And so here it is: The NFC Championship Game is less than a week away.
The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, who haven't met in the Playoffs since 1941, will meet with a trip to Dallas and the Super Bowl on the line. Green Bay and Chicago have played some big games during the lengthy and fierce rivalry, but this might be one of the biggest in a while.
It's Aaron Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler, Greg Jennings vs. Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher vs. Clay Matthews. There are so many intriguing match ups and scenarios heading into this week that makes this game very interesting. The Bears are the home team, yet the Packers have the momentum, etc.
So with that in mind, here are 25 predictions you can take to bank for the NFC Title Game.
Okay, so this one's kind of a lame starter, but it's true. Packers-Bears always has that special rivalry feel to it, with fans from each side in the building and something big on the line. The game might turn out to be a dud, but the atmosphere around Soldier Field will set up well for TV.
Belushi and Vaughn are two of the bigger celebrity Chicago fans. You can bet that either one, or both, will be there. With Vaughn having a new movie out, he may also make a booth appearance. Unfortunately for Green Bay fans, Red Foreman will not be able to make it.
Gasp! Yes, I know, I don't believe it either. I might be inclined to think otherwise after watching Rodgers this postseason. Especially last Saturday night, when he put on a quarterback clinic. However, the Bears defense is a heck of a lot better than Atlanta's, and with the environment on top of it, it'll happen.
I hate to pile on Buck, (because I don't think he's that bad of a baseball announcer), but I can't be the only one who has noticed more excitement in his voice the last two weeks calling Packers games than the last 14 years. If you can, go find and listen to his call of Tramond Williams intercepting Michael Vick. I've never heard his voice get like that, and the man called the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl.
It may have happened already, but it's coming. Two wins against two division winners as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. I can already see Jimmy Johnson asking Michael Strahan about the differences between the two. The fact of the matter is they are two different things. The Packers have dismantled both teams they played and are a lot better than their record. It won't stop the comparisons though.
Don't get me wrong, Mike Martz is a great coordinator. Some of the plays he calls can be head-scratchers, though. Like the pass Jay Cutler threw in the Fourth Quarter Sunday that led to an unnecessary interception and Jay Cutler throwing the ball up 18 late. It didn't burn them against the Seattle Seahawks, but they won't be able to throw like that against a secondary like Green Bay,
You'll hear it a lot between the pre-game show and the actual broadcast itself, how Jay Cutler can't make bad decisions and how he'll have to manage the game and not create turnovers. In fact, why have we heard that Cutler has been better the last half of the season? because he's managed the game better and hasn't tried to force things. Of course, having a healthy and in tact offensive line doesn't hurt, it just makes it a tired cliche.
With that in mind, those cliches are actually true in this case. Cutler is facing a defense that beat him up a couple of weeks ago. He will have to lean on his running game and make smart throws against a fierce secondary to try and limit mistakes as much as possible. Because the Green Bay Packers' defense is a lot better than the defense he saw from the Seattle (or as Chris Berman called them, the Saskatchewan) Seahawks.
Enough piling on Jay Cutler, because the truth is Aaron Rodgers will have to do the same thing. Chicago is the best secondary Rodgers has faced in a while and will try to shut down the Packers' wide receivers. The Bears' defense is just as aggressive and attacking as the Packers' D, and Rodgers will also have to be smart to give his team a chance.
The Fox broadcast focused early last week on the field conditions and how they would affect the game. So much so that they had Tony Siragusa on the field showing the difference between a half-inch cleat and a 3/4 inch cleat while tossing the shoes off-camera like a towel. The field will be in bad shape, but it won't be any different than one would find in Green Bay or Pittsburgh this time of year. Then again, we've seen stranger things this postseason.
You know Woodson will be lined up Sunday against Hester; the best Packers' cornerback against the Bears' top receiver. Hester isn't a huge threat to catch the ball, but he's still dangerous any time he's on the field. So while Cutler might look towards Johnny Knox more, Hester vs. Woodson will be the premier matchup on the field when the Bears have the ball.
Tillman was matched up against Seattle's Mike Williams last week and did a phenomenal job shutting down the Seahawks' top receiver (although the field also played a big part in that). Tillman will get the job of shutting down Greg Jennings, and I'd think he's up to the task. Obviously they've seen each other a lot over the years, but never with this much on the line.
