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Anyway you slice it, protection is key to Seahawks-Bears

First off, very few people felt the Seahawks could beat the Rams in Week 17 for the NFC West title. They had lost to them earlier in the year, 20-3, and had no offense. But Seattle bounced back and won with Charlie Whitehurst in his second career start to make the playoffs.

Then the defending Super Bowl champion Saints came to town last week, and nobody predicted the 7-9 Seahawks -- who lost 34-19 to New Orleans earlier in the year -- to even have a chance.

Well, the Seahawks pulled off the upset, and most people credit the home-field advantage more than anything. Nobody believes in Seattle as it prepares to march into Chicago for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game. Very little is said about the fast-improving Seahawks.

Seattle has a losing record, but it does own a regular-season win over the Bears. In talking to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, he is very comfortable with the lack of respect toward his teams.

With that in mind, here are four questions for this matchup:

Will Bears improve at protecting Cutler?

Jay Cutler has been sacked 52 times this season (or once in every nine pass attempts). The Seahawks, who rank 16th in sacks per pass attempt, dropped Cutler six times in their previous meeting, primarily using a blitz scheme. That game really exposed Chicago's weakness in pass protection, and soon after the Bears changed their ways on offense. They put the running game back in the equation and shortened Cutler's pass drops.

By no means have the Bears solved all of their pass-protection issues. In the season finale, the Packers sacked Cutler six times. The Seahawks got to Brees once last week and hit him another four times, and you can count on them coming after Cutler once again. But this time it might be more with their front four than the blitz.

Can Seattle take Forte out of the game again?

The week before the first time these teams met, Matt Forte had 22 carries for 166 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers. Which makes his eight carries for 11 yards against the Seahawks the following week that much more baffling.

Forte has been a factor in the past three games with 295 yards rushing and another 122 receiving. The Bears will look closely at the role Julius Jones played last week for the Saints, when he had 59 yards rushing and 61 yards receiving, and commit to Forte for 20-plus touches in this game.

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Can the Seahawks protect Hasselbeck?

You'd think the quick answer would be that no way can a rookie left tackle handle Julius Peppers. But the last time these teams met, that's exactly what Russell Okung did. Hasselbeck was only sacked once last week in 36 pass plays, and the Bears have to get to him or their 20th-ranked pass defense is going to be in trouble.

Right now the Seahawks have their West Coast rhythm-passing attack working well, and Ben Obomanu, who wasn't even an afterthought the first time these teams met, has become a nice piece. The Bears need interceptions from Hasselbeck, who is 1-3 when he throws multiple picks this year, and the only way to get those interceptions is disrupting Hasselbeck in the pocket. Chicago is not a big blitz team, relying on its front four in the Tampa 2. Linebacker Brian Urlacher will come occasionally, but in the end if Okung can block Peppers it's going to be a long day for Chicago.

What to do about Hester?

Devin Hester scored on an 89-yard punt return last time. The Seahawks weathered that storm because it came too late. Seattle is mediocre at best in their coverage units, and its best bet is to just kick it out of bounds on punts. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan, who had three punts inside the 20 last week, is capable of pinning the Bears deep. It's a challenge to give up some of that excellent field position to take Hester out of the mix, but I think it's worth it.

Seattle is a hot team that nobody respects. Once again people expect them to lose by double digits. But I suspect that once again this game will be won by a field goal or less, and it could go either way.

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