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Longtime NFC North scout: Maybe it's the Bears' year

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In the course of a 30-minute conversation with a longtime NFC North scout, a man uniquely qualified to size up this Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Packers and Bears, I began to feel a bit like Billy Crystal in "Analyze This."

The longtime football man, while breaking down the teams, the schemes and how it all fits in, kept wavering back and forth. Midway through the conversation, the slow track and home crowd had him going with the Bears. Then as we dissected the Green Bay defense, he had to conclude, "I feel like the Packers are the better football team," and then finally, as we were about to wrap up, he surmised, "I guess, in the end, I've got to pick the Bears to win this game."

Then came a pregnant pause. "But the more I think about it, I'm starting to talk myself into leaning toward the Packers. This is a real toss-up."

That last statement, I believe, we can all agree upon.

You could make a case for either team in this game, with a perfect old-school NFL backdrop. Two epic rivals, Chicago and Green Bay, the longest-standing foes in the NFL, meeting at Soldier Field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line after splitting the season series. It doesn't get much better than that.

The Packers, after the last two weeks, have the look of the perennial team of destiny, you know that unit that peaks at just the right time and rides that crest to a title (think back to the 2007 Giants). The Bears, since their bye week, could make a similar claim, sustaining great health, making midseason adjustments and catching some quality breaks along the way (last week's draw of the now 8-10 Seattle Seahawks, among them).

Personally, I tend to think Green Bay is a little more complete and finds a way to pull this out, even on the road. But this is a close one; we need only think back to Week 17, when the Bears had little to play for, really, at Lambeau Field, and the Packers needed to win to get into the playoffs, and how much of a struggle that 10-3 win was for Green Bay. The Bears are one of few teams with the defensive prowess to keep the Packers' offense in check, with their Cover-2 scheme equipped to limit the explosive plays, the poor Soldier Field conditions mucking up the Packers' vertical speed game, and a pass rush capable of causing problems for a seemingly invincible Aaron Rodgers.

Even the intangibles are difficult to parse out. The Bears have the crowd in their favor and the field conditions, as well. But the Packers know they are playing dominant football right now, no quarterback is hotter than theirs, and they seem to have taken on a more self-confident aura in the playoffs.

"I scouted (the Week 17 game), and I just felt like there was so much pressure on the Packers to win to get in," the scout said. "I felt like they played tight in that game, even though they were at home and the Bears really didn't have anything to play for. I've watched them once they got in, and coming into Philly and Atlanta it looks like they're playing with house money. They're playing loose, and that's a good thing when you come into the game as an underdog."

Then came the caveat, always a necessary element of this rivalry discussion: "But to win on the road like that three straight weeks, that's a tough hurdle."

Overall, the scout gave the Packers the advantage on offense and defense (slightly) but felt like the Bears' superior special teams, Devin Hester in particular, could be enough to win a tightly contested game. There are a couple of potential X-factors on Green Bay's side as well, men who were not significant in the Week 17 meeting.

Green Bay isn't going to be confused with an elite rushing team, even after piling up yards on the Eagles in the wild-card round. But in James Starks, Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn they have a trio that presents some unique challenges and a by-committee style that could keep on working. Starks is the closest thing to a featured back in the bunch after spending the entire regular season primarily either injured or as a spectator.

"When you watched that game (at Lambeau in Week 17), the primary problem the Packers had was they couldn't run the ball and they had to go to a spread attack," the scout said. "They were forced to be one-dimensional, and the Packers' offensive footing is going to be a problem for their routes this time. Atlanta did not want to see the Green Bay Packers in their dome. That offense goes to another level on that track.

"Outside, with no running game, that's a problem for the Packers. They won't be as explosive, and they've got to find a way to hurt the Bears in the run game. They've got to get some balance going. This is where the Bears have a good matchup. They match up well with the Packers' offense in that respect."

The scout expects the Bears' top defenders to meet the challenge -- and guys like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher to make life difficult for the Packers. But he doesn't expect the secondary to be able to duplicate its level of performance from its drubbing of the less-gifted Seahawks.

Corner Charles Tillman was outstanding against the Seahawks, but the scout wonders if he will be as effective Sunday.

"Last week Tillman only had one receiver he had to defend -- (Mike) Williams," the scout said." That's not exactly (Terrell Owens) in his prime or something like that. They only had one receiver to worry about in the Cover 2 against a team that had been getting blown out on the road every week. I don't think you can watch that game and come away saying that was a tough matchup for the Bears' secondary. You can't really measure them from that game, but at Lambeau they definitely did suffocate that offense pretty good."

Besides the need to run on the Bears in the Cover 2, and show some dedication to it, the scout believes a receiver like Jordy Nelson could be big against that zone defense, making players underneath with the safeties worried about Greg Jennings and James Jones getting deep.

The matchup between Chicago's offense and Green Bay's defense is where the other X-factor could make an impact. Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins missed the final four games of the regular season due to injury and just started working his way back against the Eagles. He's one of the most overlooked 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, and he's been getting better every week.

"Cullen Jenkins, he is a beast," the scout said. "And now he's had a couple of weeks to get in playing shape. He might not be 100 percent, but he will be a factor in this game."

The scout expects the Packers -- even with a deeper rotation across their formidable defensive line now -- to open the game with a lot of nickel looks, a tendency of defensive coordinator Dom Capers when he faces the Bears.

