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Experts pick Bears to win NFC

Chicago 9/27/10 Chicago Bears Julius Peppers celebrates recovery fumble by teammate Tim Jennings set up winning field goal. Joel Lerner/Staff

Chicago, 9/27/10 Chicago Bears Julius Peppers celebrates the recovery of a fumble by teammate Tim Jennings to set up the winning field goal. Joel Lerner/Staff Photographer

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Updated: April 21, 2011 4:47AM



Bears coach Lovie Smith didn’t need to spend much time reviewing footage of the Green Bay Packers’ 48-21 thumping of the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.

Smith knows all about the Packers.

The Bears and Packers will play Sunday for the third time this season, the 182nd time ever. These rivals from the NFC North split the season series, and they’ve won four games apiece since 2007.

“Well, it’s only fitting that it would come down to that,” Smith said. ‘‘They’ve had a great year. We know each other well. Game planning this week . . . we know what they’re going to do, they know what we’re going to do.’’

Said Packers receiver Greg Jennings: ‘‘The familiarity is there.’’

But outside of Green Bay and Lake Forest, only a small pool of people know the Packers and Bears better — coaches and scouts for the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions.

We enlisted their help in breaking down the NFC Championship Game. To ensure candor, the Sun-Times promised anonymity to five coaches, scouts and personnel executives from the Lions and Vikings (their points are listed in italics).

Here’s an in-depth look at what these NFL experts see as the real keys to the game.

PACKERS OFFENSE VS. BEARS DEFENSE

Aaron Rodgers has erased any doubts that the Packers made a wise decision in drafting him in 2005, grooming him under future Hall of Famer Brett Favre and then handing him the keys to the offense in 2008.

Although he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, Rodgers posted MVP-worthy numbers, ranking third among quarterbacks.

Each source interviewed for this story rated Rodgers an elite quarterback, with one highlight a particular strength.

Aaron Rodgers is the most accurate quarterback in the league. No question.

As if that’s not enough, he’s not easily fooled, and he’s extremely mobile.

But the Bears and Lions tempered his effectiveness because both teams controlled the trenches with their defensive lines. The Lions sacked him twice, then knocked Rodgers out in the second quarter with a concussion.

Rodgers was 7-for-11 for 46 yards with no touchdowns and one interception at that point.

He doesn’t need the run, per se, but Rodgers needs to avoid third-and-long so he can dictate where the ball goes instead of the other way around.

Situations with the big throws that he makes are to his liking.

The Packers were 10th in net offensive yards and ninth in points scored. But they would have been much better if tight end Jermichael Finley hadn’t been lost for the season after just five games.

Without Finley, the Packers are using a three-back formation that gives the offense some versatility and also protects Rodgers more.

But the Bears’ defensive line has ‘‘shocked’’ one source. That line is deep, and the players clearly have bought into defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s scheme, which emphasizes one thing.

They won’t play whoever isn’t playing run well.

They get quality plays from players at different positions. One source said former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris is playing better down the stretch.

But Julius Peppers is the engine that drives this unit.

He may line up on the left or right side, perhaps inside. He may rush up the field or he may drop into coverage.

Their front seven is the best we’ve played, and Peppers was the key piece they were missing.

The Bears’ secondary isn’t the most talented group, but they’re all tough ball-hawks who are rarely out of position.

They make you be patient. They know who they are. They don’t blitz often — but when they do, it’s not a dangerous one [for the Bears].

But two sources said the Packers’ offensive line is overrated, particularly left tackle Chad Clifton.

When you watch that offensive line, nobody stands out.

The Packers can ease Rodgers’ burden by running the ball. But after surprising the Philadelphia Eagles with 123 rushing yards, James Starks was limited to 2.6 yards per run against the Falcons on Saturday.

Everyone talks about the resurgence of the Packers’ run game, but look at their schedule. They haven’t run on anyone that’s good at stopping it.

CLOSER LOOK

One source said Finley was more athletic than a younger Antonio Gates, and another likened him to a “big Greg Jennings,” referring to the Packers’ Pro Bowl receiver. He creates matchup nightmares for opposing teams.

You put a linebacker, a safety or a DB on him, and it’s a mismatch.

So, naturally, there’s a significant dropoff whether the Packers field Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree or even Donald Lee.

