NFL Conference Championship – Packers @ Bears preview and picks – In The Pocket

After two weeks of playoff action, we’ve come down to four teams – strangely enough, the #2 and #6 seeded team from each conference. The red-hot Green Bay Packers will travel to Chicago to face the Bears on the much-criticised Soldier Field turf, while the New York Jets also find themselves on the road for a third week in a row, up against the Pittsburgh Steelers and a similarly shoddy surface at Heinz Field. The playoffs have taught us that form leading in does not necessarily translate to post-season success. Therefore, this week In The Pocket will go a bit further into how the teams have been travelling before recommending some likely plays.

Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears
There isn’t a hotter team in the NFL right now than the Green Bay Packers, either on the field or in the minds of punters, who have backed them into Superbowl favouritism. Coming from the #6 seed, they’ve done things the hard way in beating both the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons on the road. Last week they were particularly impressive in disposing of the #1 seeded Falcons. Their offense, led by QB Aaron Rodgers, was firing on all cylinders, and their receivers are the strongest crew of the teams remaining. They break tackles, make defenders miss and gain yardage after the catch. With Rodgers putting the ball on a plate for them, they’ve been spectacular (in particularly WR Greg Jennings). Against the Eagles, they found a previously non-existent running game behind rookie RB James Starks. It wasn’t so successful against the Falcons, and against a stingy defence like the Bears bring to the table; look for that trend to continue.

The #2 seeded Chicago have only played the one playoff game so far, dispensing with wild card weekend heroes the Seattle Seahawks comfortably. For the 3 quarters they dominated in all phases of the game, before clocking off in the 4th quarter and the score seeming closer than the game really was. QB Jay Cutler threw two TD passes and ran for two TDs of his own, the attack was balanced between the pass and running behind RB Matt Forte, and the defence was fast and stingy.

Looking at the 2 games these division rivals played this season, the Bears won a close, penalty ridden affair at home in Week 3, while in Week 17 the Packers won another close game at Lambeau Field in a game they needed to win the playoffs and the Bears didn’t really need to play hard in. Chicago did try in that game, but they were working from a vanilla game plan and left plenty up the sleeve. The earlier encounter should have been won by the Pack, but 18 penalties gave the Bears enough slack to get the win. The referee from that Week 3 encounter will be in charge of the game, so it’s possible that if the Packers’ offensive line is struggling to defend Rodgers from the likes of DE Julius Peppers, we may see a few whistles blown in the Bears’ favour.

The Total Points line for this one is 43.5, which seems a little high. Punters have seen the Packers light up oppositions in the playoffs, but there’s plenty to indicate the Under is the smarter play here. Neither game between these teams got close to that mark in the regular season (37 in Week 3, 13 in Week 17). The game is being played in cold and potentially windy weather, making passing and catching a bit more difficult (and making long range field goals more difficult to kick). The Soldier Field turf is heavy and slow, and if you’re not used to playing on it, mistakes can be made – and no one knows it better than the fast and experienced Bears linebackers and secondary. People can point to the Packers’ high scoring in the previous round (48), but that score was run up in a dome rather than a field exposed to the winter elements. A result in the low 30s seems much more likely.

The Packers will feel good coming into this game with their offense clicking, but they haven’t faced a stingy offense in the playoffs as yet. Chicago match up well against them – their Cover 2 defensive scheme is designed to not get burnt on big plays, and they don’t have to dedicate extra troops to stop the run against normal opponents – and the Pack’s running game is not strong. WRs Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones will need to break tackles in adverse conditions to make big plays. Whatever they can get from Starks and FB John Kuhn will be a bonus – but the windier it gets the more they will need to rely on the running game.

Chicago’s offense should have a few wrinkles up it’s sleeve for this game, so don’t expect a repeat performance of their 3 point effort. Green Bay will like their chances to get after QB Jay Cutler and either sack him or force him into poor decisions, putting the ball up for grabs. Their cornerbacks should largely shut down the sides of the field, but where the Bears may have an advantage is passing over the middle to their tight ends, led by Greg Olsen. Olsen should have an advantage against the Packers’ safeties, and if Cutler can find him early and often enough, Green Bay may have to back the heat off to stop big plays. Finally, they have a massive advantage on special teams, with Devin Hester the most dynamic return man off all time fielding kicks.

The Bears should not be 3.5 dogs on their home field in this game, but the sheer weight of money coming on the Packers forced bookmakers’ hands. An even money scenario is probably more realistic. As such, Chicago look to be value getting the points in this match, and the worse the weather looks, the better their chances become.

In The Pocket’s plays:
Bears +3.5 @ 1.91 (multiple sites)
Under 43.5 Total Points @ 1.90 (Centrebet)

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