Chicago can say it had nothing to play for and the outcome of that game didn't matter — both of which are true — but it hardly looked that way. Jay Cutler was sacked six times and picked off twice in that regular season finale, and when these teams meet for a third time, there's every reason to think it will look a lot like their most recent matchup. There may be a few new wrinkles, but you'll still recognize the face.
While there's nothing quite like sticking it to your division rival, especially when it means you can park their butts on the couch for the postseason while you're playing on national television, that Jan. 2 game had desperation piggybacking on for both squads. Green Bay needed a win to get in, and Chicago played like they'd do anything to avoid seeing green and gold jerseys in the postseason. Why else let your quarterback get pummeled when you've got a first-round bye and a home game in your pocket? But with a 10-3 Packers victory, that strategy didn't exactly work.
Fast-forward three weeks and the Bears are hosting the title game after coasting to a 28-0 lead and eventual 35-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks following a first-round bye. Green Bay, meanwhile, rode rookie James Starks for 123 yards in a win over the Eagles and virtuoso performances by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and cornerback Tramon Williams in a dismantling of the No. 1-seeded Falcons at Atlanta on Saturday.
The NFC title game will look nothing like any of those playoff contests, however. This game screams "bet the under." Moreover, it will be a matchup of big men with bad temperaments who want to put a guy in a No. 6 or No. 12 jersey on the wrong end of a mass-multiplied by-force equation. If you like ugly, this will be a thing of beauty.
There isn't a hotter offensive player left in this NFL final four than the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. His 31-of-36, 366-yards, four-touchdowns performance at Atlanta was arguably the greatest postseason performance by a quarterback in franchise history. When your franchise has had guys named Starr and Favre suit up, that's saying something. But in two games against Chicago's defense, Rodgers and the Pack have managed just 27 points.
Cutler's done pretty well for himself, too. He put up 437 yards, including 113 to tight end Greg Olsen, in Sunday's win, and matched Rodgers with four scores — two passing and two rushing. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Cutler isn't the second-coming of Jeff George, minus the mustache and mullet. His coaches and teammates love him, but after a season of sideline pouts and sour expressions, he's a tough embrace, even for Bears fans.
Where Cutler differentiates himself from Rodgers, however, is the inexplicably careless and occasionally costly throw under pressure. The Seahawks were unable to capitalize on them. The Packers most assuredly will. When the turnovers come, it will be because of the pressure the Packers bring from seemingly everywhere but the stands, but look for Green Bay's defensive line to be the ones planting Cutler into the Soldier Field slop. Cutler was sacked a league-leading 52 times this season, two more than Rodgers' league-leading 2009 total. This season, Rodgers was taken down just 31 times.
Clifton vs. Peppers
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
The Bears know all about linebacker Clay Matthews, who's notched three postseason sacks to go with 13.5 in the regular season. He'll be a focal point of their scheme. If they get beat, they don't want it to be because the long-haired madman came crashing through unblocked. They'll also be calling out where Charles Woodson is before every snap, knowing that Green Bay's Pro Bowl cornerback can blitz from anywhere at anytime.
And don't look for a repeat performance by Green Bay's other outside linebacker, Erik Walden, who had his coming-out party in his first start vs. Chicago with 16 tackles and three sacks. No, if Green Bay is going to pressure Cutler into a game-altering miscue, look for defensive end Cullen Jenkins or nose tackle B.J. Raji, who are second and third on the defense with seven and 6.5 sacks, respectively, to be causing it. While the big bodies on the line are typically tying up offensive linemen and letting blitzers do the clean-up, the extra attention being paid to guys like Matthews, Walden and Woodson, could set up Raji and Jenkins for a big day.
Raji has developed into the dominant inside presence the Packers envisioned when they made him the No. 9 overall pick in 2009 out of Boston College. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate this year, but the way he's playing could make him a Super Bowl participant. That would be infinitely more meaningful. He led all NFL nose tackles in sacks. In fact, they're the most by a nose tackle since Minnesota's Ken Clarke notched seven in 1990. Raji is the space eater in the middle that has grown into the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. His brute strength has allowed him to dominate at times and he's got a burst and quickness at 337 pounds that is rare. Bears center Olin Kruetz and guards Chris Williams and Roberto Garza will have their hands full of No. 90 on Sunday. And when they shift their attention away for a second to one of those blitzing defenders, Raji will make them — and Cutler — pay for it.
Jenkins, who missed five games because of injuries, had two tackles, a sack and a pressure on Cutler in Week 3 despite playing with a club cast on his left hand that he broke in the season opener against Philly. After getting thrown back into the fire in the playoff win against the Eagles, he just saw reps in the nickel package at Atlanta. Still, he expects to be 100 percent this Sunday and that means one more headache for Chicago to contend with.
The Bears bring some beef of their own with defensive tackles Tommie Harris — who had two sacks against Seattle — and Anthony Adams, along with ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Neither end got sacks on Sunday, but they spent plenty of time in the face of Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, and will be looking to do the same against Rodgers. Peppers and Idonije each had eight sacks during the regular season.
Peppers, who added 11 passes defensed, two interceptions and three forced fumbles, made his sixth Pro Bowl this year and will bounce back and forth to test left tackle Chad Clifton and rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga. And Pro Bowl linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs will be filling in holes and looking for big plays behind that front four.
In a game that seems destined to be close, the quarterback with the cleanest uniform at the end of the game will be the one packing for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. But those big, dirty d-lineman will be heading there with him.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.