses to the worst team in the league, the Carolina Panthers? Or because they'd really like to keep the Packers out of the playoffs? Even Lovie isn't that dim. Expect key Bears' starters to play at least the first half and perhaps into the third quarter, depending upon the closeness of the game.

And that's the key question: will the game be close?

Both the Packers and Da Bearz are very different teams than when they met in Week 3 of the season. The Packers have lost yet more players to season-ending injuries and Chicago basically still has its full complement of starters. The Packers have overachieved with players that GM Ted Thompson has seemingly pulled in off the street and that the coaching staff has "coached up," as the expression goes. To some, including yours truly, Da Bearz can also be said to be overachievers. Not many pundits had them winning the NFC North at the beginning of the season, did they?

Da Bearz' defense has been its typical tough self and just as typically keeps the team in each game with a few rare exceptions. They're tough against the run and thrive on turnovers. The strip of the ball from WR James Jones along the sidelines in the waning moments of the first match helped set up the winning field goal. Da Bearz' special teams are keyed with the uber-returner, Devin Hester...who causes special teams coaches league-wide many hours of lost sleep. He alone can change -- and win -- games for Chicago; his punt return for a TD was critical in their earlier 20-17 last-second win over the Packers. To be fair, Jay Cutler and the offense are operating at a higher level than they were when the Packers handed Da Bearz that earlier victory in Chi-Town. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has seemingly shifted from having Cutler doing seven-step drop backs and being a sack target to a three-step drop and a quick rhythm passing game. Also, let's not forget RB Matt Forte who will likely break the 1,000-yard rushing mark today; he stands at 978 yards and a 4.4 yards-per-carry average coming into this game.

As for the Pack's offense, there won't be much rushing room against Da Bearz' stout defensive line, at least while the starters are playing. But what else is new? The Packers haven't had a running game all season. The game will fall to at least keeping Chicago's defense honest with occasional runs, while letting QB Aaron Rodgers and the receivers do their thing, which they do very well. The offensive line will just need to give Rodgers the time he needs. Oh, and avoid the mind-numbing penalties which doomed the Packers in the first meeting. Given the play of late, both the protection and lack of penalties should be expected.

The Packers' defense will once again be without the services of DE Cullen Jenkins and LB Frank Zombo; S Atari Bigby is also out (along with FB Korey Hall on offense). Still, the D should be more than up to the challenge today given what's on the line. As for the Pack's special teams, the main objective there will be to not let Devin Hester beat you. Big challenge, and any line drive punt from P Tim Mathay could make this game closer than it should otherwise be given circumstances.

The predictions for this game are all over the place, some predicting a classic close-game battle while others are calling the Packers in a cakewalk. Weather will not be a factor, other than -- surprise! -- it's cold: at gametime the forecast is for 16 degrees and partly cloudy.

So, how do we call it? Not surprisingly, given what's at stake and how Da Bearz are expected to play this game, we're calling it 31-17 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!

Happy New Year, Packer fans!

Bye-bye Brett
Oh...and a fond farewell -- again -- to Ol' #4 who belatedly and finally will really and truly and forever be at his final NFL game today. Note that I didn't say "playing"; that's because it's just been announced that Favre is inactive for today's ViQueens' finale vs. the Lions.

It's been a horrible year on many fronts for Brett Favre. Like many great quarterbacks who have hung on too long, he's going out with a whimper instead of the return to glory he sought. Sadly, though, there's probably no once-great QB who has had the shine come off his star to the extent that Brett has. He's gone from legend and adulation a few years ago to the butt of jokes and investigations today. So sad.