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Bears look to finish off Packers ... again

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Nancy Gay

Nancy Gay is the Senior NFL Editor at FOXSports.com. She has been covering the NFL and other major sports for more than two decades. The first female member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, Nancy also is an Associated Press All-Pro selector. She has covered 20 Super Bowls. Follow her on Twitter @nancygay.

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LAKE FOREST, Ill

Revisionist history won’t serve the Chicago Bears well now. Had they taken care of division business in Week 17 and knocked off their longtime NFC North rivals the Green Bay Packers, this rematch at the NFC Championship level – the one that makes the home-field Bears a 3-point underdog – wouldn’t be happening.

The Packers were on the brink in the regular-season finale, and the Bears let them stroll straight into the postseason, where Green Bay has won consecutive playoff challenges on the road to get to Sunday’s conference title game at Soldier Field (FOX, 2 p.m. ET).

“Win and we’re in,” Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson said of that season-changing 10-3 victory at Lambeau Field. “That’s all we knew. We didn’t have to worry about what any other teams were doing. We just focused on winning to get in the playoffs, and that’s what happened.”

Not that it was easy. Chicago held a 3-0 lead in the third quarter when the momentum shifted abruptly. Packers safety Charlie Peprah intercepted quarterback Jay Cutler in the end zone, preventing the Bears from extending their lead and putting an already close game out of reach.

Suddenly, everything went Green Bay’s way. Cornerback Tramon Williams’ 41-yard punt return set up Mason Crosby’s game-tying 23-yard field goal. The fourth quarter opened as a 75-yard Packers’ scoring drive finally pushed them ahead.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers carved up the Bears through the air, using completions of 21 yards to Donald Driver and 46 yards to Greg Jennings to deliver a 1-yard scoring toss to Donald Lee.

The Bears’ final push in the last 4 minutes, 49 seconds ended with the ball in Green Bay’s hands: Cutler drove his team to the Packers’ 32-yard line, but his deep pass to wideout Devin Hester was picked off by safety Nick Collins with 10 seconds remaining.

Dramatic? Absolutely.

Does it mean anything this week, for a pair of teams that have been squaring off longer than any division opponents in NFL history and whose two previous meetings this season have been decided by one score?

No one at Halas Hall thinks the Bears gift-wrapped anything for the sixth-seeded Packers, even if that Week 17 outcome set up Sunday’s first playoff contest between these storied clubs since 1941.

In fact, the Bears believe the third time is their charm.

Chicago won the first round of this bout in a Week 3 Monday night clash, prevailing 20-17 at home. The Packers were penalized 18 times in that game for 152 yards.

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In the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field, the Bears made the curious decision of playing their starters 60 minutes in that loss, even though the outcome didn’t affect their playoff standing.

All week, the Packers have been careful not to read anything into coach Lovie Smith’s choice to keep his starters in for every snap. At least publicly.

"I think Chicago really didn't want us to make the playoffs, whether we were going to see them or not," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "For the simple fact that we're a division rival. Everyone knows you're not well liked in the opposite city."

But they are well respected.

Shortly after Chicago routed the overmatched Seattle Seahawks last Sunday in a 34-24 divisional win, Cutler received a text message from Rodgers. The Packers QB threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in last Saturday’s 48-21 blowout victory at Atlanta.

“Cut off (for texts) was Sunday night – he said, ‘Good game, see you in Chicago.’” Cutler said. “I said, ‘See you in a week.’”

This rematch isn’t playing with the Bears’ heads in any way.

Asked Thursday whether he could have ever anticipated playing the Packers in this game after ending the way it did in Week 17, safety Charles Tillman didn’t bat an eye.

“No, a couple weeks ago I was just trying to get a ‘W,'” he deadpanned. “I wasn’t worried about who we were facing or who we might play in the playoffs.”

Smith knows he’s seeing the hottest team in the postseason, one that has overcome the loss of six starters and 15 players total to injured reserve, yet is playing its best football when it counts the most.

Green Bay isn’t just peaking – it’s soaring.

“I think you would definitely have to say that,” Smith said Thursday. “You want to, of course, peak, you want to be playing your best football at the end of the year.

“For them, of course, they had to play that way. Their tournament started a little bit early, having to win every game to advance and even though we were in a different situation, I like the way we played at the end of the football season. I think as you look at the final-four football that we have this weekend, you could say that about most of the teams. In order to be here, you have to be playing pretty good ball now.”

Tagged: Bears, Packers, Jay Cutler

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