Bears, Packers prepare for playoffs, round II

The Bears are both lucky and good, the first being proven by drawing the Seattle Seahawks and by a season of fortune. The Packers are trying to clean up their offense, which was productive at time and careless at other points.


CHICAGO BEARS

Getting the sub-.500 Seahawks at home on Sunday is just the latest stroke of good luck the Chicago Bears have enjoyed all season. That's not to take anything away from what has been an outstanding all-around team effort from a group that got little respect all year.

But it's almost eerie how the breaks have fallen the Bears' way this year.

How often did Lady Luck smile on the Bears this season? Let's count the ways.

First, the Bears are healthier than any team still playing. The only player with any NFL experience on injured reserve in backup linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Twenty-nine starters or key backups missed no game or just one because of injury.

It should have been obvious that this was going to be the Bears' season after the season opener. They fell behind the Lions 14-3 but just before halftime Julius Peppers forced a fumble on a blind-side sack of quarterback Matthew Stafford that knocked him out of that game. The ball was recovered by Tommie Harris, setting up a Bears field goal. Later, the Bears went 0-for-4 from the Lions' 1-yard line but still took a 19-14 lead with 1:32 left in the game.

Just over a minute later Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson leaped for a pass in the end zone, caught the ball, came down with one foot on the ground, then a second, fell down while still possessing the ball and then let go of the ball as he got to his feet. After a meeting of the officials, it was ruled no catch, to the amazement of everyone except the Bears, whose lead was preserved even after a booth review.

The ruling was that Johnson did not maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch. In layman's terms, the officials made a correct interpretation of an idiotic rule.

In Week Three the Bears caught the Packers after their featured running back, Ryan Grant, coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, had already been lost for the season with a knee injury. But this one can't be counted in the lucky category. As the Packers proved all season, they are a great team even without Grant. They had just 43 rushing yards from running backs vs. the Bears, but the Bears got only 38 yards from their running backs.

In Week Five the Bears had the good fortune to face the Panthers with disappointing rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen behind the wheel. He was awful, but the Bears didn't need any luck to whip the Panthers.

After the Bears won their first two games following the bye, their good-luck streak of facing third-string quarterbacks in three consecutive road games kicked in. All three games were Bears victories.

In Week 11 in South Florida, the Bears' offense struggled and quarterback Jay Cutler played poorly. But not as poorly as Tyler Thigpen, the Dolphins' No. 3 quarterback, who was making his first start in two years. He was sacked six times and intercepted once in a 16-0 Bears win.

Two weeks later, in a 24-20 victory, the Bears faced the Lions' No. 3 quarterback, Drew Stanton, who posted a 102.4 passer rating in his first start of the season and just the second of his three-year career. You wonder if the Lions might have won if Stafford or No. 2 Shaun Hill had played.

Then there was the fiasco in Minnesota. With the roof of the Metrodome caved in by heavy snow, the game was shifted to the University of Minnesota's outdoor stadium, eliminating the Vikings' dome-field advantage. Shortly after Brett Favre led a touchdown drive on the opening possession, he was pulverized on a sack by Bears defensive end Corey Wootton that resulted in a concussion and the end of Favre's season. With backup Tarvaris Jackson already out with a toe injury, the Vikings had to call on rookie Joe Webb, who had thrown a total of five NFL passes prior to that. The Bears picked him off twice in a 40-14 rout.

As Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

This season the Bears have been both. So far it's been a pretty potent combination.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

Head coach Mike McCarthy may want to reconsider the identity he wants his players to embrace as the Packers move into the second round of the NFC playoffs.

When asked what this week's theme is for the team on the heels of its 21-16 wild-card win at the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, McCarthy said, "Really, staying to your brand of football is the most important. ... I think we need to clean a couple things up from Philadelphia to the Atlanta game (Saturday night). But, we're not going to change who we are, the way we approach our opponents.

"We have a brand of football, and we're going to stick to it."

If their Jekyll-and-Hyde offense stays true to its late-season form in one notable facet, the Packers could be hard-pressed to extend their season another week by ousting the top-seeded Falcons.

Green Bay enters the game with a dubious streak of five games with a lost fumble. The turnovers hurt the Packers in close losses on the road against Detroit and New England, but they then brushed aside the miscues to beat the New York Giants and Chicago in succession to qualify for the postseason and likewise Sunday to eke past the Eagles.

"We need to handle the ball better," McCarthy lamented.

"We will definitely make a bigger emphasis if we possibly can on taking care of the football," he added, as the Packers returned to practice Tuesday. "You can't turn the ball over."

Green Bay had four fumbles and lost two of them - both numbers tied a season high - in Sunday's game. Three of the fumbles were on offense, including two by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who gave away one on a sack deep in Eagles territory that led to a touchdown to trigger a second-half comeback by the home team.

Rodgers also had a costly fumble - the only one lost out of four they put on the ground - in the Packers' 20-17 loss at Atlanta on Nov. 28. The turnover came on a goal-line sneak. It was Rodgers' first fumble of the season.

Those squandered points proved to be the difference in a game Green Bay dominated in yardage (418-294 advantage) but possessed the football for just 28 minutes, 20 seconds as the mistake-free Falcons succeeded with time-consuming drives.

"These games in the playoffs, they come down to one play a lot of times," McCarthy said. "So, we need to maximize our opportunities, especially the number of possessions you get with playing Atlanta. I think we had seven real possessions in our first game (against them), so it's important for us to take care of the football."

NOTES

  • WR Donald Driver practiced Tuesday, the team's first workout of the week in advance of the NFC divisional playoff at the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night. Driver suffered a left knee bruise late in the Packers' wild-card win at Philadelphia on Sunday, but the veteran checked out fine Monday.

  • DE Cullen Jenkins was on the practice field Tuesday. Jenkins played Sunday after missing the previous four games because of a calf strain and said after the game that the leg was still sore. Jenkins, though, should be good to go this weekend.

  • RB James Starks is in line to get the bulk of the carries Saturday after he set a team rookie postseason record with 123 yards in 23 carries Sunday. Starks lined up as the halfback on 31 of Green Bay's 61 plays, supplanting Brandon Jackson in the featured role.

  • OLB Frank Zombo has a chance to practice at some point this week and draw consideration to be activated Saturday. The rookie right-side starter has missed the last four games because of a knee sprain. Head coach Mike McCarthy hinted Tuesday that Zombo may practice Wednesday. If Zombo is cleared to play in the game, he won't necessarily be the starter since Erik Walden has played well at the position the last two games.

  • FB Korey Hall appeared to have limited work in the early portion of practice that was open to reporters Tuesday. Hall has missed the last two games because of an aggravated knee sprain. His status for the game is up in the air.

  • S Atari Bigby just participated in the jog-through portion at the start of practice and may not be ready to play. The defensive backup and special-teams contributor has been sidelined the last two games because of a groin strain.

  • LB Erik Walden made his third start in Zombo's absence. A week after starring in the win over the Chicago Bears to end the regular season with three sacks and 16 tackles, Walden tied cornerback Charles Woodson for the team lead with five solo tackles Sunday.


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