Thanks to defense and special teams, Packers clinch playoff berth

Chicago Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler (bottom) is sacked by Green Bay Packers’ Erik Walden (93) and Clay Matthews (52) in the second half during their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations from the Packers’ playoff-clinching 10-3 win over the Bears.

1. Packers’ defense and special teams comes up huge.
With their playoff hopes on the line, Dom Capers’ defense was outstanding. The Packers held the Bears to a lone field goal while limiting their offense to just 227 total yards, which includes 117 through the air. They also forced two turnovers (which was big because their offense also turned the ball over twice) and picked off Jay Cutler in the closing seconds to preserve victory. Green Bay’s special teams were excellent as well. Tim Masthay and the Packers’ punt coverage team held Devin Hester to just two returns for 35 yards and a couple of Masthay’s punts backed Chicago up inside the 10. Tramon Williams also broke off a 41-yard punt return in the third quarter that put the ball at the Bears’ 44-yard line. Up to that point, Green Bay was held scoreless and its offense had been completely shut down. The Packers blew an opportunity to score a touchdown on that drive, but they did walk away with a field goal to tie the game at 3-all. On a day when Aaron Rodgers was largely held in check outside of one enormous completion to Greg Jennings in the second half, the Packers needed a big effort from their defense and special teams and that’s exactly what they got.

2. Did Smith do the right thing by playing his starters?
It doesn’t matter now because the Bears escaped without suffering any injuries, but how risky was it for Lovie Smith to keep his starters in the game even though the outcome didn’t matter? Chicago clinched a first round bye on Tuesday night when the Vikings beat the Eagles, and after the Falcons defeated the Panthers earlier in the day the Bears were locked into the No. 2 seed. But Smith decided to start players like Cutler and also never took them out. Again, the proposed question is moot because the Bears left Green Bay injury-free but Smith’s decision will be a topic of discussion on Monday’s sports radio shows in Chicago. I guess you kind of have to hand it to Smith and the Bears for trying to stick it to their biggest rivals.

3. What’s next?
With the win, the Packers knocked the Giants and Bucs and will now play at Philadelphia next weekend. The Packers have already beaten the Eagles on the road but that was in Week 1 when Kevin Kolb started and was a disaster in the first quarter and a half. The Packers may have caught a break because Michael Vick was injured on the first play against Minnesota on Tuesday night. By the time he’s ready for the Wildcard game, he will have had two weeks of rest but it’ll be interesting to see if his injured quad limits him as a runner. The Eagles are also coming off two-straight losses, so they’re reeling a little bit. If Green Bay’s defense plays as well next week as it did against Chicago, it may set up a return trip to Atlanta in two weeks. (The Packers lost to the Falcons earlier this season.)

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