— Here’s a breakdown on the trends, tendencies, and matchups that will have a major impact on Sunday’s NFC Championship.
Big games are often decided by a single yard: a goal-line plunge, or a dive into the line on fourth-and-short.
If the NFC Championship game becomes a game of inches, the Packers have a big edge.
At Football Outsiders, we track Power Success — a team’s ability to run in short-yardage situations — both for offense and defense. A team’s Power Success rate accounts for all runs on third/fourth down and less than two yards, plus all running plays (regardless of down) inside the 2-yard line.
As the table shows, neither the Packers nor the Bears are very good at short-yardage conversions, which makes sense — the Packers had trouble running the ball all season, and the Bears spent the first half of the season juggling offensive linemen. What’s shocking is that the Bears had one of the NFL's worst short-yardage defenses, while the Packers had one of the best. The Bears run defense is solid overall, but when it comes to stopping third-and-1, they just aren’t very good.
When these teams met in Week 3, the Bears twice reached the Packers' 1-yard line but could not score a touchdown. The first time, the Bears tried to pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but Jay Cutler’s throw to Desmond Clark fell incomplete. The second time, Matt Forte was stuffed on third-and-goal from the 1. Both failures came with a silver lining for the Bears. Forced to punt from deep in their own territory three plays after the Cutler pass, the Packers kicked to Devin Hester, who returned the punt for a touchdown. After the Forte stuff, Robbie Gould kicked a game-winning field goal.
The Packers couldn’t exploit the Bears’ short-yardage deficiency in Week 17. After Green Bay drove to the 1-yard line in the third quarter, John Kuhn got stuffed for no gain, then Aaron Rodgers fumbled a snap. The Packers decided to pass on third-and-goal, playing into the hands of the Bears defense: Tommy Harris sacked Rodgers to force a field goal. When they got back to the 1-yard line on a later drive, the Packers threw for a touchdown. Hey, whatever works.
Now that James Starks has emerged as an all-purpose rushing threat, the Packers are much more effective in short-yardage situations. The Bears still have problems. They were over-reliant on Cutler sneaks against the Seahawks. Neither team can afford to leave a touchdown on the table Sunday. The Packers have a better chance of getting the extra inches when they need them most.
The Olsen factor
Tight end Greg Olsen acquitted himself well to Mike Martz’ offense this season. Olsen’s ability to line up anywhere from fullback to receiver made him a versatile target for Cutler and a matchup problem for defenders who didn’t know whether to cover Olsen with a linebacker, safety or cornerback. Olsen is coming off a huge game against the Seahawks (3 catches, 113 yards, 1 TD) and could be the Bears' X-factor.
At Football Outsiders, we track how defenses perform against different types of receivers, from No. 1 receivers to tight ends to running backs. The Packers had one of the league’s best defenses, so it’s no surprise they ranked third in the league at stopping No. 1 wideouts and fifth against No. 2 wideouts. Slot receivers fared no better; the Packers ranked fifth against in the NFL at stopping them. And because opposing running backs usually must stay in the backfield to block against them, the Packers ranked fifth in the league at stopping them. (See all the data here.)
But against tight ends, the Packers ranked 22nd.
Vernon Davis had four catches for 126 yards and a touchdown against the Packers. Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew combined for 14 catches and 154 yards in just one game. Tony Gonzalez had six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. The numbers are not always as dramatic as the results: Dustin Keller had just two receptions against the Packers, but one was a 40-yard catch on third-and-6.
With so many defenders blitzing and the cornerbacks busy with the receivers, tight ends are often covered by a lonesome defender trying to occupy a very big zone. It’s a weak link the Packers must live with if they want to use players such as Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews as pass rushers.
Olsen caught 10 passes in two games against the Packers, including a 9-yard touchdown and a 21-yard pass on second-and-20. Martz did a great job isolating Olsen against overmatched defenders like Erik Walden. Walden Pond is a long way from Revis Island; when your uniform number is 93, you shouldn’t be asked to cover one of the league’s best tight ends. Martz and Cutler will look for Olsen mismatches all afternoon. The Packers must find a way to hide them.
As mentioned earlier, Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Packers. He does that now and then. The Packers also allowed a kickoff return touchdown to the Falcons on Saturday, proving yet again that special teams are their greatest weakness.
The Packers gave up several long returns during the regular season, but their own return men were incapable of striking back. The team averaged just 7.9 yards per punt return and 20.1 yards per kickoff return. The team has been using Tramon Williams on punts and Starks on kickoffs in the postseason. Both can do damage with the ball in their hands (Williams has an interception return for a touchdown), but neither has been a factor in the return game. Williams’ two punt returns traveled eight and 10 yards, and he called for two fair catches. Starks has averaged a woeful 13.3 yards per return.
There’s more to the Bears' special teams than Hester. Danieal Manning averages 24.7 yards per kickoff return, and the punt coverage team (led by special teams ace Corey Graham) allows just 7.8 yards per return. Even if Hester doesn’t break a long return, the Bears should get a few extra yards from their kicking game. On what promises to be a very cold day in Chicago, a little field position can go a long way.