Countdown to NFC Championship Game

CZAR: AFC Championship breakdown

Outside of this cold, windy city, nobody seems to like the Chicago Bears.

They are home underdogs (3.5 points) to the fast-charging Green Bay Packers, a team attempting to duplicate what the New York Giants did three seasons ago — win three road playoff games in order to reach the Super Bowl.

Part of the no-respect explanation is that the Bears took the easiest road to today’s NFC Championship, last Sunday whipping a Seattle team that finished the season below .500. And before they took a big lead on the Seahawks, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler made some poor passes that could have changed everything, including an errant throw near the goal line into the gut of safety Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux might have had a pick-six, but he dropped the sure interception.

By comparison, Cutler’s good friend Aaron Rodgers was almost flawless against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons last weekend. Granted, Rodgers loves throwing in domes, but won’t have ideal conditions today at Soldier Field. It will be around 20 degrees with potentially suspect footing. The Bears will be praying for some wind — anything that could mess with Rodgers’ accuracy.

The Packers appear to be the “now” team, but the Bears did beat them here earlier in the season, and that win helped them take the NFC North. And yes, the Bears did drop a 10-3 decision to the Packers in Week 17, a game that propelled Green Bay into the playoffs. Many believe coach Lovie Smith played his starters that day — with nothing to gain in the playoff standings — simply because he didn’t want to face the Packers in the playoffs.

The strategy didn’t work.

But the Bears know that they were able to limit the high-flying Rodgers to 10 measly points in Lambeau on Jan. 2. If they can repeat that defensive performance, they definitely have a shot at winning and flying to Dallas in a week. Remember this stat: The Packers scored only 27 points against Chicago in two games this season. They totaled that many in the first half against the Falcons.

The Bears had two bad offensive games in the second half of the season. They got whipped by New England 36-7 here in December, then suffered the 10-3 loss to the Packers on the season’s final Sunday. But in their seven second-half wins, they averaged 28.3 points a game and beat teams such as Philadelphia and the New York Jets. And, unlike the Packers, they swept the pesky Lions.

In the second half of the season, the Bears evolved into a solid rushing team. Yes, they allowed 59 sacks, most in the NFL, but a lot of Cutler’s headaches occurred earlier in the season, particularly the embarrassing loss to the Giants when he was sacked nine times.

“Offensively, we are a more confident team now than we were back in October,” said Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz. “That counts for a lot this time of the year.”

One reason the Bears feel good about themselves is the jelling of the offensive line. They finally shut the revolving door and used the same starters for the last 10 games.

In the process, offensive line coach Mike Tice has taught them how to help one another and quit panicking when a play breaks down. The line isn’t full of individual stars, but they have solid guards in Chris Williams and Roberto Garza and an improving J’Marcus Webb at right tackle.

The Bears can definitely win if they can sustain a running game and limit the Packers’ possessions.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Green Bay at Chicago, 3 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This is only the second playoff game between the NFL’s greatest long-time rivals. It could come down to which quarterback displays the most poise under pressure and makes the fewest turnovers. To dictate to the Packers’ sack-happy defense, the Bears may come out with a double-tight-end alignment (if Desmond Clark is healthy) and try to run with Matt Forte. In the last game, Forte ran for 91 yards, mostly on sweeps.

The Bears must neutralize NT B.J. Raji if they are going to attempt to run between the tackles. Bears center Olin Kreutz needs help in order to limit Raji. A big factor in how this plays out will be the condition of Soldier Field. If the field is choppy, Green Bay’s defenders may shorten their stride to the quarterback, making it tougher for the Bears to block them. But blocking can work against Green Bay if the Packers’ linebackers and CB Charles Woodson are coming on blitzes.

The key for Rodgers and the Packers is to test the middle of the field on deep posts, especially when Chicago isn’t playing three-across deep. In the win in Green Bay, Rodgers connected with Greg Jennings on a 46-yard completion down the right sideline when he caught the Bears in single coverage.

