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Opposition Research: Chicago Bears (NFC Championship)

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Opposition Research: Chicago Bears (NFC Championship)

Welcome to the NFC championship edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the last team standing between the Packers and a trip to Dallas, the Chicago Bears.  It’s the first postseason matchup between the game’s oldest rivalry in 70 years, and only the second all-time.  Given the enormity of the game, you’ll be overrun with material within three clicks of a mouse. I’m not going to try to cover the whole game – there are so many great articles out there. Instead, I’m going to highlight just a few things that are of interest to me.

Before we dive into this epic Bears-Packers NFC Championship showdown, I have some advice for Mike McCarthy and his team (because they clearly read these articles):

Throw out the game tape.  Turn off the TV.  Stop celebrating your wins over the Falcons and the Eagles. They didn’t happen.

Instead, slide in the tape of week 3Relive the agony of outgaining the Bears by 103 yards and more than 11 minutes and still losing.  Remember each and every one of those devastating penalties.  Remember all the plays you should have had – remember that drop in the end zone, Quarless? That 57-yard bomb you couldn’t haul in, Jennings?  And, how about that fumble, Jones?  How many interceptions should you have had, Collins – three? How many sacks did you have, Clay – oh, right, none.  Say all you want about how this game was “so long ago, and we’ve moved past it.” Moved past it, nothin’.  Get back in it, because this is who you were last time you stepped onto Soldier Field.

Recall that you had a lead, but you let a bad team stick around (and they were a bad team).  You let them stick around so long, they finally took what you’d been offering them with that winning field goal.  Let that sink in for a while.

And, hey offense? You’re not done yet. Go ahead and pop in the film from week 17.  You know, the one where your defense bailed you out because you couldn’t be bothered to hold onto a catch. Not a would-be 50 yard touchdown (Jennings), not a critical 3rd-and-4 (Jones).  And if you did manage to catch the ball, you couldn’t always hold on to it – yes, Driver, I’m looking at you. I’m sure you’re still thinking about your four penalties, Bulaga – the only penalties the team incurred – but I’d like to remind you, just in case you forgot.  Oh, and Rodgers – that faux-QB-sneak-at-the-goal-line-but-really-I’m-gonna-toss-it-to-my-RB was great in theory…probably looked fun on the chalkboard…miserable in execution, sir.

I don’t say these things to be mean. I’m not trying to tear you down or anything. In fact, I’m one of your biggest fans.  But with all the positive press that you’ll be getting, with all the fawning and the hyperbolic praise, I feel like someone has to step in and remind you that this is no ordinary game you’re playing on Sunday.  The Bears aren’t any other team that you can prepare for with just the normal film study and then go out and execute.  This game demands so much more than that.

I’m all for watching you guys pummel the Falcons. It does wonders for anyone having a bad day, believe me.  And, please, feel free to pull out that tape in March, after the season is over, when you’re sitting in the sun somewhere and starting to miss football.

But, right now?

Right now, you should put that tape on the shelf, and take a few hours to rewatch the last two Bears games. Realize that, had you won the first matchup, you would have gotten a bye and wouldn’t have needed to be road warriors in the postseason. Realize that you – every one of you – cost your team yards, points, and yes, maybe even the game, in September.

And, once you’ve watched it, strive to do better. Promise that you’ll catch the ball and hold on to it. That you’ll make the play without a false start or illegal interference. That you’ll help your team win a chance to play on the game’s biggest stage. That you’ll play like you’re capable of playing. Take that onto the practice field and into the game on Sunday.

Phew.

Speaking of Sunday…

This One’s For All The {Insert Your Favorite Chip Here}:

Yes, the Super Bowl will be watched by many more millions of people. And, yes, technically, that game is more important in the grand scheme of football.  However, this Sunday’s game is the most important game to date in the Bears-Packers rivalry.  Consider that, in 2007, the Packers lost only three games en route to a first round bye in the playoffs.  Yet, having the Bears sit at home a year after losing in the Super Bowl didn’t quiet Bears fans.  Instead, they exulted that, buried inside the Packers’ gaudy 13-3 record, two of those losses had come at the hands of their own team.  “Sure, your team can make the playoffs, but you still can’t beat the Bears.”  And so it goes.

