The tundra of Lambeau Field may not have been completely frozen, but if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine them out there once more. Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus. Doug Atkins and Willie Davis. Herb Adderley and Ed O'Bradovich.
This was 60 minutes of all-out football warfare in the 181st renewal of the NFL's oldest rivalry. George Halas and Vince Lombardi would have been proud.
Lombardi, in particular, would have been pleased that some of Green Bay's biggest defensive gems were turned in by guys who are not exactly household names. They were simply guys who stepped up when it was needed most.
Linebacker Erik Walden – a midseason addition who is starting because of injuries to Brad Jones, Brady Poppinga and Frank Zombo -- sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler twice, including once when the Bears had third-and-goal on the Green Bay 4-yard line late in the first half. Chicago was forced to settle for a field goal. Walden created all kinds of havoc with 11 tackles and serving as a spy on athletic Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
"I think it was a whole team effort from the D-line to the outside backers to the inside and the secondary," said Walden. "Everybody's on the same page, doing their job and being the most effective to help us win. Our main thing was getting this win and not letting anybody else control our destiny. It felt good to sack Cutler because I hit him a couple of times in college when we played Vanderbilt. He's a great player but we knew we had to get to him if we were going to have any success in the game today."
"What he did today, that's all-star material the way he played out there today," said Woodson. "He was a large factor in our win today."
"To come out here on a grand stage in which we win and we're in the playoffs, for him to come out – (I thought) he had three sacks but I guess he only had two," added Matthews. "He played a magnificent game. Hopefully, he'll only continue to get better. It's hard for a guy to come in halfway through the season, pick up the defense and make an impact, but that's what he's doing. He's made his presence felt."
There were other unlikely heroes in this game, too. Massive defensive end Howard Green, who was picked up on waivers from the Jets earlier this season, sacked Cutler and registered a pair of tackles as he played extensively in the second half as the Packers played more of their base defense to put the brakes on Chicago's running game.
"We play hard and everybody has a responsibility to have the will to not quit, do your job and get us into the playoffs," said a smiling Green. "Hats off to this team because this is a strong team. On my sack, the secondary made Cutler pull it down to think it over because it looked like he was going to just get rid of it and there was just enough time for me to get there. He wasn't comfortable setting his feet and throwing the ball. That's when you get him to make bad decisions and that kind of was our theme for the week to get him out of the pocket and not let him just sit there and throw the ball."
The play of those unsung hereos wasn't lost on defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Along with Walden and Green, Charlie Peprah (interception) and Desmond Bishop (six tackles, two passes defensed) are players who began the season as backups but were thrust into the lineup because of injuries.
"You saw Howard come up with a sack, you saw Erik get two sacks and I thought Erik had good pressure," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "He's made improvement. We've been pleased with his progress. Howard's come in and filled a big role for us in terms of our first- and second-down run defense. Those guys, I can't say enough about them in terms of their approach, their attitude."
Peprah seemed to be all over the field, and his interception midway through the third quarter may have saved the game. Chicago was gunning to go up 10-0 when Peprah played Cutler's pass to Johnny Knox perfectly, snaring it in the corner of the end zone to end the Bears' threat.
Peprah, Walden, Green and Bishop were just four important parts in a swarming Packers defensive machine that made life miserable for Cutler much of the game. They were joined by linebacker A. J. Hawk who registered 11 tackles (nine solo) and Matthews, who made his presence felt with a sack and numerous hurries on Cutler. The cagey Woodson added six tackles and a sack while blitzing frequently, and Nick Collins' pick with 10 seconds left sealed the victory.
It was simply a great team defensive show in every sense of the word. Capers was all smiles when asked about his band of unlikely heroes who contributed so much to launching the Packers into the playoffs.
"To me, it's a great example of these guys stepping in and understanding they have a job to do and being accountable for their job," he said of a defense that finished second in the league in points allowed. "I've always believed that you get what you expect and we expect a lot out of them. People normally raise or lower themselves to the level they think is expected of them and we have high expectations for these guys. They're unselfish guys that don't want to let anybody on the team down. It's just expected for them to go out and do their job or we wouldn't be where we are."
The Packers finished with six sacks and forced seven three-and-out punts on 13 possessions. Chicago had the ball seven times in the second half. The first six possessions totaled merely 21 yards. At one point, Chicago drives ended in an interception and four consecutive punts. Those drives lost 16 yards.
"Just knocking Cutler off his timing," Collins replied when asked to describe the defensive keys to this win. "Just standing firm with their receivers and not letting their receivers get by us. We stopped the run when we had to. Everybody's been underrating our defense throughout the whole season but we know what we can do. On that pick, the feeling was awesome. We bought our ticket to the dance. We can play with anybody."
Tip your hat to the Chicago Bears, too. They had nothing much to play for except pride and the chance to end Green Bay's season. Yet, coach Lovie Smith kept his starters in for the entire game.
"We knew what it was going to be, it's a rivalry game," said Woodson. "We knew they weren't going to pull their guys. They want to beat the Packers and the Packers want to beat the Bears. Why not give the fans a great game? I think that's what we did today."
"We did what we've been doing all year," added cornerback Tramon Williams. "We kept those guys out of the end zone and gave our offense the opportunity to make plays. I wasn't surprised that Chicago came out with all guns blazing tonight, either. If I was them, I would have done the same thing. That's the way we prepared all week and we came out and showed it."
The Packers have now been in must-win, playoff mode for two straight games. They believe they are ready and can play with anybody.
Let the real playoffs begin.