One would say that Chicago’s secondary is not as athletic as Green Bay’s and that Packers coach Mike McCarthy may not call as many run plays — rookie James Starks has gotten 48 carries in the two playoff victories — as some people expect in a title game. McCarthy loves to throw, and a five-yard completion may suit him just as well as a five-yard run.

Rodgers trusts all his receivers and will throw underneath if his main target is covered. Scouts love to say that the Packers have been living off of “explosive plays,” and they are right as long as Jennings and James Jones are catching the football. But both have had too many drops this season, something that didn’t happen in Atlanta.

Despite his record 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games, Rodgers has been just OK against the Bears this season with two TDs and two interceptions. And when the Packers won here, injured TE Jermichael Finley had a huge game, busting Chicago’s Cover-2 defense.

Cutler’s 43 rushing yards last week against the Seahawks represented a career high. He passed for two touchdowns against Seattle, but also ran for two scores. “His decision to take off and go without hesitation was big,” Martz said. “I haven’t had a quarterback like that before. He’s made some really big plays for us and kept us in games. Last week we had a couple plays for him in the game plan that we actually designed to run in the playoffs.”

Rodgers, conversely, has been particularly adept at escaping pressure and making throws while on the run. The offensive lineman on the spot may be Packers rookie RT Bryan Bulaga, who grew up in suburban Chicago. He’ll see a rotation of Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers, who each had eight sacks this season.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Terry McCauley will referee this game. His crew called 18 penalties against the Packers in their Week 3 loss here. But this time, McCauley is working with an all-star crew, which includes no one from his regular crew. McCarthy, whose team committed only 78 penalties during the season, tied for third-fewest in the league, thought that game was an anomaly. Green Bay has been flagged just eight times in their two playoff games.

The Bears have only 11 players on their 53-man roster unsigned for next season. Obviously, Smith has a great shot at an extension if his team wins today.

There is no doubt that Green Bay has weaker special teams. The Pack allowed a record 102-yard kickoff return to Eric Weems in Atlanta, and in the loss to the Bears, Devin Hester had a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. Hester is the NFL leader with 14 career kick/punt returns for touchdowns. If you had to pick the best special teams coach, Chicago’s Dave Toub would rank ahead of Green Bay’s Shawn Slocum.

It will be imperative that Packers punter Tim Masthay duplicates his Week 17 effort against Hester. In that game, Masthay, who didn’t punt once against the Falcons, kicked to Hester eight times and the Bear returned only two. Masthay put four punts inside the 20-yard line, two of them inside the five, and had a touchback. The Packers totally bottled up Hester. “The objective, when you’ve got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can, is you’ve got to limit the space that he has to operate in,” Slocum said. “And, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities.”

In his four games against the Packers, Cutler has been sacked 14 times. Cutler’s passer ratings against the Packers, starting with the first game last year, have been: 43.2, 74.9, 82.5 and 43.5. Fortunately for the Bears, the two higher ratings came at Soldier Field. Cutler is well-liked by many of his teammates, but there is little doubt that some of his mood swings could be affected by his Type 1 diabetes. As a professional athlete, it is extremely difficult at times to regulate your blood-sugar levels.

This is the 182nd game between the two franchises, including an NFL semifinal game — their only postseason meeting — 69 years ago won by the Bears 34-14. That game was played Dec. 14, 1941, seven days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Bears lead the series 92-83-6.

Tice refers to his offensive line in simple terms. “How they play is how good of a job I’ve done,” he said. “If they play like crap, then I’m a crappy coach, and I deserve the heat.”

Speaking of being clutch and why he’s paid so much, Chicago’s Robbie Gould has never missed a kick in the postseason, converting all six field-goal attempts and all 17 extra points. He has hit 21 of 23 field-goal attempts against the Packers.

CZAR: AFC Championship breakdown