As Packers loom, Bears ignore history
CHICAGO -- Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris listened intently from his locker but clearly wasn't interested in the history lesson.
The last time Chicago faced NFC North rival Green Bay in the postseason (Dec. 14, 1941), Bears principal owner Virginia McCaskey was a month away from her 19th birthday during the team's 33-14 triumph over the Packers led by a pair of Norm Standlee touchdowns. In the 89-year history of their rivalry, the Bears and Packers have advanced to the playoffs the same year just four times.
But Harris wasn't hearing it.
"I don't know all about the history," he said. "I just know my gap. I have to control that gap. I will next week."
In the aftermath of demolishing Seattle in the NFC divisional round Sunday, Harris wasn't blowing off the significance of the league's oldest rivalry as much as making a point about the focus needed for the Bears to come out victorious in the next staging of it.
By blasting the Seahawks 35-24, the Bears advanced to the NFC championship, where they'll host the Packers next Sunday, for the third matchup between the teams; this time, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
"I told [Packers receiver] Donald Driver after we played them [on Jan. 2], I said: 'We'll see y'all in Chicago for the NFC Championship Game,'" Bears safety Chris Harris said. "I had a feeling they would make it. I was very confident what we could do. So we got the rematch."
Although the teams split the regular-season series, Green Bay won the last meeting 10-3 at Lambeau Field, and is arguably the NFL's hottest team after knocking off the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons on the road Saturday, less than a week after toppling No. 3 seed Philadelphia.
Early betting lines (the Packers are favored by three points) indicate the Packers' momentum.
That's not to take any heat away from what the Bears did Sunday in generating their most well-rounded performance to date. In winning his first postseason start, Jay Cutler accounted for four touchdowns -- two passing, and two rushing -- to become just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw and rush for multiple touchdowns in a game (Otto Graham did it in 1954 and 1955 for Cleveland), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is coming off a similarly smoldering performance, having lit up the Atlanta Falcons for four touchdowns, in addition to 366 yards on 31-of-66 passing. Rodgers became the first signal-caller to toss 10 TDs in his first three playoff outings, and his 81.6 career postseason completion percentage ranks fifth all time.
Matt Hasselbeck twice. "It was one of those things where you start seeing a quarterback complete all those crazy passes [and] you knew he was hot. He's dangerous. We have to stop him."
The Bears must also find a way to deal with a dangerous Packers receiving corps comprised of Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. The foursome combined for 26 catches and 331 yards (that's not a misprint) in Green Bay's smackdown of the Atlanta Falcons.
Chicago limited that group to 12 catches for 185 yards in the regular-season finale, as Rodgers tossed an interception and finished with an uncharacteristically low passer rating of 89.7, in addition to absorbing two sacks.
Rookie running back James Starks balances out the Packers' offense with his punishing running style, but the Bears have proved adept at shutting down opposing ground games (the Bears held six Seahawks rushers to a combined 34 yards in the divisional playoffs).
"Aaron Rodgers, I don't know what else you could say about him," Bears safety Danieal Manning said. "He's got a great team around him. They've got great players, great coaches. That's the reason they're in the NFC playoffs and going to the NFC Championship Game. We're definitely familiar. We know what we bring. We know what they bring. It's gonna come down to who wants it the most, who is executing the most. The best team is gonna win."
Chicago's offense racked up 437 yards behind Cutler's big day Sunday, and faces a Packers defense led by a hard-charging rusher in Clay Matthews, who sacked Cutler once in the regular-season finale, and a secondary full of speedsters in Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins and Charles Woodson.
The Bears claimed after that game to have struggled with communication because of the crowd noise at Lambeau Field -- which won't be a concern Sunday at Soldier Field -- but they say they learned from the situation. Still, the Bears shouldn't expect the Packers to deviate from what's worked against them in the past.
"They do a great job scheme-wise. They're going to show you a lot of different looks, they're going to fool you, they're going to bring a lot of different things at the snap of the ball," Cutler said. "They do a good job to disrupt you."
That's why fans can expect quite the chess match next Sunday between Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Martz pulled out some trickery against the Seahawks, calling three plays out of a Wildcat formation, with two of them coming in the red zone. The Bears' offense also gave the Packers a glimpse of what it could do out of the shotgun.
Three of Cutler's runs (two scrambles and one designed draw) against the Seahawks came out of the shotgun, and the quarterback gained 36 yards on those plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. During the regular season, Cutler had run the ball seven times out of the shotgun for five first downs, all on scrambles. So it's likely Martz used his team's first-round bye to identify some shotgun looks as potential daggers for upcoming opponents.
Surely Capers has put together some wrinkles, too.
"It's gonna be really different [playing the Packers for the third time]," Bears running back Matt Forte said. "It's even different facing them a second time. There's a lot of film of the previous games that they take stuff from. So planning to meet them a third time is gonna be even tougher."
In the meantime, the team plans to try to celebrate Sunday's dominating win as best it can. But for a team headed to a conference championship, the locker room didn't exactly scream party time.
The same way Tommie Harris prevented himself from drifting into the history of the Bears-Packers matchup, his teammates held back the jubilation of being potentially 60 minutes away from a second trip to the Super Bowl under coach Lovie Smith.
Manning surveyed the locker room, pointing out some of the veterans to illustrate his point about the seemingly subdued locker room.
"We kind of want to chill out," Manning said. "I remember my rookie year we had just played Seattle [in the playoffs] and were excited. I was jumping around, excited talking about, 'Man, we're going to the NFC championship.' Now, you can just see the demeanor of the guys in here and know the seriousness of being in the postseason. Guys know how serious the next week is."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.