When it comes to playoff football, experience is an extremely valuable commodity.
But seven key members of the Bears' offense will be playing in their first postseason game on Jan. 16 at Soldier Field. That group includes quarterback Jay Cutler, featured ball-carrier Matt Forte and the team's top two wide receivers, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett, and three of the five starting offensive linemen.
The veterans with playoff experience can preach to the novices about the increased speed of the game and the elevated intensity, but until the first-timers get on the field, they won't really know what it's like. But they know it's different.
"It's pretty well understood," Forte said. "I'm not going to go up to a guy and say, 'What do you know about the playoffs?' There's nothing that anybody could really tell you that's going to make you more ready than you already have to be. The basic thing is to just focus on what we're trying to do as an offense and go out there and be intense about it."
Safety Danieal Manning is one of 10 defensive starters with playoff experience, seven of whom were with the Bears for the 2005 and '06 postseason appearances.
"Veteran guys need to step up even more, but we need everybody to step up," Manning said. "Guys can be called upon at any time. Coach (Lovie) Smith, all the coaches and the players, we touch base on that a lot. I feel like those guys coming in from college understand the seriousness of the playoffs. They've played in big bowl games. They understand that every play matters, every practice counts, everything that needs to be corrected counts."
Nerves are part of the equation, too, but it's not as if the guys who have been there before are immune.
"There are going to be some jitters," Cutler said. "If there aren't jitters, then you don't care that much. The good thing about having a young team is we're just going to go out there and play. We have nothing to lose. The guys know the magnitude of the playoffs and what a good position we're in. But at the same time, we've got to take care of one game at a time, keep running the offense and executing and doing the little things."
Coaches are using the bye to get a head start on eliminating mistakes, self-scouting and attention to detail. But offensive coordinator Mike Martz doesn't believe he needs to remind his quarterback what's at stake in the postseason.
"I've always felt that was unnecessary," Martz said. "Kurt (Warner) went through that (when he was the quarterback of Martz's Rams teams). Obviously it was his first time, but they know. He's been around. If he were a rookie or something like that, (but) he's been in some big games this year, kind of playoff atmosphere. We just talk about managing the game, like we do every week with him."
In his previous four NFL seasons, Cutler never even played on a winning team, so he appreciates the position he and the Bears are in now.
"It's very hard, especially to get a bye," he said. "Some guys go to the playoffs every year; some guys never make it. I've got a good understanding of how hard it is to get in."
Defensive end Israel Idonije will be making his first playoff start a week from Sunday, but he played in the Bears' four postseason games in '05 and '06, so he knows the routine.
"We're coming in and working and leading by example," Idonije said. "Everybody knows what's at stake. We've been there before. So we know this is not an opportunity that comes every other day. You've got to pay the price and do more, so you can have the opportunity to play in that big game.
"Because you'll look back, and it will all be worth it, regardless of what price you pay."
Safety Chris Harris suffered a stinger near the end of the regular-season finale. Wide receiver Earl Bennett sat that game out, more as a precautionary measure, and rookie safety Major Wright suffered a minor leg injury last Sunday.
But it was all hands on deck at Wednesday's indoor practice.
"Everybody, for the most part, was able to go," coach Lovie Smith said. "Next time we play (Jan. 16), we'll have everyone ready to go as far as injury-wise."
Among the starters, and including significant backups or situational players only two missed more than two games - LG Chris Williams missed three games early in the season with a hamstring and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa missed four games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
Thirty players on the roster played in all 16 games.
"In the last five games, I don't know if there's a back playing any better than he is right now," Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "He's always been really good, been very impressive. But about five weeks ago, something happened, maybe it was six weeks ago, but he just all of a sudden took it over."
In his last six games, Forte averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry in five of them. He finished with 1,069 yards and a career-best 4.5-yard average.
"He played a great game last week against one of the premier pass rushers in the league," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said after Webb was instrumental in holding Clay Matthews to one sack and two tackles. "You can see he's getting better and better each and every week. He still has a lot to learn. That's the fun part about that big guy. He's playing at a really high level, but you can see how much better he can play."