"Capers really likes playing that nickel scheme, with four linebackers and two linemen (and five defensive backs) against the Bears," the scout said. "Chicago hasn't had much of an answer for that now. Capers has only allowed 16 offensive points to the Bears in two games this year."

Matt Forte will have to be effective for the Bears to succeed. Forte rushed for 91 yards in Week 17, but carried the ball just 15 times.

"I felt like in the last game they didn't run the ball as much as they should have," the scout said. "I would think this time against the Packers you'll see a big dose of the run game and try to run them out of that nickel package and, with some long runs, get them back into more of a 3-4 defense. I see them trying to run the ball against nickel and throwing against their base defense."

Jay Cutler's propensity to lock in on his receiver, force the ball and throw interceptions could be a huge factor against what the scout called "the best secondary in the NFL." Packers DBs have great ball skills and instincts, and Charles Woodson, in particular, could be in for a big game. Green Bay's confusing schemes and ability to attack the quarterback could sway this game, and despite the improvements by Chicago's offensive line down the stretch (running the ball more and curtailing the seven-step drops helped, too), this scout isn't sold on them.

"That offensive line can be exploited," he said. "I'd go right after their right tackle (J'Marcus Webb), and that's where (Clay) Matthews was lined up against him a few weeks ago."

As with Tillman, the scout isn't sure that another Chicago star from the win over Seattle, tight end Greg Olsen, will make such an impact Sunday. Olsen "hasn't had a big game against them since Capers arrived" in Green Bay, he said. With the Packers likely to use that nickel formation against a tight end package, "Woodson is aligned to Olsen in a running set," the scout said. "The Bears want to run to stay balanced and have play action out of that, but guess who is covering the play-action wide receiver ... Woodson."

"I watched (Seattle safety) Lawyer Milloy get beat on that (long touchdown catch by Olsen), and I'm like, 'Where the hell was the other safety? Who plays zero-man coverage there?," the scout said. "The Packers won't put players in that position -- old-man Lawyer Milloy in zero-man coverage vs. Olsen? That's what stupidity gets you. Woodson would be playing nickel in that situation with a safety behind him. It's not that Olsen is special. He just looked special there because of the matchup the Seahawks put themselves in."

Who knows? Maybe all of this is a wash and someone turns the ball over four times and it's decided that way. Despite all indications of a defensive struggle, perhaps we get a shootout. It's very tough to call. On Wall Street, however, they would say that "the trend is your friend," and this scout isn't convinced the Bears' run is over just yet.

"The trend is the Bears are catching breaks," he said. "They avoided injuries, they're home in the NFC Championship Game, and they got a bye week because the Eagles lost to the Vikings when they were a 14-point favorite. And then the Seahawks upset the Saints. Maybe it's their year?"

The need for speed

We've all heard the expression that speed kills. But so, too, in the NFL, does lack of speed. Last weekend, in the case of the Ravens, Patriots and Seahawks, the inability to unleash burners who could truly stretch the field and get multiple targets vertical limited the scope of their offenses and resulted in them going home.

Say what you want about the "big names" on Baltimore's receiving corps, but none of them are actually in their primes, all are on the wrong side of 30, and they could not gain separation against the Steelers. Joe Flacco is a strapping young quarterback with a big arm; this group, however, limits his strength. And when you couple that with critical drops from Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, it's game over.

Don't blame the kid QB; blame the old-in-the-tooth, vocal receivers who couldn't make a play. Despite all their moves at the receiver spot last offseason, only Boldin and Derrick Mason are sure of being back at that spot, and finding one or two quality speedsters to round out this unit is a must. The Steelers had youngsters like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to step up and use quickness to make a play when the Ravens stymied Hines Ward and Mike Wallace; the Ravens did not. That was the difference.

New England had no one to get behind the Jets, and New York's shutdown tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie was too much to overcome. Brandon Tate is explosive on special teams, but that has yet to carry over to the offense. Like the Ravens, put the Pats in the market for a receiver high in the draft, and with four of the top 60 picks New England is again well positioned to make a splash.

Seattle ended up getting little from Golden Tate, and while they found some possession receivers in unexpected places in 2010, the Seahawks still lacked anyone to test Chicago's Cover 2.

Yes it's true, a great quarterback can make an average receiver perform at a Pro Bowl level. But he can't make a 35-year-old receiver run like a 25-year-old, as last week's games attested to.

Exit Interview
After watching Joe Flacco melt down in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, Bucky Brooks wonders if Flacco can lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl triuimph. More ...

Quick hits

» Flacco vs. Matt Ryan will probably never go away. I'd take Flacco's performance on the road, in one of the toughest stadiums in the NFL, over Ryan's implosion at home any day. We need to tone down the hype, though, as a rule when it comes to young QBs (Mark Sanchez included).

» Said it the first day I was on air with NFL Network, and I'll continue to restate it: Give me a choice of any player to start a franchise with, factoring in age, production, contract, upside, and I'll take Rodgers. Have a feeling when it's all said and done he wins more Super Bowls than the guy he replaced.

The picks are in

I went 3-1 last week (5-3 in the playoffs). And even though I'm 5-1 when picking anything other than Jets games), I find myself picking against New York again this week. I feel like Big Ben finds a way to make enough plays on third down to win, and the defense forces a few turnovers. I picked a Green Bay-Baltimore Super Bowl way back in March. Now I'm saying Green Bay-Pittsburgh in the final game, which is as close to Green Bay-Baltimore as you can get when you consider how similar the Ravens and Steelers are.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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