Given the emotions that come from regular season meetings, it’s no surprise that a postseason meeting – as rare as it is between these teams – will up the ante all the more.  After all, we fans already jockey amongst ourselves about who has more Hall of Famers or championships or historical relevance or this or that. Monsters of the Midway gets mocked as “Monsters of the Middling.”  We love to dust off our trophies and see how the cities stack up:

Here’s the thing Green Bay fans can’t change no matter what happens this week: their Green Bayness.

If the favored Packers triumph on the dyed-green, torn-up tundra of Soldier Field on Sunday, fans all over Wisconsin will rejoice as if they’d been given a lifetime supply of Gorgonzola, a Leinenkugel IV and 30 extra days to hunt white-tailed deer.

Bears fans will curse Cutler to the skies and call for Lovie’s firing and chant “Packers Suck!” on their way out of Soldier Field — but come next Monday morning, a new sports day will have dawned.

Are the Blackhawks going to put together a winning streak and climb in the standings so they’re in decent shape to defend the Stanley Cup? With MVP candidate Derrick Rose leading the way, can the Bulls make a serious run in the playoffs and maybe even knock off the Celtics or the hated Heat?

…If the Packers lose on Sunday, what do their fans do, turn their attention to Wisconsin basketball, the NBA’s Bucks, the Milwaukee Brewers? Or do they immediately start counting down the days until the next time they can hit the Tundra Tailgate Zone?

There are a number of good articles about the last time these two teams met in the postseason.  Kerry Byrne of CHFF puts it in context well, but I don’t think you can beat either the original 1941 post-game story (scanned or with pictures) or the accounts from people who’d been there, whether as fans or as cub reporters.

As Sunday approaches, I’ve become that much more convinced that this game has a lot in common – spiritually, if not in outcome – with that 1941 playoff game.  Three times as many people watched the Bears-Packers game as watched the NFL Championship the next week.  That’s what we’re talking about. It’s the kind of game that will, as Chris Lempesis of OBOD wrote, dictate the balance of power among fans in Green Bay, Chicago, and around the world, for the rest of this rivalry:

The men who play and coach in this game will remember it, too, of course. But, honestly, this one’s about us. The people who comprise this game, they’re just sort of passing through, aren’t they?

I really liked Chris’s article, and I agree.  A win on Sunday means more than just a Super Bowl berth, and a loss on Sunday means more than just an abrupt end to the season.  If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that a win on Sunday means more to me than a win in Dallas. Naturally, I want both.

I’ll be watching the game in a darkened hotel room in Thailand, where – thoroughly jet-lagged, I’m sure – I’ll set the alarm for 2:45am, slip into my Aaron Rodgers jersey, and log onto my computer. And after the game, win or lose, I’ll get ready for the day.  Maybe I’ll go for a run to wear off some energy, maybe I’ll just sit in the dark. But I swear --- God help the Thai company officials I’ve come to meet with if the Packers lose.

Things You Can Count On:

The Bears feeling ‘disrespected.’ I talked about this before week 17, but it’s only more pronounced now.  SBN Chicago’s Don Hamel couldn’t believe what he saw when the first odds came out of Vegas:

The Green Bay Packers, the second place in the NFC North, visiting team Green Bay Packers, are the favorite. The oddsmakers must have been listening to every cable sports show on television, and subscribing to the Chicago papers. The Bears are the least respected number two seed since the U.S. invaded Grenada.

Despite being one of the last four teams standing, the Bears didn’t crack the top four in Peter King’s latest ranking of the “Fine Fifteen” in this week’s MMQB.  I’ve heard no fewer than three Chicago radio announcers complain about this.  Boo. Freaking. Hoo.

