The Packers went from 13-3 and a berth in the NFC Championship Game to 6-10. The rancor stirred up by the Brett Favre saga only added to the incredibly bitter taste. The problem wasn't at quarterback, though. Instead, it was a shoddy defense coordinated by Bob Sanders. The Packers finished 22nd in points allowed, with six games of at least 27 points.
So, McCarthy basically started from scratch. Out went the 4-3 scheme and steady diet of press-man coverage in the secondary. In came the unpredictable 3-4 scheme coordinated by Dom Capers.
Had the defense not made such a dramatic turnaround, the Packers clearly wouldn't be playing for a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday and McCarthy probably wouldn't be employed here anymore.
Capers is the toast of the town, and for good reason. In 2008, the Packers allowed less than 14 points in just one game. This year, they've done it six times. With the season on the line in 2008, the Packers lost five straight games by allowing 30 points per game and last-minute drives to lose against Carolina, Houston and Jacksonville. With the season on the line this year, the Packers have won four straight, with the defense allowing 12.5 points per game and producing key turnovers in every game.
It's been much, much more than just Capers, though. McCarthy retained Winston Moss to head up the inside linebackers and promoted young up-and-comer Joe Whitt from quality control to cornerbacks. In a coup, Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac — who was an assistant with McCarthy here in 1999 — wanted to take a step back and was available to take over the defensive line. Kevin Greene and Darren Perry played for Capers and were hired to coach the outside linebackers and safeties, respectively.
"Well, when you're putting together a staff, you're obviously looking for the best coaches that you possibly can," McCarthy said when asked by Packer Report this week. "Like any good coordinator, you've got to put it all together. They're fine men, they're fine coaches. But the fit, to me, is what makes a good staff. And the coordinators are responsible to make that fit come together, and Dom Capers has done a tremendous job with that staff."
The staff has earned its keep this season. Even without 43 games from Week 1 starters — with Morgan Burnett, Nick Barnett and Brad Jones joining key backup Brandon Chillar on injured reserve — the Packers finished the season ranked second in points allowed, first in opponent passer rating, second in sacks and sixth in takeaways.
"Many of the things that we talk about when we go in the defensive meeting room with the defense, it starts right in our defensive staff room," Capers said. "Players, they don't miss a trick now. They know if you're all on the same page and if you're all pulling in the same direction. Everybody has the same goals. And I think that then that carries over into that group."
The staff is an intriguing mix of age and experience. Trgovac is 51, played collegiately for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and got his first NFL job with Philadelphia in 1995. In 1995, Whitt was in high school. He played receiver at Auburn, where his dad, Joe Whitt Sr., was a longtime assistant coach who happened to be Kevin Greene's position coach. On Wednesday, all-world cornerback Charles Woodson called Whitt "one of the best young coaches that this game has to offer." Coaching neophyte Greene (1985 through 1999), assistant head coach Moss (1987 through 1997) and the highly-regarded Perry (1992 through 2000) were contemporaries on the playing field.
"First thing I think is we've got a great leader in Dom," Whitt, who joined the Packers in 2008, told Packer Report on Friday. "He's the best guy I've ever worked for. When you have a leader like him, it's easy to fall into place. The staff, a lot of people knew each other already so there was a comfort level with each other. And then there's no ego. We just want to work. We want to work and make this defense look the way Dom Capers wants it to look. We all put our egos to the side and we just want to work. It's a beautiful thing. I've never worked on a staff where everyone's just pulling the same direction. It's a joy to come to work and work with these men, and they're very, very talented. It's exciting."
Packers vs. Bears, for all the NFC marbles.