Regardless of what you think about the teams, they both have two of the more iconic and more recognizable uniforms in football. You see the green and gold with the big "G" and you automatically know it's the Packers. You see the orange and blue with the "C" and the "GSH "on the sleeve, and you know it's the Bears. When uniforms now have stripes and commas and wings, it's nice to see the simple and stylish unis of Green Bay and Chicago.
This rivalry was built on defense and toughness and Peppers will need to step up for the Bears. He was a big influence for the Bears last week, as he was able to get pressure and create havoc on Matt Hasselbeck. To get inside the head of Aaron Rodgers, he will need to do the same, and do so quickly.
We've all heard it for months but it really has to be sneaking into everyone's mind. "Could this be the last NFC Championship Game before a lockout?" "Could the Super Bowl be the last NFL game of the calendar year?" It's hard not to think about the looming labor status, and you can be sure it'll be mentioned in some regard.
If you follow the NHL, or the Chicago Blackhawks, you've probably heard of Jim Cornelison. He sings the National Anthem at the United Center to a chorus of screams and fan frenzy. The Bears decided to take a little bit of that Blackhawk mojo and have Cornelison sing the National Anthem last week, and it was the Madhouse on Madison outside with a flyover. It was an amazing scene and I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen again Sunday.
The extended forecast for Chicago is calling for mostly cloudy skies and a high of 21 degrees, but come on, this is Packers-Bears for the NFC Championship. How can there not be snow? How can you not have at least flurries there, so that years down the line, we can watch NFL Films put a snazzy soundtrack to this game and wish that John Facenda was narrating it?
In games like this, the winner is usually decided by who can run the ball more effectively (another cliche, but this one's true too). Chicago has a pretty good running back in Matt Forte, and James Starks has been a revelation for the Packers. Both can expect to get carries early and often, and whoever can be more effective will be the one whose team wins the game.
In sports, there are a lot of championship trophies that are puzzling, to say the least. Anyone know why the Prince of Wales Trophy in hockey looks like something you win at a Rec Bowling League? The George S. Halas trophy, however, is what a trophy should be. It's simple, effective and instantly recognizeable. It might be one of the more underrated trophies in sports, but it's also not the pinnacle either.
Clay Matthews will get the attention in this game, and rightfully so. He's been a beast and I expect him to have a big day. But in all the talk about Matthews and others, we tend to forget about Urlacher. I don't know why considering he's one of the better linebackers of our era but we do tend to forget about him. Sunday, we'll probably remember why we shouldn't.
Let's face it, as well as each quarterback is playing, these defenses are just too good to be shredded apart like that. Rodgers' INT will probably come when he's hit on a throw and it flutters right into the lap of Lance Briggs, and Cutler's will probably be the same. Or he'll pull a Jay Cutler and throw a pass he shouldn't. Either way, the quarterbacks won't be flawless.
Both the Packers and Bears have done good well in the punt coverage, punt return and kick coverage games. Instead, a big factor in this game will be the punters and kickers themselves. And while Mason Crosby has had a nice career, Robbie Gould has made a few big kicks in his day. Also, Brad Maynard has been one of the better punters. Advantage: Bears.
Yes, that's right, him. Good old Brett. You'll see Mr. Favre somewhere Sunday, whether it's selling those Wrangler Jeans while playing a pick-up game or hearing him mentioned on the telecast. It is the Packers' first trip to the NFC Championship since 2007, when Favre threw a costly interception (Favre throwing an interception? Can't be) that turned out to be his last pass as a Packer and sent the Giants to the Super Bowl. Yes, even retired, Brett Favre is still hanging around.
We've had a couple of close calls but we haven't yet had that first overtime game with the new rules. We've had the debates about the strategy for said overtime, but we haven't had an overtime yet. Eventually we will have one and I have a feeling this will be the game for it to happen. And to be honest, I don't think it's going to change the game much. As long as someone doesn't say "we want the ball and we're gonna score".
Like so many of the games in these Playoffs, this one really could go either way. The Packers have a lot of momentum and are playing out of their minds, whereas the Bears have the home-field advantage and a lot of confidence. It's tough to pick a game like this, but if there's one thing I can go with, it's that the Bears have been doubted all season and more often than not, they've come through. So I'm leaning with the Bears here.