GREEN BAY PACKERS
Left out in the cold, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers are not.
Green Bay sweated out a 21-16 wild-card win at the Philadelphia Eagles in frigid temperatures Sunday, advancing to the controlled climate of Atlanta s Georgia Dome for a matchup with the top-seeded Falcons in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs Saturday night.
"I think Aaron's established himself enough already, but definitely getting his first playoff win is a big relief, right guard Josh Sitton said. "I think it's a relief for the whole team."
In only his second postseason appearance, Rodgers hushed those who questioned whether he could come through with a big victory in three years as Green Bay's starting quarterback.
"I never felt like there was a monkey on my back," Rodgers said after going 18-of-27 for 180 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Although Rodgers had a fumble that led to an Eagles touchdown early in the second half, it wasn't as costly as the turnover he had an overtime that resulted in a game-winning touchdown return for the Arizona Cardinals in their 51-45 knockout of the Packers in the wild-card round last year.
"In all of my time being a football fan, I've never seen one player win a game all by himself," Rodgers said. "It's a good team win for us."
Indeed, Green Bay's first road win in the playoffs after four straight losses, dating to the 1998 season, had more than just Rodgers' handprints on it.
James Starks, an unknown for most of the season, set a Packers postseason record for a rookie running back with 123 yards in 23 carries.
"That takes some pressure off the passing game. That's unexpected," Rodgers said.
Green Bay's stingy defense sealed the victory on a late interception by cornerback Tramon Williams in the end zone as the Eagles tried to complete a comeback from a 14-point deficit.
The Packers ended an eight-game losing streak in road games when the game-time temperature was at 32 degrees or below, which stemmed back to their Super Bowl XXXI-winning season in 1996.
Sixth-seeded Green Bay now has its sights set on exacting payback against the NFC's top team. The Falcons eked out a 20-17 win in the final seconds Nov. 28 at the Georgia Dome, which the Packers left feeling they were the better team after outgaining Atlanta 418-294 in total yards.
"We're just getting started," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, whose team has won three straight. "We established ourselves as a football team (Sunday). We won a big football game in Philadelphia, versus a championship-caliber program, and we have the opportunity to go to Atlanta. We're excited about playing the No. 1 seed down there."
LINEUP WATCH: Starks entered the postseason with only three games and 101 rushing yards to his credit. No matter as Starks, a sixth-round draft pick who had missed most of the season because of a hamstring injury, parlayed his starting debut Sunday into the third-best rushing performance by a Packer in the playoffs. The first run for Starks, who was playing ahead of Brandon Jackson, went for 27 yards. "He established a hot hand early, and I rode him," McCarthy said. Only Ryan Grant (201 in 2007 divisional-round win over Seattle) and Ahman Green (156 in 2003 divisional-round loss at Philadelphia) have run for more yards in a Green Bay postseason game.
BY THE NUMBERS: 96 - Points allowed by the Packers in their last two dome games in the playoffs, both losses – 51-45 in overtime at the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round last season and 45-17 at the St. Louis Rams in the divisional round during the 2001 season.
After a regular season filled with good luck, the Bears get to open the postseason against the team with the worst record to ever make it to the playoffs in a non-strike season.
But that might not be quite the advantage it was considered before the Seahawks pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history, knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints 41-36.
The Seahawks, 7-9 in the regular season, are the only team in league history to win a division title with a losing record.
The Seahawks are no stranger to upset victories. Their first three wins this season came as underdogs, including a 23-20 victory in Week 6 at Soldier Field over the Bears, who were 6-point favorites.
In that first game, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, a 12-year veteran, had one of his better outings in what has been, statistically, one of his worst seasons. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown and no interceptions for a passer rating of 87.7. His go-to guy in that game, as it has been for most of the season, was king-sized wide receiver Mike Williams.
The Bears had no solution for the 6-5, 235-pound Williams, who was targeted 15 times and caught 10 passes for 123 yards, exploiting coverage by both cornerbacks Charles Tillman and 5-8 Tim Jennings, who was, and will be, at an extreme size disadvantage.
That was quarterback Jay Cutler's first game back for the Bears after a concussion in Week 4, and he threw for 290 yards but completed just 17 of 39 passes and was sacked six times.
Most of the Seahawks' pass-rushing pressure came from the outside and was provided by blitzes that utilized defensive backs, who combined for 4.5 sacks.
That was just the first game at left guard for Chris Williams, the second game for rookie J'Marcus Webb at right tackle and the fourth game at left tackle for Frank Omiyale. And it was two games before Roberto Garza reclaimed his spot at right guard following arthroscopic knee surgery.
In the nine games the Bears have played with their current offensive line alignment, Cutler has been sacked 22 times. In the previous seven games he was sacked 31 times.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz called just 12 running plays compared to 47 passes against the Seahawks. That game was Exhibit A for the Bears when it came time to self-scout during the bye two weeks later, and they realized the need for more balanced play-calling.
UNDER THE RADAR: D.J. Moore barely touched the field last year as a rookie, playing briefly in just three games. But the 5-9, 183-pounder has found a niche as the Bears' nickel cornerback. He was third on the team with four interceptions, one of which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown. "He's another guy who was on the outside looking in when we started the season," coach Lovie Smith said. "But he's made play after play throughout the season."
BY THE NUMBERS: Running back Matt Forte played the best football of his three-year career in the second half of the season, getting stronger as the season wore on. 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 per carry.