"I'm going to tell you something: Staff chemistry is huge," Trgovac told Packer Report on Friday. "Having been in that position before, it's huge. Making sure you have the right guys — and everybody's personality's different. Dom's fortunate where he's got Kevin that he's coached, he's got Darren that he's coached. I've known Dom forever. He's very fortunate. When you have guys like Kevin and DP (Perry), who are so loyal to Dom because they played in that system, all three have the Pittsburgh tie, it's huge. You have guys that knew his system and then you had Winston and Joe — Winston played years in the league and has done a great job here. It's huge to have that chemistry. I'll tell you what it is, it's a very unselfish staff. Sometimes, you get on a staff and you've got guys that are always looking for that next job. That's not the case here. When you do well, things will happen for you. You don't have a lot of guys with closed doors, talking on the phone. It's been really nice."
Trgovac has been linked to the vacant coordinator post in Denver, where he'd be reunited with his former boss in Carolina, John Fox. Trgovac didn't say he's not interested but said "I love my job" on several occasions and has his family to consider, with a daughter who's a junior in high school.
"These group of D-linemen that I work with, it was a lot of work to change from the 4-3 to the 3-4," Trgovac said. "There were some things personality-wise that we had to get right in that room. It was a lot of work. It's kind of like unfinished work. Even if we keep going ... I don't know, I just want to bet Chicago. That's all."
Starks' unlikely story
Rookie James Starks has been a savior during the two playoff games, and he'll need to play a big role against the Bears.
That he's getting this opportunity for the Packers is such an unlikely story. The Bears had done everything but turn in the card before a last-second switcheroo led to them using their sixth-round draft pick on quarterback Dan LeFevour. A dozen picks later, the Packers grabbed Starks.
That Starks missed most of the offseason and all of training camp and the preseason with hamstring issues wasn't a problem. After all, two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant had proven to be an unbreakable workhorse. Then, in the second quarter of the season opener, Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
You know the rest of the story: Brandon Jackson was consistently inconsistent, John Kuhn turned into a folk hero but lacked the pure skill to be a featured back, Dimitri Nance was signed off the Falcons' practice squad but didn't pan out and Marshawn Lynch was traded to the Seahawks rather than the Packers. Finally, in the playoffs, Starks got his shot, and he leads all NFL running backs with 189 rushing yards.
All week, Starks spoke with a smile about what happened with the Bears. He insists he was "grateful" that the Bears even called, considering his didn't play his senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury. No, he kept saying, this wouldn't be about revenge.
"You don't let those thoughts play a part of your mind because if you're thinking about that, obviously you're not focused," he said. "That has nothing to do with anything. I'm happy being here as a Green Bay Packer."
The Bears are renowned for their Cover-2 defense ... which they really don't play as a base package all that often anymore. Receiver Jordy Nelson said the Bears didn't "play very much" Cover-2 in Week 17 — in fact, the Bears played a lot of man with some press coverage — but used it frequently in the second half in Week 3.
Either way, the principles are in place. Chicago personifies a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Week 3 was a perfect example, with Aaron Rodgers throwing for 316 yards and Green Bay winning the total yardage battle 379-276 but losing the game 20-17. At some point, the Bears believe they'll force a mistake, whether it's a penalty or a sack or a turnover.
Can Green Bay avoid that kind of mistake? In the playoffs, its touchdown drives against Philadelphia required 10, 12 and 11 plays. Against Atlanta, its touchdown drives needed 13, 10, seven, 12 and eight plays.
"That really hasn't been our way this season as a whole. We've done a lot of more quick-strike scoring drives," Rodgers said. "To be able to put together the kind of drives we have in the playoffs, just kind of tells us that we can go the distance. When you're playing a team like this, that's kind of what they want you to do. They've been more aggressive here in the second half of the season blitzing and stuff. But they want to make you go seven, eight, nine, 10-plus plays, knowing they're going to get a chance to strip the ball out, they're going to get a chance for a turnover. That's what they're counting on, that you can't go the distance in 10, 12 plays and score."
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— Jarrett Bush provides the scouting report on Devin Hester: "Shoot, he can run, his vision, his ability to see the creases, break tackles, He basically runs like a human joystick. He's the greatest returner so far (in NFL history). It's Devin Hester. Enough said. He's proven to you guys, he's proven to the world why he's the greatest. He is one of a kind. That's definitely the obstacle of Devin Hester."
