GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 4th meeting. Bears lead series 2-1. The Bears dominated the Panthers at Soldier Field on Nov. 20 as ex-Panther Muhsin Muhammad scored the game's only touchdown pass in a 13-3 win over the Panthers. The Bears sacked Jake Delhomme eight times and intercepted him twice.
2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (19th rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 9th pass). Bears: offense 29th (8th rush, 31st pass); defense 2nd (11th rush, 5th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Keeping drives alive will be critical in a game that could be determined by field position. The Bears have relied heavily on their running game, but they have converted just 7 of 19 third-and-one situations this season. As with the rest of the offense, the Bears hope the increased passing threat with QB Rex Grossman behind center will make life easier on RB Thomas Jones. The Panthers dominated time of possession against the Giants last week by bottling RB Tiki Barber up early and getting their own running game into a groove. That gameplan should prove much more difficult against a healthy Bears defense allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. Chicago held Carolina to 55 rushing yards during the regular season meeting and while WR Steve Smith caught 169 yards worth of passes, he didn't get into the end zone. The Bears' corners again will be happy to led Smith have the receptions in front of them as long as they prevent back-breaking big plays.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme has a 105.1 passer rating in five career playoff games. ... RB DeShaun Foster has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in five career playoff games. Bears: Defensive linemen accounted for eight sacks in the regular season meeting. ... Seek first trip to the NFC Championship game since 1988. ... WR Muhsin Muhammad is the Panthers' all-time leader with 578 receptions and 7,751 receiving yards.
--RB DeShaun Foster practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable for Sunday's game. He will start against the Bears.
--FB Brad Hoover missed a second straight day of work due to an ankle injury. Hoover has been generally beat up this season, but it would take a minor miracle to keep him out.
--LB Brandon Short was upgraded to probable with a knee injury and will start Sunday.
--G Tutan Reyes practiced on Thursday and was upgraded to probable. Expect him to be ready for the Bears.
--WR Ricky Proehl remains probable with a stomach bug that has hit the Charlotte area hard in recent weeks.
--CB Jerry Azumah, who has been nagged by a chronic hip injury, will play his usual nickel corner spot but is expected to be replaced by Rashied Davis on kickoff returns.
--ORT Fred Miller has played in eight postseason games, the most of any Bear.
--RB Adrian Peterson is expected to be the Bears' No. 2 behind Thomas Jones Sunday, even though first-round pick Cedric Benson is fully recovered from a sprained knee suffered nine weeks ago.
--S Brandon McGowan, who started the last three games of the season when Mike Brown was hurt, will have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. He hopes, optimistically, to be back in six months.
--ORG Terrence Metcalf will not play Sunday and will be replaced by Roberto Garza, who has started seven games this season, four at left guard and three at right guard, with no discernible difference in production from the starters.