The thermostat is barely nudging above zero as the NFC Championship Game approaches kickoff on Sunday (FOX, 2 p.m. ET), the kind of preposterous winter whipping which has left what passes for turf at Soldier Field in a state of … how shall we say it?
Article continues below ...
"Our field is a little bit harder in December and January around that time frame," Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. "It is what it is. Some people say it’s a sorry field … s***** field … um, sorry field … they say what they want. But at the end of the day you got to play. That’s what we do, we accept it and play."
It’s a brown skating rink that is as hard as a parking lot, and what little hardy grass that remains beneath the green paint is ready to give way beneath an NFL player’s cleats at any time.
So how should the Bears try to neutralize the Green Bay Packers’ movement-heavy 3-4 defensive scheme in these conditions?
Go right to that frozen ground and run, run, run the ball with Matt Forte, who piled up 1,616 combined yards in the regular season (1,069 rushing).
Get the ball into tight end Greg Olsen’s sure hands (nine catches, 113 yards, including a 58-yard TD in the divisional victory over Seattle).
Ensure that the kickoff and punt teams open lanes that speedy return man Devin Hester (17.1-yard-per-return punt average; three returns for TDs in the regular season) can punch through for big-yardage gains.
It’s back-to-basics offensive football that creates so-called “hidden yardage,” the kind of approach that Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz — the guru credited with reviving quarterback Jay Cutler’s fortunes — regrets overlooking in Chicago’s Week 17 loss to the Packers.
"I did not do a good job calling the game at all, really," Martz said of that Packers’ victory, which clinched Green Bay a playoff berth. "I probably got away from some things."
Foremost among those things — Martz put Forte back on the shelf, a curious move considering Chicago’s midseason push to run the ball with their powerful back helped keep quarterback Jay Cutler off the ground and make the Bears’ offense more balanced.
Forte had only 15 carries in that Week 17 game, though he did gain 91 yards against the Packers. It was the only game Chicago lost this season in which Forte ran for 90 or more yards.
His presence in the backfield forces the Packers defense to think twice how to attack.
“Any time you’ve got an offense as explosive as these guys are, you don’t want to let them get their run game going," Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Because then it’s run, play-action, quick screen passes and it’s everything, as opposed to shutting down the run, getting them in third-and-longs."
If Forte finds himself bottled up in the middle, Cutler can use Olsen as a reliable outlet. In the divisional round he became the first Bears tight end to gain more than 100 yards receiving in the postseason.
But Olsen knows he’ll have to work to get open and get everyone else open against the Packers’ complicated defense.
“They play a lot of multiple fronts, moving guys around. Clay Matthews can be a defensive end, he can be a linebacker, he can be off the ball on coverage … same thing with a lot of their guys,” Olsen said. “(A.J.) Hawk moves around. They blitz those guys a lot. They’re very multiple. They have good secondary guys, so that allows them to kind of blitz a little bit and trust those guys on the back end to hold up in coverage. They’re very talented.”
If all else fails on that frigid home field, Bears coach Lovie Smith knows he can always look to his standout special teams to have an impact on field position.
The Hester Factor could loom large on Sunday.
“It has definitely been an advantage for us,” Smith conceded. “First off, as a kick returner, if teams choose not to kick the ball (to him) to get it on the 40-yard line — you’re trying to score. Of course, every time he touches the football he has a chance to do that so it is always interesting to see how teams will deal with him.
“For a division opponent, we assume he’ll get the ball and when he does get it, a lot of it is on the rest of the guys to block for him to give him an opportunity to make those big plays. Our guys take pride in that.
”There are a lot of wild cards in this game — turnover ratio, who can run the ball, who can pass the ball, but with the special teams, with the third phase that we put so much effort into, we’ve won games that way and it could come down to that for us.”
In a Bears-Packers game this season, it has come down to one score in the series’ split. And the Bears, 3-1/2-point underdogs on their own arctic tundra, know that they’ll advance to Super Bowl XLV only if they can maximize their key strengths offensively against a hot Green Bay team.
“We’ve got probably the best back in the league. The offensive line has gotten better every week,” Martz said. “Our tight ends are terrific on the edge, allowing us to get around the edge, there are a lot of great things in the running game we’ve developed and are getting better at and it can only help our passing game, obviously. I know this. It’s a lot of fun and a lot easier to call plays when you can mix it like we have.”