Conference championship game scouts

The Bears and Packers know each other well, but their quarterbacks could be even more important than usual. In the AFC, the focus will likely be on the defensive approaches to each of the offenses and how much pressure they bring.

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Chicago Bears (12-5)
New York Jets (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Chicago Bears (12-5)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/23/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers


As red-hot as Rodgers is, playing the Bears in Chicago introduces several factors he didn't have to deal with on the fast indoor surface in Atlanta last week. First is Soldier Field, which has tenuous footing and often a biting freezing wind in January. Second is the Bears' Cover-2 defense, which will focus on eliminating big plays and forcing Rodgers to orchestrate lengthy scoring drives. Chicago first wants to stuff rookie RB James Starks so it can aggressively rush Rodgers, who will have mismatches downfield if given time.

Bears QB Jay Cutler is coming off a strong postseason debut, but the Packers' defense sacked him nine times during the two regular-season meetings. The Bears' offense has been far more efficient since offensive coordinator Mike Martz made a concerted effort to be balanced in his play-calling coming out of the team's Week 8 bye. But he largely abandoned the run in the Week 17 loss as Chicago attempted to move the ball through the air too much on first down. Expect RB Matt Forte to get plenty of early touches on the ground and through the air. The Bears don't want Cutler forcing the issue against the strength of Green Bay's pass rush and ball-hawking secondary.


  • Terry McAulay, whose crew called Green Bay for a season-high 18 penalties for 152 yards in Chicago on Sept. 27, will be the referee.

  • Cutler's four career passer ratings against Green Bay have been: 43.2, 74.9, 82.5 and 43.5.


    Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum isn't just preoccupied with whom head coach Mike McCarthy earlier this season called "the best player" on the Chicago Bears.

    "First thing you have to do is protect that punter because you can't cover what you don't kick," Slocum said.

    As much as Slocum has had his hands full this week coming up with the best plan of attack for Bears punt returner Devin Hester, extra attention has been given to how Chicago could try to go after Packers punter Tim Masthay in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

    "This is my 11th ballgame going against them," Slocum said. "I think (Bears specials teams coach) Dave Toub does a great job with his game plans. He can do anything from a maximum return to a maximum pressure. I've seen it all from him."

    Provided the initial part of the Packers' punt operation goes off without a hitch, the manner by which Masthay punts the football probably won't be different from the last time the division rivals met three weeks ago.

    Slocum didn't come right out Thursday and say Green Bay would play keep-away with the dynamic Hester - contrary to Seattle head coach Pete Carroll's declaration last week that the Seahawks would kick to him in the divisional playoff. Yet, Slocum suggested the blueprint used to success in the Jan. 2 regular-season finale would have carryover for the rematch.

    "We punted eight times. (Hester) returned two," Slocum said. "We had four punts inside the 20, and two of them were inside the 5. That was really good production. If we could get that, I think it would really help us.

    "I think the objective, when you've got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can do that, is you've got to limit, No. 1, the space that he has to operate in and, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities."

    A mixture of directional punts toward the sidelines and high-hanging, Aussie-style pooch kicks down the middle of the field accomplished any of three things of a positive nature for the Packers: keep the football out of Hester's hands, force him to make a fair catch or allow the coverage guys to be in range to close quickly on Hester when he did take off with the ball.

    His runbacks in that last meeting, which the Packers won 10-3 at Green Bay to get in the playoffs, went for 19 and 16 yards. While sizable gains, they were much more tolerable than the 62-yard touchdown return Hester had on a booming punt from Masthay in the vacant middle of the field in the Bears' 20-17 win at Soldier Field in Week 3.

    "Devin was at his best in that situation where he had some space to start, create pursuit angles by the defense ... and then change direction," Slocum said. "He went sideways and hit a vertical seam. That is his running style he does so well.

    "I think if you can get him closer to the coverage when he starts, you're better off to eliminate that spacing, or kick the ball out of bounds if you can. (But) if it was that easy to kick the ball out of bounds considering all the things that you're dealing with as a punt unit, there would be no returners in this league."