Mike Martz being Mike Martz. For the first half of the season, the Bears offense was off-kilter.  Many chalked it up to the Bears still learning Martz’s complicated offensive scheme, which is predicated on timing and rhythm (and usually works best with smart veteran receivers, not converted defensive backs).  Receivers were dropping passes, Forte was looking lost, and Cutler was coming out of a seven-step drop to be greeted by entire defensive lines.  Martz was adamant that his players would adapt. (Many fans were adamant that Martz was off his rocker.)  And then Lovie Smith asked him for a sit-down:

Smith met with Martz and delivered a message with crystal clarity: the offense needed to adjust. The running backs were not inanimate objects. There needed to be more dedication to the running game, and more scheme discipline – and it wouldn’t be a debate.

Since the bye, you really have to give it up for the guy – he’s committed to the run, and begun to make use of the skills of TE Greg Olsen (who caught two touchdowns against Seattle on Sunday).  Olsen even believes that the Bears offense still has a ways to go. QB Jay Cutler is still food for pass-rushers on occasion, but Martz’s refined system has been able to narrow the gap between the highs and lows of Good Jay and Bad Jay. He’s certainly got a lot of confidence heading into Sunday’s game.

No matter how well he (whether Cutler or Martz) learned to play inside the system, however, you can always count on that one point in the game where Martz will think, “Hey, why don’t we do this?”  Last week, it was a direct-snap to Matt Forte, whose floating pass was promptly picked off by Seattle:

At the end of the day, Martz's play-calling recklessness did not matter. Chicago held on to win comfortably. But he did unnecessarily ignite a 21-point fourth-quarter explosion by Seattle that gave the game a much closer score than the “feel” it had through the first 50 minutes.

Martz could have snuffed out any lingering fire the Seahawks had left with a couple first downs. Instead, he fueled the fire with a needless and reckless trick play.

The conventional wisdom says that Martz will have something new and wacky to unveil on Sunday, and I’m sure that’s the case. What’s less certain is whether it will work.

The Bears Defense Showing Up. When Lovie Smith came out and said that the cover-2 scheme was a huge part of his gameplan and “would be around long after he was gone,” Aaron Nagler summed it up well: “At least he’s consistent.”  Certainly, after all of the wrinkles, shifts, and exotic blitzes of a Dom Capers defense, you look at Chicago’s defense and call it predictable:

Both SS Danieal Manning and FS Chris Harris sit deep.

Corners Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings take away the outside receivers using more man-to-man concepts.

MLB Brian Urlacher roams the middle (sometimes dropping), with help from LBs Pisa Tinoisamoa and Lance Briggs.  Against the Packers, one of those two will periodically be swapped out for nickel CB D.J. Moore.

The front four, led by DE Israel Idonije and DE Julius Peppers, stop the run and go after Aaron Rodgers.

Yawn.

The Bears D is remarkably good at taking away the big play, which forces quarterbacks like Rodgers to rely more heavily on a short passing game (will Rodgers fold under pressure?). They’re also adept at punishing quarterbacks who get greedy or try to throw into too-small windows – their 35 turnovers (21 picks, 14 recovered fumbles) is tied for third-best in the league.  And, in games against Green Bay, Chicago’s done a nice job of keeping Rodgers contained:

He worked within the limitations of the Bears' rejuvenated Cover 2 scheme, but failed to expose it for consistent big gains, averaging 7.47 yards per pass attempt, down from 8.26 for the season. He has little running game to rely on. The Bears gave up a total of 82 yards on 29 carries to Packers running backs this season.

It’s not going to be a mystery that the Bears will line up with two deep safeties while the front four guys try to get pressure.  At the beginning of the season, this type of defense wasn’t of immediate concern, because a strong and fast tight end can be a “cover-2 buster” up the seam.  Unfortunately, Andrew Quarless may have the potential, but does not yet have the ability, to take over that role:

Without the threat of injured TE Jermichael Finley, who he had at his disposal in his earlier trip to Soldier Field, Rodgers loses that fast, big body that can outrun Urlacher to the deep middle of the field. That will free up #54 to help on underneath routes and in run support, where his athleticism is almost like having a third-safety on the field at all times.

