Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Chicago Bears (12-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, 2 p.m.
TV: Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers).
Keys to the game
As red-hot as Aaron Rodgers is, playing the Bears in Chicago introduces several factors he didn't have to deal with on the fast indoor surface in Atlanta last week. First is Soldier Field, which has tenuous footing and often a biting freezing wind in January. Second is the Bears' Cover-2 defense, which will focus on eliminating big plays and forcing Rodgers to orchestrate lengthy scoring drives. Chicago wants to stuff rookie RB James Starks so it can aggressively rush Rodgers, who will have mismatches downfield if given time.
Bears QB Jay Cutler is coming off a strong postseason debut, but the Packers' defense sacked him nine times during the two regular-season meetings. The Bears' offense has been far more efficient since offensive coordinator Mike Martz made a concerted effort to be balanced in his play-calling coming out of the team's Week 8 bye. But he largely abandoned the run in the Week 17 loss as Chicago attempted to move the ball through the air too much on first down. Expect RB Matt Forte to get plenty of early touches on the ground and through the air. The Bears don't want Cutler forcing the issue against the strength of Green Bay's pass rush and ball-hawking secondary.
3:02. Time in minutes and seconds of the average Bears scoring drive, the lowest in the NFL. ...Bears kicker Robbie Gould has never missed a kick in the postseason, hitting 6-of-6 field-goal attempts and all 17 extra points. He has hit 21-of-23 field-goal attempts against the Packers. ... Terry McAulay, whose crew called Green Bay for a season-high 18 penalties for 152 yards in Chicago on Sept. 27, will be the referee. ... Cutler's four career passer ratings against Green Bay have been: 43.2, 74.9, 82.5 and 43.5.
182nd meeting. Bears lead 92-83-6. The league's oldest rivals, going back to their first game in 1921 when Chicago was known as the Staleys, are meeting in the postseason for only the second time. The Bears won 33-14 on Dec. 14, 1941, in the Western Division playoff at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The NFC North foes split the two games in the regular season with the home team winning. The last five meetings and six of the past eight encounters have been decided by seven points or less.
Inside the Bears
According to the old adage, great players make great plays in big games.
And as far as the Bears and Packers are concerned, Sunday's NFC Championship Game battle at Soldier Field is as big a game as has ever been played in the 89-year, 181-game history of the rivalry.
Both teams have an abundance of players capable of grabbing the spotlight, but the Bears have five in particular who could have the biggest impact on the outcome.
— Defensive end Julius Peppers: No less an authority than seven-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has been one of Peppers' biggest fans since Day One of training camp, raving about his proficiency in all phases of the defense.
"We thought he was good when he came here," Urlacher said. "He was everything we thought he would be and more. He's always in the backfield. He's getting held if it's a pass — they don't call it all the time — but it looks like he gets held every play to me. He's been awesome, and he doesn't say much. He just goes about his business, does his job, is a good teammate and works hard."
Peppers has had six seasons with more than the eight sacks he got this year, but he's capable of taking over the game if the Bears put the Packers in obvious passing situations.
— Forte: It seems the more the Bears went to Forte later in the season, the better the offense ran. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry over the final six weeks, fifth best in the NFL, and was third in the league over the same period with 718 yards from scrimmage. Forte tied for the team lead with 51 receptions and his 10.7-yard average was third among all running backs.
"He's been outstanding throughout," coach Lovie Smith said, "especially lately the way he's running the ball, catching the ball, and picking up blitzes, which we'll have to do quite a bit this week. He's done everything you would like a complete running back to do."
— Quarterback Jay Cutler: His 111.2 passer rating last week against the Seahawks was Cutler's fifth over 104.0 in his last seven games, and he's 22-0 as a starter when his passer rating is 100.0 or better, including 12-0 as a Bear.
"Jay Cutler should be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "He's a tough guy. He's made a lot of throws, but I like the decisions he's made on when to take off and run the ball. He was outstanding last week, and we'll need him to play that way again this week."
Cutler averaged a team-best 4.6 yards per carry while rushing for a career-best 232 yards plus a personal-best 43 yards last week.
— Devin Hester: No one has more of a flair for the sensational than the NFL's all-time leader in kick-return touchdowns. Hester's total of 14 doesn't include the 92-yard touchdown return he had on opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI or the 108-yard missed field goal he returned for a score.
"This would be a typical Devin time to do it, right?" Bears tight end Greg Olsen said. "It seems like in the bigger games, when we really need him, is when he makes those returns. Certain guys have that knack, and he's one of them."
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub knows that better than anyone.
"That's who he is," Toub said. "He performs; he's an entertainer. When the bright lights come on, he steps it up."
— Cornerback Charles Tillman: Not only did he tie for the team lead with five interceptions, he piled up 127 return yards after his picks, the third-highest total in the league. Even more noteworthy is that since Tillman entered the league in 2003, he has forced 24 fumbles, more than any other defensive back in the NFL.
"That's all we talk about, taking the ball away, causing fumbles, and ‘Peanut' is the best at it in the NFL, at getting the ball out," Urlacher said.
Tillman tied for the team lead this year with three forced fumbles, tied for second with two recovered fumbles and was second with 11 pass breakups.
"You can teach it," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Tillman's knack for punching or ripping the ball out. "But he just does it extremely well, and it magnifies it to the other players, the urgency to get the ball out. I don't know if there has been anybody ever in this game as good as this guy at how he takes the ball away, and then add in all of the other things he can do."
If head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy can help it, the Packers will continue to be the two-dimensional offense that in the postseason has belied their pass-happy reputation. McCarthy puts more stock in quantity of carries than quality, so he had no qualms with the meager average of a little more than 3.0 yards per attempt generated in 31 run plays in the divisional-round rout at Atlanta.
"If we can run the ball more than 30 times this week, I think we'll be very successful," McCarthy said.
The Packers are 7-1 when they have at least 30 rushing attempts, but they didn't come close to hitting that benchmark in the two previous games against the Bears. McCarthy probably learned his lesson and won't be so quick to forget about the run, especially if Rodgers endures a cold spell throwing the football in freezing conditions.
Rodgers' counterpart and friend has a good idea what he'll be seeing from the Packers defense.
"They're going to blitz. They're going to bring pressure," Cutler said. "We know that, and we expect that."
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was relentless with his pressure schemes in the second meeting three weeks ago, leading to six sacks of Cutler and only three points on the scoreboard for Chicago even if its game plan was vanilla in a regular-season finale the Bears didn't have to win. The Packers have sacked Cutler nine times this season.
Don't look for Capers to tinker with the aggression-fueled success, but the threat of Bears running back Matt Forte could be an equalizer.
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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 email@example.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.