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NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (12-6) at Chicago (12-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have faced one another more than any other two teams in NFL history, but never has a matchup between the bitter rivals meant more than this Sunday's showdown in the NFC Championship Game.
The longtime division foes will square off at Chicago's Soldier Field with a Super Bowl berth on the line in only the second-ever postseason encounter in this storied series. The first came all the way back in 1941, when the Bears posted a 33-14 win at Wrigley Field in a Western Division Playoff.
Though the circumstances on Sunday will be far different than usual, these fellow NFC North inhabitants are certainly quite familiar with each other. As they've done in every non-strike year since 1934, the Bears and Packers met two times during the regular season, with the clubs splitting the 2010 home-and- home set.
Chicago rallied past a mistake-laden Packers squad for a 20-17 victory in the Windy City in Week 3, capitalizing on a team-record 18 Green Bay penalties and forcing a pivotal fumble by wide receiver James Jones in the final minutes to set up kicker Robbie Gould's deciding field goal. The Packers got their revenge with a much-needed 10-3 triumph at Lambeau Field in the regular-season finale, a result that earned the Green and Gold a postseason spot as the NFC's final Wild Card entry.
The Packers have followed up that critical win with two highly-impressive road efforts to advance to Sunday's conference title game, besting NFC East champion Philadelphia by a 21-16 count in the Wild Card Round before humbling top-seeded Atlanta in a 48-21 shocker last weekend at the Georgia Dome.
Green Bay used a near-flawless performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and its offense to overwhelm the Falcons, piling up 442 total yards and scoring touchdowns on five straight possessions at one point to build a commanding 42-14 lead. The Packers held their own on the other end as well, limiting Atlanta to a mere 194 yards and inducing four turnovers, including a back- breaking 70-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Tramon Williams to close out the first half.
Rodgers completed a crisp 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns while also running in a score, becoming the first signal-caller in NFL history to both throw for three touchdowns and record a passer rating of 120 or better in each of his first three postseason starts.
Chicago, which finished a game ahead of the Pack in the NFC North standings to claim the conference's No. 2 seed, also received a big-time showing from its quarterback during the Divisional Round. Jay Cutler's playoff debut was a smashing success, with the sometimes-erratic triggerman accounting for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) and not committing a turnover to lead the Bears to a 35-24 ousting of surprising Seattle last Sunday.
Repeating that sharp effort could be essential to Chicago's hopes of reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in head coach Lovie Smith's seven-year tenure. Cutler threw two interceptions, the last of which came in Green territory in the closing seconds, in the Week 17 loss at Lambeau, and he's been picked off nine times in four bouts with the Packers since joining the Bears in a trade with Denver prior to the 2009 campaign.
Green Bay will be vying for its first Super Bowl invitation since 1997 and is participating in the NFC Championship for the first time since 2007, when the Pack dropped a gut-wrenching 23-20 overtime decision at home to the New York Giants in what turned out to be Brett Favre's final game with the franchise.
That Giants team stands as the only NFC member to get to the Super Bowl by winning three times on the road in the playoffs, an achievement the Packers can match by prevailing on Sunday. Green Bay is also seeking to join the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers as the only sixth seeds to advance to the Big Game.
The Bears' last NFC Championship appearance came in 2006, when it defeated New Orleans by a 39-14 score at Soldier Field to move on to Super Bowl XLI.
Chicago and Green Bay have met 181 times previously in the NFL's most-played series, which dates all the way back to the 1921 season, but as previously mentioned, have gone head-to-head only once prior in the playoffs, when George Halas' Bears got the best of Curly Lambeau's Packers in 1941.
The Bears hold a 91-83-6 advantage over Green Bay during the regular season, but the Packers have won three of the last four bouts between the clubs. Green Bay came through with a 21-14 verdict at Soldier Field in 2009, the team's lone win in its last four trips to Chicago.
Smith is 8-6 all-time against the Packers as a head coach, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy owns a 5-5 career record against both Smith and the Bears. Both Smith and McCarthy sport 3-2 marks in the postseason with their respective teams.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers' (546 passing yards, 6 TD, 0 INT in playoffs) terrific play in this year's playoffs has been an extension of the standout quarterback's excellent finish to the regular season, and he'll be entering Sunday's tilt having compiled a 125.0 passer rating and a stellar 22-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last nine games. Favre's former understudy has no shortage of capable targets to throw to as well, with the wide receiver quartet of Greg Jennings (9 receptions), Donald Driver (11 receptions, 132 yards), Jones (5 receptions, 2 TD) and Jordy Nelson (8 receptions, 1 TD) all gaining 75 yards or more and combining for 26 catches in last week's rout of Atlanta. Jennings was the group's most dangerous member during the regular season, amassing 1,265 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns while garnering a Pro Bowl citation, but the 35-year-old Driver came up with 14 catches in the two earlier meetings with Chicago and has been Green Bay's most productive player thus far in the postseason. An inconsistent running game that ranked a lackluster 24th (100.4 ypg) in the regular season has gotten a huge boost in the playoffs from rookie James Starks (189 rushing yards), who helped key the win over Philadelphia by churning out 123 rushing yards on 23 carries. The Bears must also be aware of Rodgers' mobility out of the pocket, as his 356 rushing yards were the third- most among league quarterbacks this year.
