'Little Things,' Experience Are Key

From the bitter taste of 2007 could come a shot to bring the Lombardi Trophy back home to Green Bay. We take our first real look at Sunday's NFC Championship Game pitting the Bears and Packers.

What a difference one year makes.

Ten starters who lined up for the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants for the NFC Championship Game in 2007 will be in the starting lineup on Sunday at Chicago: linemen Chad Clifton, Daryn Colledge and Scott Wells, fullback John Kuhn, receiver Donald Driver, defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins, linebacker A.J. Hawk, cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins. An 11th starter, Greg Jennings, did not start against the Giants because the Packers lined up in a three-back set.

Only six starters who lined up for the Chicago Bears against the New Orleans Saints for the NFC Championship Game one year earlier will be in the lineup on Sunday: linemen Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza, linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, cornerback Charles Tillman and safety Danieal Manning.

While the Packers have the advantage in experience, those experiences had sour endings. The Packers were stunned at home by the Giants in overtime, 23-20. The Bears were cut down by Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, 29-17.

In all, 18 members of the Packers' 53-man roster were with the team for that frigid game. Sixteen members of the Bears' 53-man roster suited up for the championship game.

Even with two appearances in the championship game in his five seasons on the job, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he's struck by how difficult it is to get this far. His counterpart, Lovie Smith, would concur. Last weekend's victory over Seattle was the Bears' first playoff game since the Super Bowl.

Now, McCarthy wants to write a different ending.

"I'm sure everybody that went through the experience in '07 has a personal memory of what they thought maybe they could do differently or how they can learn from that experience," McCarthy said on Monday. "I'll be a better coach this time, the second time around. The players that went through that game, I fully anticipate them to be better players. It's like anything in life, when you have the opportunity to learn from experiences, a lot of times in our lives you learn from the negative experiences that you've encountered. But to sit there and compare this game with '07, I don't think it helps us."

Jennings vividly remembers the abrupt ending to the season. Recently, he said that his family was so sure that the Packers would beat the Giants that they had booked their flights to Arizona for the Super Bowl rather than freezing in the bitter cold.

"That was a bitter taste," Jennings said on Monday. "I remember sitting in my locker room for about 15, 20 minutes after everybody left — and I mean not having taken off any equipment. It was an unfamiliar feeling. But at the same time, it was a sense of, ‘Boy, we got here and we let one slip away.' That's one thing you have to take with you, the feeling we had coming off that field at home and seeing another team celebrating on our field, on our turf. Obviously, the window of opportunity is not always open and it doesn't come each and every season. Obviously, it's been three years since we've been in this position and we're fortunate to be in this situation and we'll try to make the best of it."

Center Scott Wells hates to revisit that game. On Monday, though, he cited the "little things (that) jump up and bite you in the tail" as the difference in the playoffs, such as third down and the red zone. Against the Giants, the Packers converted 1-of-10 third downs and punched it into the end zone on 1-of-3 trips to the red zone.

The Packers have been strong in both areas this season, and they need to do so again against the Bears.

For this season, Green Bay ranked eighth in third-down offense at 42 percent compared to Chicago's 27th-ranked 33 percent. In the red zone, Green Bay ranked fourth with touchdowns 62.9 percent of the time compared to Chicago's 24th-ranked 48.2 percent.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago ranked sixth in third-down defense at 35 percent compared to Green Bay's ninth-ranked 36 percent. In the red zone, Green Bay ranked 11th by allowing touchdowns 48.7 percent of the time compared to Chicago's 15th-ranked 50 percent of the time.

"That's why it's even more important to reinforce what we've been reinforcing to our team, is to stick to who you are," McCarthy said. "We like our brand of football. We're not going to change the way we approach games, the way we perform in those games."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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