Facing arguably the game's greatest returner ever, to whom they gave up a touchdown to earlier in the season, the Packers got a clutch performance from Tim Masthay and Co. when they needed it. Two perfectly executed pooch punts in the fourth quarter helped the Packers' defense preserve a 10-3 victory and a spot in the NFC playoffs next Sunday in Philadelphia.
"We were able to do what we wanted to do," said Masthay, "which was eliminate (Devin) Hester from having an impact on the game on punt returns."
Hester got his hands on just three of Masthay's eight punts – one was a fair catch - in what shaped up to be a low-scoring game that would be decided by special teams and defense. But whereas the Bears (11-5) are typically the ones winning games with their special teams and defense, this time it was the Packers (10-6).
With the help of his coverage team, Masthay was able to kill two punts inside the 5-yard line on the Bears' final two drives. The last one, caught in the air by Jarrett Bush at the 2, was particularly critical as the game wound down.
Though the Bears put together a 15-play, 66-yard drive, their best of the game, they essentially ran out of time in their final comeback bid as they penetrated Packers territory. At the Packers' 32-yard line with just 20 seconds left, quarterback Jay Cutler was forced to go downfield, throwing an interception to Nick Collins to effectively end the game.
Just a series before, the Packers' defense collected back-to-back sacks to end a Bears' drive at the 2-yard line. That drive began at the 3 on a punt also downed by Bush.
"We executed really well," said Bush. "Tim just hung the ball up there for me to get and it worked out."
By design, the Packers employed a directional punt strategy to keep the ball away from Hester, as they have done against several top returners this season. Masthay continued his vast improvement over the second half of the season with four kicks inside the 20-yard line, and his net average for the season of 37.6 tied Jon Ryan in 2007 for the best since 1976.
"I think I've learned how I can help manage the game with the way I'm punting the ball and the places I'm punting it," he said. "Just different situations in the game, and that's mostly a credit to really (special teams coordinator) Shawn Slocum helping me."
Overall, the Packers won the field-position battle by 6 yards over one of the league's top special teams units. Though Hester had 19- and 16-yard returns on his two chances, they were neutralized by well-placed 56- and 47-yard punts by Masthay.
"We had a couple long punts he actually got his hands on and we got it tackled once the first wave got there," said Slocum. "I thought we did a great job overall in coverage."
Hester turned around a tight game earlier this year in Chicago against the Packers with a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Bears a lead late. The Packers wound up losing that game 20-17.
Sunday, they were not about to suffer the same fate.
"I don't know that the strategy was a whole lot different (from the first game against Hester)," said Masthay. "I think I was just better at being able to be productive. I think I understood my role a little better this time around then I did in Week 3."
Masthay and his punt coverage team have little time to savor their performance with the Eagles' DeSean Jackson waiting in the first round of the playoffs. But at least they can enter the game knowing they played a big part in getting the Packers to the postseason in a hard-fought game.
"It was tough out there with the wind chill being around 0 (5 at kickoff) and the wind blowing pretty significantly," said Masthay. "But that was fun. It's Lambeau Field, January against the Chicago Bears, the best punt returner probably in the history of the game. I'll remember this forever."