Bears hope they learned lesson
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- They never questioned Lovie Smith's decision.
We were beaten that day by the better team. But we know more about the opponent. So it has to help us.” -- Lovie Smith
By playing to win with the starters and basically nothing to play for in the regular-season finale at Green Bay, the Bears knew they could gain something. So when the teams meet Sunday in the NFC championship, Smith and the Bears hope the move pays dividends.
"Hopefully we got some things from that game, and I think we did. We talked about going on the road, tough environment, just getting in a playoff atmosphere where your opponent, they're trying to win to advance," Smith said. "To go through a tough game like that, and just to see our guys, how they would respond to it, knowing we didn't have a lot we were playing for, and our guys went up there and played their hearts out.
"We were beaten that day by the better team. But we know more about the opponent. So it has to help us."
Having split the 2010 regular-season series of the NFL's oldest rivalry, the teams -- which know one another extensively -- enter Sunday's matchup with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Neither team expects radical change from the previous meetings.
But it's the minor wrinkles that can turn the tides in Sunday's game for either team. So count on seeing a few.
"You want me to go over our game plan?" Smith asked, jokingly. "Each game, you add a little bit. But when you've gone through this many games in a season, it's not like you're going to put in a totally different game plan each week. We'll have a few wrinkles, just like they will. When it's your No. 1 rival, it'll come down to some basic things like turnover ratio."
The numbers certainly validate Smith's remarks. Although the Packers sacked Jay Cutler three times in the first meeting this season, the Bears came out at plus-1 in turnover ratio and won 20-17, thanks to a Brian Urlacher strip and Tim Jennings fumble recovery that set up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal.
The teams came out equal in turnover ratio (two apiece) in the season finale, which the Bears lost 10-3. Under those circumstances -- equal turnover margin -- the Bears were 1-3 in the regular season.
"They thrive off turnovers," said Packers receiver Greg Jennings. "If we can take control, keep their defense on the field and keep their offense off the field -- but at the same time be mindful of the ball-security phase -- then we have a great shot of winning the ballgame. If we don't allow them more opportunities on offense by giving them turnovers and having ball-security issues, we should be O.K."
So clearly the teams know that facet of one another. But looking deeper into the schematics, neither team -- despite their familiarity -- wants to divulge too much about potential changes for the NFC title game.
The Bears expect plenty of blitzes from the Packers -- they blitzed the Bears 19 times in Week 17 matchup with defensive backs, which means the players involved in blitz pickups "the backs, tight ends, the receivers on hots (hot routes) and sights (sight adjustments) have to be really dialed in this week," tight end Greg Olsen said.
Green Bay's offense, in turn, knows that although Chicago has gained a reputation for playing lots of base Cover 2, the club often disguises alignments to make it appear to be two-deep coverage, before shifting out at the snap of the ball to different looks, which keep opponents guessing.
"I think it has a lot to do with the elements, the conditions of their field, and them knowing their environment and that a team is not going to be able to just run up and down the field, run all kinds of routes, and do those types of things on that [slippery] field as we would if we were here [at Lambeau Field] or inside in a dome," Jennings said. "So they kind of throw a different look at you every now and then. But we know what to expect with them. They know what to expect with us. There won't be any hidden secrets or anything like that."
But that won't slow down the effort of both teams looking to uncover strategic nuggets from the regular-season finale. Most of the Bears expected to see the Packers again in the playoffs.
That's why despite having already locked up the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs, they relished the opportunity to learn more about their NFC North rival, in addition to trying to end Green Bay's season that night on the cold turf at Lambeau Field.
"We never questioned it (Smith's decision)," Olsen said. "It was never, 'Aww, man, I can't.' We try to go out and do the best we can to execute [Smith's] plan, and it's gotten us this far. We didn't play very well on offense [in the last game]. We made some uncharacteristic mistakes. If we play a little more like yesterday than we did in Week 17, we'll give ourselves a better chance."
By going all out the way they did 15 days ago, the Bears already did that.
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.