BEARS OFFENSE VS. PACKERS DEFENSE

The key for the Bears offense is obvious: Protect Jay Cutler.

The Packers sacked him nine times in the two games this season and pressured him countless other instances. The protection, though, has dramatically improved, and the Bears are hopeful they can have the sort of turnaround that they did against the Seattle Seahawks.

Cutler was sacked three times by the Seahawks on Sunday, but he also capitalized on a textbook pocket on several key plays, notably a 58-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen on their opening drive.

The Bears can slow Clay Matthews by having a running back or tight end chip him to help the offensive tackle. Rookie J’Marcus Webb has steadily improved, but his performance may affect whether the Bears reach the Super Bowl. Then there’s another pressing concern — the Packers’ two behemoths, Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji.

They don’t get enough credit. Those two are forces in there.

Jenkins, though, missed the final four regular-season games because of a calf injury, and he’s had just two tackles in the two playoff games. His effectiveness will be one of the keys, two sources said.

One source said, in terms of talent, the Bears’ offensive line is the worst in the NFC North. But he added that they play well together and have steadily improved.

You have to give [Mike] Tice a lot of credit.

One of the weakest links in the Packers’ defense is rookie linebacker Frank Zombo, who is dealing with a knee injury. The linebacking corps has been decimated with injuries — losing Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar and Brad Jones — and the Packers are doing their best to cover up the spot.

A healthy dose of running back Matt Forte would serve the Bears — and Cutler — well.

He creates problems because of the fact that, in that weather, he is effective as a runner or pass catcher.

One source said Forte isn’t the best in the league at anything.

But he really doesn’t have a true weakness. He can do everything.

The Bears’ outside receivers also need to step up. Devin Hester had two catches for 32 yards in the two games against the Packers, and Johnny Knox — after four catches for 94 yards in the first matchup — was shut out in the finale.

Because they have such a wide variety of schemes and get single high safety, they’re more susceptible to big plays. You can have a catch-and-run.

If they can get some time, Cutler has at his disposal many options that are able to line up in multiple spots. The Bears don’t have a traditional No. 1 receiver, yet they use that to their advantage — trying to capitalize on matchups and believing their depth is better than the defense. Kellen Davis is a case in point.

When he’s up for free agency, he’s going to make a lot of money. You see how he got down that field?

But every source gushed about the development of unheralded cornerback Tramon Williams.

When they first got him, he was just a good athlete but a liability in most coverages. Now when or if people attack him, he holds up and makes plays.

Then there’s Charles Woodson.

Woodson is the Swiss Army knife in the Packers’ defense, capable of taking on a receiver outside or in the slot, assuming the role of a linebacker and blitzing with surprising efficiency.

He’s the guy who makes [that defense] tick. He’s the most versatile DB you face all year.

CLOSER LOOK

Bears receiver Earl Bennett had only three catches for 21 yards in the first game, and he was inactive for the finale. But he may play a huge role in Sunday’s outcome. He played with Cutler at Vanderbilt, and the quarterback counts on him often; Bennett leads the team with 19 third-down catches, six more than Knox.

Bennett seems like Cutler’s go-to guy. They obviously have a history together, and he’s a blue-collar-type player. He will fight for everything he can get.

X FACTORS

Three sources said the Bears have a distinct edge in only one facet of the game — special teams. In the first game, Hester had a 62-yard return for a touchdown. But in the second game, the Bears didn’t have a meaningful return while Williams had a 41-yard punt return.

Special teams will be the difference.

There may be some flurries, wind and temperatures in the teens or low 20s; that’s manageable for this time of year. But if anything changes for the worse, that may benefit the Bears, one source said.

The Packers are always trying to stretch the field, and they run the ball [as well].

Each source said the team that gets to the quarterback — not just pressures him — will have a major advantage.

PREDICTIONS

Source 1: ‘‘Chicago. They lost the last one. They’re playing at home. They should win the game if they just play within themselves.’’

Source 2: ‘‘My gut is Green Bay, just because of Rodgers.’’

Source 3: ‘‘It’s hard to beat Chicago in Chicago. The home field is a bigger advantage than all the matchup stuff.’’

Source 4: ‘‘Bears win. Packers haven’t run the ball against anyone.’’

Source 5: ‘‘I don’t know. Ultimately, whoever can get to the quarterback.’’



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