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Tim Masthay: the Key to Winning the NFC Championship

I bet that's not an article title you'd have expected at the beginning of the year.

Let's face it. The Bears have an offense that is capable of breaking big plays. I would argue this is one of the most formidable offenses that has resided in the Windy City in the last few decades. Likewise, their defense has its usual bevy of talent and intelligence, and will do its best to put Aaron Rodgers on the turf...and will more than likely succeed a few times. However, there's one player who worries me more than any other on Chicago's roster. I firmly believe that if the Packers' special teams can keep Devin Hester from breaking a big return, Green Bay will win on Sunday.

The stats help to back this up. Green Bay has twice allowed Hester to return a punt for a touchdown, and has lost each game (Hester's first career game in 2006, a 26-0 Bears win, and week 3 of this season, a 20-17 Bears victory). And in regular season games in which he scores a return touchdown, the Bears are 9-3 overall (this doesn't include Super Bowl XV, when he returned a kickoff for a score in the loss to the Colts).

There's no question that with his speed and agility and with the well-coached blockers in front of him, Hester is as dangerous a threat as anyone who has ever returned kicks in this league. Seattle's punter, Jon Ryan, did an excellent job of keeping the ball away from him last week, however. Hester only returned two punts in the game, as three kicks went out of bounds, three were fair catches, and one was a touchback. (I think I got those stats right...they showed them on a post-game show and I may be off by one or two.) However, the two he returned gained four and 26 yards each. That's the trouble with Hester...kick it to him even once and he very well could take it back.

This finally brings me to my point: Packers punter Tim Masthay will be the key to winning this game. The Packers' special teams in general this season have not been as blowfully bad as in recent years. Especially of late, Tim Masthay has been punting the ball with confidence and direction, and he impressed me greatly with his kicks against Philly in the Wild-Card round. Plus, his leg should be well-rested since he didn't kick a single ball during Saturday's game in Atlanta. If he can help to prevent any big game-changing returns by keeping his punts to the sidelines and forcing fair catches by getting good hang time, I think he will end up being one of the determining factors that decides which NFC North team plays in the Super Bowl.