Expect the Packers to try to attack the Bears through the air using their multiple-receiver sets, since they didn't rush for more than 63 yards in their two battles with a rugged Chicago defense that yielded the second-fewest yards on the ground (90.1 ypg) over the course of the regular season. Linebackers Brian Urlacher (125 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (89 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) each received Pro Bowl honors as the team's top two stoppers, while havoc-wreaking end Julius Peppers (54 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT) has also been a force against the run in addition to maintaining his status as one of the game's premier pass rushers. The offseason acquisition, along with versatile counterpart Israel Idonije (49 tackles, 8 sacks), will be in charge of bringing the heat upon Rodgers, who was sacked only twice in the two previous matchups between these teams, and tackle Tommie Harris (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks) could also help out in that area after the puzzling former Pro Bowler notched two sacks against Seattle last week. Cornerback Charles Tillman (82 tackles, 5 INT, 14 PD) heads up a stout secondary that surrendered only 14 touchdown passes over the 16-game schedule and produced 21 interceptions, with free safety Chris Harris (70 tackles) generating five picks over the final nine weeks. He exited the Seattle win with a hip pointer, but is expected to be available for Sunday's test.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago won seven of its final nine regular-season contests, and that second- half surge coincided with a renewed commitment to a running game that had been a non-factor in the early going. The Bears continued to move the ball effectively on the ground in their playoff opener, with the backfield duo of Matt Forte (1069 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 9 total TD) and Chester Taylor (267 rushing yards, 3 TD, 20 receptions) teaming up for 124 yards on 36 carries against the Seahawks and a judicious Cutler (3274 passing yards, 23 TD, 16 INT) adding 43 more and two scores on eight scrambles. Chicago is 10-1 when rushing for over 100 yards this season, though that lone blemish came against the Packers in Week 17, and that approach has also helped to combat Cutler's hit- or-miss tendencies as a passer and a troublesome front line that allowed a league-worst 56 sacks, including six to Green Bay in the finale. Provided he gets ample time to survey his surroundings, Cutler will be looking downfield for playmaking wide receiver Johnny Knox (51 receptions, 5 TD) and talented tight end Greg Olsen (41 receptions, 5 TD), who burned the Seahawks for 113 yards on just three catches last week. He's also got a reliable safety valve in Forte, whose 547 receiving yards placed fourth among NFL backs this year.
Using a smash-mouth philosophy makes sense against the Packers, who led the entire NFL in pass efficiency defense during the regular season while ranking second in both interceptions (24) and sacks (47) as well. A high-caliber secondary features a pair of Pro Bowl selection in veteran cornerback Charles Woodson (12 tackles, 1 sack) and free safety Nick Collins, while Williams (5 tackles, 3 PD) is showing he's worthy of such honors with a sensational postseason in which the undrafted free agent has delivered three interceptions, including a game-sealing pick in the end zone during the Philadelphia win. The pressure will be coming from relentless edge rusher Clay Matthews (7 tackles), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who racked up 14 sacks prior to the playoffs and has added three more in two postseason games. Fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden (7 tackles, 1 sack) took down Cutler twice in Green Bay's victory over the Bears earlier this month, while nose tackle B.J. Raji (4 tackles, 1 sacks) and end Cullen Jenkins are adept at getting to the quarterback as well. Raji and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (10 tackles, 1 sack) also serve as two of the top run defenders on a unit that held Atlanta bruiser Michael Turner to a harmless 39 yards on 10 attempts last weekend.
One area in which Chicago owns a clear advantage is in the return game, where the dynamite Devin Hester topped the NFL with a 17.1 average taking back punts and scored three touchdowns, including a 62-yarder against the Packers in the Bears' Week 3 win. The spark-plug receiver also averaged a sizzling 35.6 yards while splitting kickoff duties with Danieal Manning (24.7 avg.), and a suspect Green Bay coverage unit that gave up a 102-yard kick-return score to Atlanta's Eric Weems a week ago would be wise to keep the ball out of Hester's hands.
Chicago kicker Robbie Gould (25-of-30 on field goals) is a reliable veteran with an 85.5 career success rate on field goal attempts, though he hasn't made one longer than 37 yards at Soldier Field this year. Fourteen-year pro Brad Maynard is still an excellent directional punter, though his 40.1 overall average was last in the league.
The remainder of Green Bay's special teams corps has been ordinary as well, with neither Nelson (21.6 avg.) and rookie nickel back Sam Shields (21.5 avg.) making a big impact on kick returns and Williams (8.4 avg.) doing a steady job on punts. Rookie punter Tim Masthay averaged nearly 44 yards per kick and put 25 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line in a solid debut, but kicker Mason Crosby (22-of-28 on field goals) has made just 78.1 percent of his career three-point tries and can be an adventure.
Chicago's fortunes for a second Super Bowl trip in five years likely rest on Cutler, who's going to have to play comparably to the red-hot Rodgers for his team to advance. If he's able to reprise last week's sharp showing, there'll be plenty of rejoicing along the shores of Lake Michigan come Sunday night. Green Bay's opportunistic defense is a steep step up in class from that of the shaky Seahawks, however, and Cutler's track record in the series indicates a error- free day may be asking too much. With an edge at the all-important quarterback position, a defense that's on par with Chicago's sturdy outfit, and an innovative play-caller in McCarthy at the controls, there's a lot to like on the Green Bay side. The Bears had their chance to keep the Packers out of the postseason party, a missed opportunity they may soon regret.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 24, Bears 17
01/20 12:06:53 ET