    Hester's big runback early in the fourth quarter in the first matchup this season is one of two touchdown returns allowed by Green Bay's erratic coverage units. The second came Saturday night, when the Atlanta Falcons' Eric Weems set a league postseason record with a 102-yard kickoff return in the first half, but the Packers overcame that to oust the NFC's top seed 48-21.

    Incidentally, Green Bay was so proficient on offense that Masthay didn't have one punt in the game.


    According to the old adage, great players make great plays in big games.

    And as far as the Bears and Packers are concerned, Sunday's NFC Championship Game battle at Soldier Field is as big a game as has ever been played in the 89-year, 181-game history of the rivalry.

    Both teams have an abundance of players capable of grabbing the spotlight, but the Bears have five in particular who could have the biggest impact on the outcome.

  • Defensive end Julius Peppers: No less an authority than seven-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has been one of Peppers' biggest fans since Day One of training camp, raving about his proficiency in all phases of the defense.

    "We thought he was good when he came here," Urlacher said. "He was everything we thought he would be and more. He's always in the backfield. He's getting held if it's a pass — they don't call it all the time — but it looks like he gets held every play to me. He's been awesome, and he doesn't say much. He just goes about his business, does his job, is a good teammate and works hard."

    Peppers has had six seasons with more than the eight sacks he got this year, but he's capable of taking over the game if the Bears put the Packers in obvious passing situations.

  • Running back Matt Forte: It seems the more the Bears went to Forte later in the season, the better the offense ran. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry over the final six weeks, fifth best in the NFL, and was third in the league over the same period with 718 yards from scrimmage. Forte tied for the team lead with 51 receptions and his 10.7-yard average was third among all running backs.

    "He's been outstanding throughout," coach Lovie Smith said, "especially lately the way he's running the ball, catching the ball, and picking up blitzes, which we'll have to do quite a bit this week. He's done everything you would like a complete running back to do."

  • Quarterback Jay Cutler: His 111.2 passer rating last week against the Seahawks was Cutler's fifth over 104.0 in his last seven games, and he's 22-0 as a starter when his passer rating is 100.0 or better, including 12-0 as a Bear.

    "Jay Cutler should be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "He's a tough guy. He's made a lot of throws, but I like the decisions he's made on when to take off and run the ball. He was outstanding last week, and we'll need him to play that way again this week."

    Cutler averaged a team-best 4.6 yards per carry while rushing for a career-best 232 yards plus a personal-best 43 yards last week.

  • Devin Hester: No one has more of a flair for the sensational than the NFL's all-time leader in kick-return touchdowns. Hester's total of 14 doesn't include the 92-yard touchdown return he had on opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI or the 108-yard missed field goal he returned for a score.

    "This would be a typical Devin time to do it, right?" Bears tight end Greg Olsen said. "It seems like in the bigger games, when we really need him, is when he makes those returns. Certain guys have that knack, and he's one of them."

    Special teams coordinator Dave Toub knows that better than anyone.

    "That's who he is," Toub said. "He performs; he's an entertainer. When the bright lights come on, he steps it up."

  • Cornerback Charles Tillman: Not only did "Peanut" tie for the team lead with five interceptions, he piled up 127 return yards after his picks, the third-highest total in the league. Even more noteworthy is that since Tillman entered the league in 2003 he has forced 24 fumbles, more than any other defensive back in the NFL.

    "That's all we talk about, taking the ball away, causing fumbles, and Peanut is the best at it in the NFL, at getting the ball out," Urlacher said.

    Tillman tied for the team lead this year with three forced fumbles, tied for second with two recovered fumbles and was second with 11 pass breakups.

    "You can teach it," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Tillman's knack for punching or ripping the ball out. "But he just does it extremely well, and it magnifies it to the other players, the urgency to get the ball out. I don't know if there has been anybody ever in this game as good as this guy at how he takes the ball away, and then add in all of the other things he can do."

