General manager Jerry Angelo, the architect who built the NFC North champion Bears, doesn't believe this team is the most talented since he took over after the 2000 season.
"I don't see this as a team with great talent," Angelo said, "but I see this as a team that's played well together and really responded to the adversity that every team goes through. The word 'resilient' has been used several times, and I think that really is a good word to define this team, and hopefully we'll keep that resiliency going on into the playoffs."
With a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed, the rewards of an 11-5 record and division title, the Bears have tied the 2005 squad as the second-winningest under Lovie Smith. The next season the Bears went 13-3 and lost in Super Bowl XLI.
"I'm not minimizing that we don't have talent," Angelo said. "But in '06, we had (eight) Pro Bowlers; we had four this year. We do have talent on the football team. You don't win without talent. But I saw this more as a team that really played well as a team, that hung tough. I've always said: 'If you don't have a good locker room, you can't have a good team.'"
Angelo's acquisition of Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers could cost the Bears $91.5 million over six years, but Peppers is a big reason the Bears are back in the playoffs after a three-year hiatus. He's made everyone around him on the field better, and his work ethic and team attitude have made him a great addition in the locker room as well. It was a move Angelo believes the Bears couldn't afford not to make, considering their need for a dominant pass rusher on the defensive line.
"That happens once in a career," Angelo said. "I remember when Green Bay picked up (Hall of Fame defensive end) Reggie White. I know what a player like that can do to a football team, and I thought that was the missing link for Green Bay to do the great things they did. We always have a plan going into free agency, but when you see something that you consider special, you have to go after it and go after it hard.
"But money doesn't guarantee that you're going to have a good team or a successful team. It's the chemistry that determines the kind of football team you're going to have. I felt we did a pretty good job of that. It starts with team, and it ends with team, and anything else in between is losing football. I felt like that was really what we saw this year, and to me personally, I take great satisfaction in that."
As significant as the changes in the locker room this season were changes the Bears made on the coaching staff, hiring Mike Martz to run the offense, promoting Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator and adding Mike Tice as the offensive line coach. All three have been head coaches in the NFL.
"We needed to make changes because things weren't working," Angelo said. "Change is never easy, but the changes we made, we felt would make us better, not only through personnel, but our staff as well. We felt good about everybody we brought in, from players to coaches, but the unknown was: How quickly is it going to come to fruition? In our case it came together pretty quickly."
In the process, coach Lovie Smith has gone from the hot seat to the driver's seat as the Bears went from preseason question mark to Super Bowl contender. Naturally the subject of a contract extension has been a recent topic of conversation. Smith's current contract expires after next season.
"When the season is over, and hopefully that's not going to be for a while, then we will address all of those things," said Angelo, who is under contract through 2013. "All the time that I've been here, we always do what you need to do to take care of business. Right now, our focus is on this upcoming game and finishing the job."
Finally, Angelo addressed rumors about his departure.
"I've heard it," he said. "But that's not going to happen. I am very fortunate to be here and as long I'm blessed with health, I (will) continue to do what I love to do, and that's be a part of football."
BY THE NUMBERS: 17.1 — Devin Hester's punt-return average for the season, the highest in NFL history for a player with 30 or more attempts. He returned three punts for touchdowns.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you're fast, you're fast in sand, you're fast on concrete, you're fast anywhere. If you're slow, you're slow. That's just the way it is." — Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz when asked if his offense was better suited to grass or artificial turf
INJURY IMPACT: S Chris Harris (stinger), S Major Wright (leg) and WR Earl Bennett (ankle) are all expected to be practicing fully by next week and available for the divisional-round game Jan. 16.
General manager Martin Mayhew isn't one to tip his hand — about anything. He has addressed the media exactly twice this season, in training camp and again on Wednesday.
If you ask him out offseason priorities, specifics about positional needs and wants, goals for next season, player evaluations, you will mostly get a stare and a polite no comment.
But there were some nuggets to be gleaned from his 22-minute presser this week. For starters, outside linebacker Julian Peterson will not be back.
"We had a meeting on Monday, a great meeting, and I thanked him for his two years of service," Mayhew said. "Anytime you make 31 straight starts for a team (actually it was 28 and not consecutive), you have given a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make that happen. I thanked him and told him we weren't going to bring him back."
Peterson would have made $8 million next season. He was a healthy scratch last Sunday, the only game he didn't start this season.
"He did what we wanted him to do," Mayhew said. "He had some production as a starter for two years, but I think it's time to move on."
Here are some other items of interest:
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Aaron Rodgers has long understood what is expected of him as the anointed face of the franchise, and he isn't holding back.
Consider some blunt comments he made this week as the Packers prepare for a first-round game at the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs Sunday.
On whether he's had to talk to his receivers about their inordinate number of dropped passes this season: "You know what, physical mistakes are going to happen. I make as many as the majority of people in here (the locker room). Those are the things that can be tolerated. But, it's the mental mistakes that I really have a hard time with because that's really about preparation and focus. So, physical mistakes are going to happen, drops are going to happen, and that's part of the game. So, there's no point in jumping on the guy. He's as disappointed as I am. But, it's the mental mistakes that you really have a hard time with."
In saying that, Rodgers came clean a year after the fact about what contributed to the interception he threw on his first pass in the 51-45 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the opening round of the playoffs.
On whether the pick was a byproduct of nerves at the outset of his postseason debut: "Absolutely (not). Guys lined up in the wrong spot, ran the wrong routes, I moved around, thought my guy was coming back to me. He went to the left; I thought he was coming back."
While he was speaking his piece about those topics, Rodgers, who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month on Thursday, knows it's put-up or shut-up time for himself in his return to the playoffs.
As brilliant as he was after that ill-fated first throw in nearly pulling off a huge comeback victory for the Packers on the road against the Cardinals - he passed for a team playoffs record of 423 yards and four touchdowns - Rodgers was the first Green Bay quarterback in nearly 40 years to not win his first postseason start.
He has established himself in just three seasons as a starter as one of the elite QBs in the league. Yet , Rodgers needs only to think back to his childhood in Northern California and how heroes Joe Montana and Steve Young defined their legacies by winning in the playoffs, underscored by Super Bowl titles, with the San Francisco 49ers.
Rodgers gets his first shot at vindication Sunday, nearly a year to the day after his overtime fumble was returned for a touchdown by Karlos Dansby to end the highest-scoring playoffs game in league history.
Head coach Mike McCarthy, for one, isn't putting any added pressure on Rodgers to win the game against the Eagles.
"Aaron Rodgers needs to be himself," McCarthy said. "He's established a brand of football at the quarterback position that's pretty damn good, and I'm glad he's our quarterback. His numbers have been phenomenal for his first three years, and he needs to go out and play to the standards he has set.
"Playoff wins are more team goals, and I understand the way everybody wants to put those types of things on the quarterback. Aaron staying true to his standard of play, his brand of football, everything else will take care of itself."