Playoff Breakdown: 'Hawks-Bears
Jay Cutler struggled mightily in the Bears' 23-20 October loss to the Seahawks
The Seahawks will be out of their comfort zone when they travel to face the Bears
Matt Forte carried the ball eight times in their first meeting, but he's improved
Breaking down the NFC divisional battle, Seahawks at Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m. , FOX
1. Can the Bears protect QB Jay Cutler? The line struggled when the teams met Oct. 17, surrendering six sacks in a 23-20 loss at Soldier Field. Cutler finished with a season-low 43.6 completion percentage and failed to throw for a touchdown in arguably his worst outing of the season.
A lot has changed since then. After experimenting with four different starting lines in the first eight games, position coach Mike Tice settled on the group that will take the field Sunday. What's interesting is center Olin Kreutz is the only one playing the same position he did in Week 1. Frank Omiyale has moved from right tackle to left tackle, Chris Williams from left tackle to left guard, and Roberto Garza from left guard to right guard. Rookie J'Marcus Webb, who joined the first team the week before the Seattle game, is the right tackle.
The continuity -- and a greater commitment to the running game -- has produced dramatic improvement. After allowing at least four sacks in four of the first seven games, the Bears have limited opponents to two or fewer sacks in six of their last nine outings.
Protecting Cutler will be key. He's making his first playoff appearance and has a history of struggling with his decision-making when opponents pressure him and force him to move in the pocket. Interestingly, the Seahawks got to Cutler as much with their scheme as their personnel. Four of the six sacks were by defensive backs, including two by safety Lawyer Milloy and 1½ by Jordan Babineaux.
2. Can the Seahawks handle life on the road? The Seahawks have been awful away from home, losing 14 of their past 17 -- each by at least 11 points, with six by 21 or more. The numbers are even worse in the postseason, where Seattle has lost seven in a row away from Qwest. It's fair to recognize that Seattle's recent hot streak has come at home, where the crowd allows the defensive line to get a head start at the snap of the ball, and quarterbacks have to rely on silent counts and hand signals. Can the Seahawks carry the momentum out of state?
Matt Hasselbeck, who was sensational in the Seahawks' defeat of the Saints last week, throwing a franchise postseason-record four touchdowns, is 0-3 as a road starter in the playoffs. A big issue has been pass protection; he has been sacked seven times in those games and managed just two touchdowns in 111 pass attempts.
3. Will Seattle regret punting to Devin Hester? Hester was one of the Bears' few positives in the teams' first game, taking a punt 89 yards for a touchdown with just under two minutes to play. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says he plans to test Hester, even though Hester returned three punts for scores this season and has 10 in his career. He also has run back four kickoffs for touchdowns. Seattle ranked in the middle of the league when it came to limiting long punt returns. It surrendered three of 20 yards or longer, one fewer than the league average during the regular season, and tied the average for playoff teams.
In their October meeting, the Bears were on the short side in time of possession by nearly nine minutes. The primary reason was they failed to convert on any of their 12 third downs. Some of that could be attributed to their inability/unwillingness to run the ball. Matt Forte, who ranked ninth in the NFC in rushing with 1,069 yards, carried just eight times for 11 yards. His 1.4 yards per rush was 3.1 below his season average and prompted coach Lovie Smith to seek more balance offensively. Mission accomplished. Forte, who is also a threat as a receiver, has run for at least 91 yards in five of his past seven games and has scored three of his six rushing touchdowns during that time.
This is where the fairy-tale ends for Seattle. Chicago's defense is too strong, particularly with linebacker Lance Briggs in the lineup after not playing in the first meeting. The Bears won't have the same defensive breakdowns that the Saints had, and they also will benefit from a crowd that will want to show it can have as much of an impact on a game as Seattle's famed 12th man. Bears 27, Seahawks 13
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