    New York Jets (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)

    KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET
    GAMEDATE: 1/23/11
    SURFACE: Natural grass
    TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms


    Jets QB Mark Sanchez has been efficient in the playoffs and made plays when he's had to. But the Steelers' top-ranked run defense wants to shut down RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson and see how the second-year quarterback performs in the face of a constant pass rush. The two combined to average a respectable 3.9 yards per carry in the first meeting and have totaled 62 carries through two playoff games. If given time, Sanchez will mostly work the intermediate routes, and WR Braylon Edwards had a season-high eight catches for 100 yards working primarily against CB Bryant McFadden in Week 15.

    The Jets focused on keeping Peyton Manning's receivers in front of them two weeks ago and then came out with a bevy of pressure packages to rattle Tom Brady last Sunday. So how will they approach Ben Roethlisberger? The Jets are concerned with Big Ben's ability to shed on-coming pass rushers at 6-5, 240 pounds. Nickel back Drew Coleman had a pair of strip-sacks in the first meeting, but the Jets' pass rushers must play with discipline to prevent Roethlisberger from turning negative plays into big completions. CB Darrelle Revis shadowed WR Hines Ward in the last meeting, but vertical threat Mike Wallace caught seven passes for 102 yards, so it will be interesting to see who Revis is on in the rematch.


  • Sanchez has tied an NFL record with four career road playoff wins.

  • Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards in the first meeting, his best output since Week 12.


    Jerricho Cotchery won't be imitating Bart Scott anytime soon, even though he did find Scott's post-game rant after the New England victory very entertaining.

    "I was watching that on 'SportsCenter'," Cotchery said. "I was like, that's the funniest thing I've seen."

    "That's not my style," the seventh-year veteran said. "You can't get out of character. You can't start doing things you don't normally do, because the next thing you know you're distracted and you're not focused on the things you need to be focused on.

    "I've gotten used to it," he added with a smile. "We have a lot of passionate guys. You have to understand what type of guys they are. They're passionate about the game of football. They love the game of football.
    "I definitely see the humor. I get a good kick out of it, but I try not to participate."
    But Cotchery was at the forefront of the Jets' victory over New England on Sunday. His 58-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, after the Patriots had cut their deficit to three, restored order for the Jets and set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes.
    "He did such a great job of knowing where to sit in the zone," Sanchez said, "and then breaking the tackle down the sideline, making the right cut, hurdling the defender on the sideline. ... It was awesome just to watch him do that.
    "All last year," Sanchez added, "all throughout this year, he's been there for me just as a safety valve and made some huge plays for a young quarterback and really bailed me out. He's done a great job. The last game was perfect for him. He deserved that."
    Cotchery was fifth in receptions for the Jets this season, with 41 for 433 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn't gotten as many opportunities with the acquisitions of Braylon Edwards (in October 2009) and Holmes (in April 2010).
    But he keeps doing his job, and his teammates have noticed.
    "He's just (a) professional, ultimate class, ultimate team guy," Edwards said Thursday, "somebody you definitely feel like you can learn from."


    The question of the week in Pittsburgh has been what the New York Jets defense will do to try to shut down the Steelers' offense in light of what they did on the road in Indianapolis and New England the past two weeks.

    The Jets might have the best one-two cornerback combo in the game with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, and a stout front seven. The Steelers offensive line has been leaky and their ground game so-so.

    "Literally everything from their coverages to their blitzes to rushing two guys ad getting sacks," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, "it is truly amazing.

    "They can go into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning and go to New England and beat Tom Brady, who are the two best quarterbacks in the game in my opinion. I don't know how I have a chance. I'm just going to have to try and get lucky and play the best I can."

    Roethlisberger, though, is fooling no one, because he has risen on a level where he can challenge those two. He has two Super Bowl rings and at age 28 is trying for a third, which would tie Brady and give him two more than Manning.

    Against the Jets on Dec. 19, Roethlisberger completed 23 of 44 passes for 264 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Steelers also rushed for 146 yards and did not commit a turnover. But a 97-yard kickoff return by the Jets' Brad Smith for a touchdown to open the game provided the difference in a 22-17 Steelers loss at Heinz Field.

    "This week is about playing this Jet defense," Roethlisberger said, "which may be one of the best we have ever played."

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