— And Bush speaks honestly about Jay Cutler: "He's a great quarterback. He's got the arm, he has the athletic ability, he has a gunslinger mentality. He'll throw the ball anywhere; he can make all the throws. I would say he doesn't really have any weaknesses but he gets a little bit flustered when a lot of pressure's on him and he tends to make some bad decisions, so hopefully we can capitalize on that and hopefully use that to our advantage."
— Desmond Bishop provides the scouting report on Matt Forte: "He's a very good back. I think he's one of the best backs in the league. He has good speed, size, balance. He can hurt you, too, because he can run inside the tackles and outside and catch screens. He's a good back."
— Charles Woodson provides the scouting report on Greg Olsen: "Yeah, he's one of those big-play tight ends that you have in the league. He's a guy that has size, he has speed and he also blocks well for them. So, he's a guy that can split him out at times or he can run routes for you and get himself upfield, make plays downfield with his speed and catching the ball. He's a threat. You have your Antonio Gates who can run well, Jermichael (Finley) here is one of those guys at tight end, and he's right in there with those guys."
In Mason Crosby's NFL debut, he banged through a 42-yard field goal with 2 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia in the 2007 opener. He hasn't been a hero since, missing game-winners against Minnesota (52 yards) and Chicago (blocked from 38) in 2008 and plunking the ball off the upright at Washington (53) in Week 5 of this season.
"If that opportunity comes in this game, that would be awesome," Crosby said. "Ultimately, you always just want to win the game. And if that's my role in this one, that would be awesome. Yeah, I think about that. Obviously, I have to prepare and be mentally ready for it. I look forward to that first kick. Get out on the field in the NFC Championship Game, hit that first ball and just kind of go for the next one. That's where my mindset is, and if the end of the game comes and I have a chance for the game-winner, that would be sweet."
By contrast, the Bears have a proven clutch performer in Robbie Gould, who coach Lovie Smith this week called "the best kicker in the league." Gould's career accuracy of 85.5 percent is the fifth-best in NFL history — incredible given he plays half his games at Soldier Field. He hit 25-of-30 this year and is a perfect 6-for-6 in five career playoff games.
The Bears and Packers shared 10 common regular-season opponents, with Chicago 7-3 in those games compared to 6-4 for Green Bay. The Packers swept Minnesota and split with Detroit, plus beat Buffalo, the Giants and Eagles but lost to the Redskins, Patriots and Dolphins. The Bears swept the Vikings and Lions, plus beat Buffalo, Miami and Philadelphia but lost to New England, the Giants and the Redskins.
Against playoff teams, the Packers are 5-3 (including Philadelphia and Atlanta the last two weeks) while the Bears are 4-3 (including last week against Seattle).
The Packers, making their 26th postseason appearance, are 27-16 all-time in the playoffs — with the .628 winning percentage a shade better than Pittsburgh's .627 for best in NFL history. The Bears are 17-17.
This is Green Bay's second NFC Championship Game in four years, with a stunning overtime loss to the Giants. The Bears, making their 25th postseason appearance, are playing in their second NFC Championship Game in five years, with a victory over New Orleans before losing to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.
Of note, Green Bay's 48 points last week are the second-most by a road team in playoff history. The record? Chicago's 73-point onslaught against Washington in the 1940 NFL Championship. The Packers' 28-point second quarter is the most since Philadelphia put 31 up against Detroit in the second quarter in 1995.
This is just the fourth time that both teams reached the playoffs in the same season.
Bears personnel notes
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Cutler made his playoff debut last week, joining Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only quarterback with two touchdown passes and two touchdown runs in a postseason game. Cutler's passer rating against Seattle was 111.3, running his career record to 22-0 when his rating is 100-plus — including 7-0 this year.
