A Game For the Ages

I'm 48 years old. Been watching the Pack since the late '60s, just too late to catch the Lombardi years, and just in time to endure a quarter century of mediocrity. The last 20 years have been all we could ask for (except for '98 when we handed Elway the trophy).

Sunday's Packer-Bears NFC title matchup is the second biggest game of my football watching life. It can't surpass Super Bowl XXXI when the Packers finally put the title back in Titletown at the Superdome, with Favre, Reggie White and Desmond Howard leading the way.

But this one is next. For a native Milwaukeean, heck for any Wisconsinite living at least 100 miles east of the Minnesota border this is THE rivalry. The one our grandparents and parents told us about. Lambeau. Halas. Lombardi. Ditka. Big city vs. small town. The Monsters of the Midway vs. Titletown U.S.A.

It's meeting #182 in the NFL's oldest rivalry. 21 NFL titles between them but unbelievably only the fourth time they've both reached the post-season in the same year. The Bears dominated in the '70s and '80s, the Packers the past two decades. And now here we are. The Packers were considered by many in the preseason to be a Super Bowl favorite. The Bears? It was Lovie Smith's contract year and it appeared the team was set to give it one more year and then move in another direction.

But a funny thing happened in the Windy City. The Mike Martz-Jay Cutler marriage worked. They got through the growing pains and found a rhythm. And the aging defense stayed healthy and excelled with the addition of playmaker Julius Peppers. Toss in some typical Bears luck like the Calvin Johnson pseudo-TD in the opener and they find themselves hosting a game that will determine a Super Bowl berth.

The Pack is looking to become the first #6 seed to reach the Super Bowl from the NFC and they are 3 1/2 point favorites at Soldier Field. That shows the power of Packer fans' belief in their team by putting so much money on them in Las Vegas that the line shifted to a silly number. This should be a pick 'em game in my eyes. Yes, the Pack played eye-poppingly well in Atlanta this week. But this is a divisional rivalry that seems to always produce close games and the strengths of both teams are their defense.

That's another reason this game means so much. Finally, the Packers are developing into a defensive powerhouse. The transition under Dom Capers has been remarkable. Despite season-ending injuries to opening day key performers like Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Brandon Chillar and rookie Mike Neal, as well as lingering injuries to Cullen Jenkins and Atari Bigby, the Packers finished the season #2 in scoring defense and only gave up six rushing TDs all season.

In four games against Capers and the Pack's D, Jay Cutler is 1-3, with a passer rating of 58, four touchdowns and nine interceptions. They've scored 16 points in two games against Green Bay this season. They will not move the ball on long scoring drives Sunday. If the Packers don't turn the ball over and don't give up big plays on special teams resulting in short fields for Cutler and Forte, the Bears will be lucky to score ten points.

Cutler looked comfortable and confident in the pocket last Sunday and showed mobility under heat. But that was against the Seachickens. In Week 17, Lovie Smith elected to play to win, and vanilla scheme or not, allowed Cutler to absorb a beating. Six sacks in all. It took him longer to get up each time. He'll remember that and be a lot more skittish behind center this week. If Mike Martz is smart, he will make Matt Forte and Chester Taylor the feature of the offense. The Pack has been better against the run of late, but can still be gouged for big runs, as Forte showed us a couple of times early in Week 17.

The way Rodgers is playing, it looks like the Packers offense can move the ball against anybody right now. Yes, they had a tough time in Week 17, when the Bears surprised the Pack by abandoning their trademark Cover 2, which Rodgers shredded for 300 yards in week 3 and going more to a press man coverage. It took a while for McCarthy to figure it out, but the Pack hit on some big sideline plays late to get the win.

James Starks will be key on Sunday. First, as coach Edgar Bennett said, is ball protection. Those linebackers will be looking to strip him all afternoon. He's a weak link: a rookie who's never seen this kind of spotlight and needs to prove he's up to the moment. He needs to pound away. I don't care if he averages three yards a carry. If he gets 20-25 carries, the Packers will win this game.

We all know about Devin Hester. Tim Masthay will earn his paycheck on Sunday if he can minimize the number of times Hester touches the ball. Aim for the sidelines. I'll take a 25-30 punt all afternoon and let my defense hold them down, rather than let #23 electrify his team and the crowd.

My ultimate dream scenario: Pack leads late 14-13. A late turnover gives the ball to the Pack on the Bears one. In comes BJ Raji as a fullback, as he did last week in Atlanta. Only this time, Rodgers hands off to #90 and Raji, a la the Refrigerator on a Monday night in '85 on this field against the Pack, takes it in for the knockout touchdown.

Chicago Bears and America: meet "The Freezer!"

Pack 21 Bears 13

I'll be there, and unlike the '08 title game when I sat in the press box, this time I'll be in the end zone and I get to yell and scream and cheer. It has to be that way. It's Packers vs. Bears for the NFC title. It doesn't get any bigger, or better, than this.

Go Pack!


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