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90-Year Rivalry Culiminates with Chicago and Green Bay Clashing in NFC Title game

The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers have gotten very familiar with each other over the years.  Their storied rivalry dates all the way back to 1921, with the two hated division rivals clashing 181 times.  But today, their 182nd encounter figures to have a little extra juice. 

Both are deserving to be in the NFC Championship game, but there’s only room at the Super Bowl table for one of them.

Each team one once in the regular season, both coming at home.  The Bears claimed the first victory on Monday Night Football, a 20-17 squeeker on Sept. 27.  But the Packers got the last laugh in the rematch on the final day of the regular season.  Facing a win-or-else scenario, the Packers were able to hang on and outlast the Bears 10-3, clinching the NFC’s final playoff spot.  Now, the rubber match carries tremendous ramifications.  There figures to be some unpleasantries in Bears-Packers III.

Making only his fourth career start in the playoffs later today, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has the Pack on the verge of playing in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1997.  If the Cheesehead Nation is hoping the outcome of this title game differs from their last one in 2007, perhaps there’s no better quarterback in the leauge to have right now at the helm than Rodgers.

In his three playoff appearances, Rodgers is 2-1 with both wins coming on the road this postseason against Philadelphia and Atlanta.  He’s thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception, with nearly 600 yards passing.  He’s improved his passer rating in each game, but last week he was almost a picture of perfection.  Against the Falcons, he missed on five passes (31-of-36), threw for 366 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and lead four scoring drives of at least 80 yards.  He finished with a remarkable passer rating of 136.8.  I wish the Bears all the luck in the football world trying to derail Rodgers;  he’s got 22 TD’s and only two picks in his last nine games overall.  Rodgers has faired well against the Bears, winning four of six starts against Chicago with seven touchdowns to four interceptions.

In only his second playoff start, Cutler leads the Bears into the NFC Championship

His counterpart, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, will have all eyes on him.  Can he outduel Rodgers and get the Bears to their second Super Bowl since 2007?  If he’s to be successful, the Bears will need the 2010 version of Cutler, who threw 23 TD’s and led the Bears to a 7-2 record following a 4-3 start, and not the Cutler who was mistake prone and made numerous head scratching plays in 2009 that led to Cutler throwing 26 interceptions. 

Cutler is just 1-4 against the Packers with almost a 2 to 1 ratio of inteceptions to touchdowns:  nine picks to only five touchdowns.  This season, Cutler threw one touchdown and three interceptions against the Packers.   In the season finale, he threw for just 168 yards, was sacked six times and tossed a pair of interceptions.   But in his first action since the disappointing finale loss in Lambeau Field, Cutler’s first taste of the playoffs was a thing of beauty.  He totaled four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) joining Otto Graham as the only other quarterback in history to throw and run for two touchdowns in a playoff game.  Cutler threw for 274 yards against the Seattle Seahawks, with his first postseason completion going to tight end Greg Olsen for a 58-yard touchdown.

Both Cutler and Rodgers are equipped with big arms, swift feet and the capablitites to complete dominate and control the game.  The biggest concern for the both quarterbacks will be opposing defenses, which will make points difficult to come by.  Green Bay sports the NFL’s second ranked defense allowing only 15.0 points per game;  The Bears aren’t too shabby either, ranking fourth with 17.p ppg.  Getting pressure early and often on the two signal callers will be crucial in deciding which team from the black and blue division survives.

Last week, Bears defensive end Julius Peppers quietly registered two tackles in the 35-24 win over the Seahawks.  Peppers was the crown jewel of the offseason and while the Bears were able to reel in the big fish, his eight sacks were his fewest since the 2007-08 season.  Chicago will need much more bang for their buck from Peppers today.  If he’s as quiet today as he was a week ago, it’s not going to bode well for the Bears. 

It won’t be totally up to Peppers, though.  He’ll have some help in the form of Israel Idonije and Tommie Harris along the defensive line.  After totaling just eight career sacks in six seasons with the Bears, Idonije enjoyed a breakout season with eight sacks in 2010.  Harris was a force last week against the Seahawks, registering both sacks on Matt Hasselbeck.  Staples at linebacker in the Windy City, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs figure to make it less than easy on Rodgers to elude, duck and run away from the Bears’ nasty front seven.  They have to limit Rodgers’ mobility oustide of the pocket, as his ability to make big plays after things brokedown last week haunted Atlanta.

Green Bay figures to be just fine when they send their defense out on the field to counter Cutler and the Bears’ offense.  Man-beast LB Clay Matthews collected 14 sacks and will most likely be the Defensive Player of the Year.  Green Bay already has one of those in CB Charles Woodson who continues to play at an All-Pro level.  With the Cullen Jenkins and BJ Raji anchoring the interior line, and AJ Hawk joining Matthews at linebacker, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has plenty of firepower at his disposal.  The chess match between Capers and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be one of the interesting story lines to watch.  

How successful can Capers be at flustering Cutler in the pocket?  A confused and hurried Cutler, like any quarterback, will lead to mistakes and some poor choices.  The Bears must avoid third and long situations.  That will allow Capers to dial up blitzes and pressure from all over the place. Green Bay’s 24 interceptions this season was second-best in the NFL.  In three of their past four games against Cutler, the Packers defense has had multiple picks.  The one game they didn’t register multiple picks, the Bears were victorious.

Who would’ve guessed we’d ever mention Mike Martz and committing to the run in the same breath?  But that’s been the case this season for the Bears.  After a middling 4-3 start, the offense came into rhythm and became much more balanced once Martz put more emphasis on running the football.  Over their last 10 games including the playoffs, the Bears have averaged 30.3 rushing attempts per game, nearly seven more attempts than their average during the first seven games of the season.  Matt Forte rushed for more than 90 yards in five of Chicago’s final seven games.  Forte averaged just over six yards per carry in the Bears’ Week 17 loss at Green Bay.

Prediction:  Packers, 23, Bears 17.  The last five meetings between Chicago and Green Bay have been decided by seven points or less, with Green Bay losing three of their last four trips to Chicago.  Chicago’s defense has given Rodgers fits lately.  In those past four games against the Bears, Rodgers has thrown just three touchdowns with two interceptions while being sacked nine times.   While it’ll be difficult for Rodgers to re-enact his peformance last week in Atlanta again,  this one falls on Cutler and the Bears’ defense.  They were good a week ago, despite late garbage time production from the Seahawks when the game was long over.  They’ll need their best performance of the season today to cool off Rodgers.  If Chicago can get the running game going, that will take the pressure off Cutler disallowing the Packers to make the Bears one dimensional on offense. 

Can Cutler play within himself and the game plan and not fight the urge to try and one-up and outduel Rodgers especially if the Packers come out firing again?  He’ll need to be smart and make good decisions, not revert back to the risky, questionable Cutler he’s been prone to show.  In the end, I like the Packers defense to be the deciding factor, winning the battle against Cutler and Capers getting the better of Martz.  Rodgers is playing so well and in a quarterback driven league, the Packers have one of the best.  Green Bay punches their ticket to Super Bowl XLV.

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