"I'm not one that buys into that argument at all, 'The speed of the game,'" Smith said. "The later you get into the season, a lot more is at stake and things are starting to clear up a little bit more. We played tough games, and I don't see the game improving that much more, and I would like to think that coaching-wise that we've been making the same type of decisions. I don't see a lot changing."
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
Without question, the first priority this offseason will be on the defensive side of the ball. They took care of the defensive line last offseason with the acquisitions of DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (free agent) and DTs Corey Williams (trade) and Ndamukong Suh (draft). This year, they look after the back seven.
"We have talked before about having to address the starting 22 before you can address your depth," coach Jim Schwartz said. "What has happened this year is, because of the injuries and other things, we have been able to address a lot of the depth issues. Now we have to start adding pieces to the starting 22."
The Lions will need to replace both outside linebackers, possibly both cornerbacks (Chris Houston is a free agent) and another safety to play alongside Louis Delmas.
"It's a matter of seeing what the best situation is for me and for my family," Stanton said. "Obviously, the organization's going to do what they need to do. There are so many outlying factors for how you can conduct this business. Obviously, one of them from my standpoint, a little bit with job security, is the further up you are on the food chain the easier you have of getting out there and producing on the football field and getting more job security."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You don't have to be embarrassed to say you played for the Lions this year, especially being on one of the best defensive lines in football. There is definitely a different vibe heading into the offseason. A happy, positive vibe." — DE Cliff Avril
GREEN BAY PACKERS
For the Packers to prevent their season from ending on a sour note at the same place they started it on a pleasant note, they can't be run off the turf at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
That means somehow, some way putting up a roadblock for Eagles quarterback Michael Vick when the teams meet in an NFC wild-card playoff game Sunday.
"He's an explosive guy," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I think he's unlike any guy in the league in terms of what he can do with that ball in his hands. You've got to not let him come out of there and get those 30-, 40-yard runs. And, he's got enough arm strength and speed at wide receiver that they can make big plays on you in a hurry."
Green Bay unwittingly had the first run-in with Vick in his remarkable renaissance this season. A second-quarter hit by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews that knocked out starter Kevin Kolb with a concussion cleared the way for Vick to scramble, juke, dodge and occasionally throw with proficiency in leading a big second-half comeback by the Eagles on opening day Sept. 12.
The Packers squandered most of a 20-3 lead before hanging on for a 27-20 victory.
Vick rolled up 278 yards from scrimmage - 103 on the run - in a little more than a half of action after Green Bay had prepared to see him make only a cameo appearance at different points in the game.
If not for the statistical brilliance of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Vick would be the unlikely front-runner for league MVP.
"He is an impact player," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Anytime an impact player has the ball in his hand every play, I think that, in itself, says how you have to approach the football game, and that's how we view Michael Vick and their offense.
"Very dangerous with the football, very competitive, and he has a very strong will. He is the type of player that will try to put the team on his back and carry them. The man is a warrior. I have a lot of respect for him. He is definitely the focus for our defense."
Other than giving up 24 points to Brady and the Patriots, who also scored a defensive touchdown in their 31-27 win Dec. 19, the Green Bay defense has consistently delivered winning performances.
The Packers scored a top-five trifecta in the season-ending league rankings for scoring defense (average of 15 points per game, second), sacks (47, tied for second) and total defense (309.1 yards per game, fifth).
Streamlining the success in those three categories to the start of postseason play will be vital for Green Bay in contending with the firepower of the Eagles' offense, which ranked third in scoring (27.4) and second in total yards (389.4).
Where the Packers statistically have the advantage is in sacks. Philadelphia surrendered 49, fourth highest in the league. Vick absorbed 34 of them, including six in his last outing two weeks ago when he was left limping with a thigh injury in a stunning loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Vick said Wednesday he will be 100 percent healthy to play this weekend.