Forte joined some rare company this season. With 1,616 yards from scrimmage, he joined Walter Payton as the only players in Bears history with 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season. Plus, Forte joined another Hall of Famer, Gale Sayers, as the only players in franchise history with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards in each of his first three seasons.
Hester is the NFL's career leader in return touchdowns with 14. Three of those came on punts this season — including the big one against Green Bay in Week 3. Hester's season average of 17.1 yards per punt return set an NFL record.
Johnny Knox's 18.8 yards per catch led the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches.
Urlacher joined Hall of Famers Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus and Bill George as the only Bears linebackers with seven-plus Pro Bowl appearances. Singletary made it to 10; Butkus and George to eight. Urlacher has 100-plus tackles in 10 of 11 seasons, with only an injured wrist in last year's opener at Lambeau preventing him from going a perfect 11-for-11. Briggs topped 100 tackles for a seventh consecutive year.
— According to Weather.com, the forecast is for 19 at kickoff with partly cloudy skies and winds of about 7 mph. "I would think anybody would be happy when you play in Chicago and there is no wind," McCarthy said. "I think that would be ideal. I mean, wind is to me the biggest factor that changes the way you call a football game, field position, special teams and everything involved. It's a challenge, when you play the Chicago Bears especially with their special teams. So I'm all for no wind."
— This will be the 11th meeting between the offensive-minded McCarthy and the defensive-minded Smith. They split the first 10 games. "I have a lot of respect for Lovie Smith because I think Lovie is a tremendous football coach," McCarthy said. "I think he's clearly one of the class acts of our profession. I think he's done an outstanding job. I really enjoy competing against him. His brand of football, I feel like he plays the right way."
— Smith, on his fundamentally sound defense vs. Capers' aggressive defense: "That's who we are. We believe in our basic philosophy of eventually it's going to come down me beating the guy across, a one-on-one battle no matter how you get in it. There is only so much you can do. The teams who have a philosophy just blitzing every snap, eventually, though, as you blitz you are going to have to beat someone to get there most of the time. You are not going to have a free guy. If you have a free guy, it's someone on the outside. So it still comes down to a one-on-one football game. For us it's the same situation. We just do it a little bit differently"
— As I wrote on Fox Sports Wisconsin, Capers is 0-3 in NFC Championship Games, losing as a coordinator in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville and as a head coach in Carolina, when the Panthers lost to the Packers in 1996. "I think you appreciate it more, the effort, and how hard it is and how every step you take that the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller," he said.
— Rodgers, on his path from Butte Junior College to Cal to his first-round slide to sitting behind Favre to being one game from the Super Bowl: "It's incredible. I've dreamt about this when I was a kid. I think the journey is what makes it so much more special. I went to junior college. I was not a highly recruited athlete. I went to Cal and was a backup for four games. Just the experiences that I've had here have molded me into the player and person that I am. It's that much more gratifying to have gone the route that I did. I hope it shows kids from (northern California) that with hard work and dedication and making the most of your opportunities that these kind of things can be accomplished."
— The Packers are trying to become the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to get to the Super Bowl. Three AFC teams have done it, with the 2007 Giants and 2005 Steelers winning the Super Bowl. "It's tough in the NFL to go on the road and get wins, but I think our coaching staff does an excellent job of keeping us focused on not on what the opponent does or what the possible distractions are, but more focused on what we need to do," center Scott Wells said. "We're a very close-knit team. Very much like a family. So, when we go on the road, you'll see guys hanging out in each other's rooms, playing cards. We all go out to eat together. For us it's a family trip, a family business trip. We go there, one task at hand that's to get the win and come home."
— If you're looking for a statistical edge, look at third down and the red zone. Offensively, the Packers finished eighth in third-down efficiency (41.5 percent) and sixth in turning red-zone possessions into touchdowns (60.4 percent). The Bears ranked 27th on third down (32.8 percent) and 26th in the red zone (45.1 percent).
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.