"It's going to be tough to really get after him," said Matthews, who led the Packers with 13.5 sacks. "But, if we bring some pressure and hopefully hit him early and often and get him off the spot, that will help out."
Matthews also suggested Capers may be delving into espionage with his Vick-centric game plan this week.
"The fact is he can make plays with his feet, not only with his arm — he's proven at both," Matthews said. "He's a dual threat, and we're going to have to have someone spying him all of the time."
Fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden could be the one to shadow Vick if Capers goes that route. Walden did some spying of Jay Cutler in the Packers' win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday and had a whale of a game with three sacks and 16 tackles as a fill-in starter.
Pulling out all of the stops is a Capers trademark, especially against a supremely talented and versatile performer like Vick, who has a history of ending Green Bay's season in early January. He ran for 64 yards and passed for a touchdown in the Atlanta Falcons' 27-7 upset win in the first round of the 2002 playoffs at Lambeau Field.
The only Green Bay players on the current 53-man roster left from the 2002 team are receiver Donald Driver and left tackle Chad Clifton.
"Having gone through this many times, this is a time when you need to be mature competitors and understand the opportunity that you have," said Capers, who led the expansion Carolina Panthers to the NFC title game at victorious Green Bay in the 1996 season. "It's a whole different ballgame now. We know you win you move on, you lose you go home. But, you're playing the best teams — it's the best 12 teams — and you have to do everything with a sense of urgency."
SERIES HISTORY: 40th meeting. Packers lead series, 24-15. Green Bay's 24-13 lead in the regular-season series includes two straight wins, the latest of which was a 27-20 outcome at the start of this season, also at Philadelphia. The Eagles, though, have won the teams' two postseason encounters, both at home - 17-13 in the 1960 NFL Championship and 20-17 in overtime in an NFC divisional playoff game during the 2003 season. The Eagles had won nine straight home games in the series until the Week 1 result this season.
Bishop has been highly productive as the starting replacement for Nick Barnett, who suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 4. Bishop, who had only one start his first three pro seasons, ranked second on the club with 121 tackles in the regular season. Fellow inside linebacker A.J. Hawk topped the tackles chart with 134.
The recent deal with Bishop, a sixth-round draft pick whose rookie contract is up after this season, gives the Packers four high-priced linebackers on the inside.
Barnett and Brandon Chillar, who also is on injured reserve, are locked up through 2012 and '13, respectively, with lucrative pacts.
Hawk is due to earn $10 million next season, the final year of his rookie deal. That has led to speculation the Packers will sever ties with their 2006 first-round draft pick, unless Hawk is willing to take a pay cut on the heels of one of his better seasons.
Barnett, though, believes the team will keep the quartet intact after this season.
"Four headed monster inside!! Hawk Barnett Bishop and Chillar!!! 2011 here we come," Barnett wrote on his Twitter account.
Goode, a third-year player, would have been a restricted free agent after the season.
"He is a young player. (But) it's playoff time," McCarthy said. "He fully understands the level of play increases this time of year. He has made progress throughout the season, and I'm fully confident that he'll make progress this week."
Bulaga will be tested in a hostile environment Sunday at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field in the NFC wild-card playoff game against the Eagles. The first-round draft pick out of Iowa started the season as a backup to left tackle Chad Clifton and didn't play on offense in the Packers' 27-20 win at Philadelphia in Week 1.
Green Bay will first have to stop a four-game road skid in the playoffs to get past the Eagles and move on to the next round. The losing streak, which dates to the 1998 season, includes a 20-17 overtime loss at Philadelphia in a 2003 divisional playoff, the infamous fourth-and-26 game.
Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson isn't fazed by a potentially daunting road for the Packers to try to negotiate as they look to become the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to advance to the Super Bowl.
"I like our chances," Woodson said. "We feel good about our team. We've had some down moments this year, we've had a lot of injuries, but if you look at this team, we just kept fightin', and now we find ourselves with a chance to get into the playoffs and make some noise. We feel good about our chances."