It’s pretty clear to all and sundry that the Bears front four has its work cut out for it on Sunday. According to Lions OC Scott Linehan, Julius Peppers may well have the biggest say in whether the Bears make the Super Bowl:

Peppers has to get to Aaron Rodgers, period. At worst, he has to attract so much attention and induce false-start and holding penalties that helps other Bears defensive linemen get there. Either way, it starts with Peppers on Sunday the way it always starts with Peppers, Linehan said.

Whether it’s Peppers or Israel Idonije or even Tommie Harris making a play for an unprecedented three weeks in a row, it has to be someone. Several someones. The Bears have done it well enough before. They have to do it better now. Here’s the deal: If Rodgers has time, the Bears have an early offseason.

Chad Clifton had a pretty solid game against Peppers in week 17, but struggled at times against John Abraham in Atlanta. I’ll watch him early in the game. If we see Peppers line up against Bulaga, we’ll know Cliffy’s doing his job.

Tim Masthay being either vilified or heralded on Monday. It’s a cute story to say that the easiest way to combat a returner like Devin Hester is to not punt the ball.  It makes you laugh a little. But it won’t happen on Sunday. The Packers will go 3-and-out, or a drive will stall, and the team will be forced to punt. After having a miserable day in Soldier Field the first time, Masthay performed well against Hester in the season finale, forcing numerous fair catches and only two reasonable returns.  Still, you have to think that Devin Hester was grinning while watching film of the Packers’ kickoff coverage against the Falcons on Eric Weems’ 102-yd TD return.  In a strange way, it’s not the worst thing that the Packers had a breakdown on special teams last week – their focus in practice this week should be evident on the field on Sunday.

A Few Things I Think I Think: (to steal a line from Peter King)

  • Jay Cutler looked brilliant against the Seahawks, particularly when picking on SEA S Lawyer Milloy (who was a Pro Bowler…in 1998). The Packers have far fewer weaknesses at DB. He won’t play as well on Sunday as he did last week.
  • After playing against LeSean McCoy in the wildcard round, the Packers defense will have better luck with Matt Forte. McCoy is shiftier, but both are dangerous as runners and receivers. Forte is a threat, but I think the Packers contain him.
  • That said, the more aggressive Capers is, the more likely I think we see Forte as an effective safety valve receiver.
  • Jay Cutler’s new penchant for running will be on display again this Sunday. The Packers tend to have problems with running quarterbacks. It’ll be annoying.
  • Greg Olsen lined up against Charlie Peprah is a bad matchup for the Packers.  Greg Olsen lined up against Erik Walden is much worse. We’ll see at least one of the two at least once in the game.
  • So goes Urlacher, so go the Bears. If Urlacher is effective early, it may be tough sledding for the Packers as the game goes on.
  • I think the first to 23 will win.

Are There Any Unknowns Left?

These teams know each other. After all, they’ve been meeting twice a year since 1925. They’re familiar with the personnel, their tendencies, their weaknesses. As experts have been spouting all week, it’s going to come down to execution:

There are no tricks, no real window dressing to add to the game plan with the Packers coming to town. Sure, a new package or two on offense and defense can be added, but nothing that takes away from what you do best as a team.

I find it funny that so many people have “questions” going into this game. Ten questions here, five more questions there, four questions over here.  And, naturally, they are good articles, but it still comes down to the basic question – is there anything left that these teams don’t know about each other?

I’m not sure the answer matters.

Both of the scouting reports I regularly turn to (Pete Dougherty of the GBPG and Bob McGinn of the Journal-Sentinel) say very little that’s new.  All of the match-ups reinforce what we know about this game: as Kevin Greene says, “It’s a simple, simple sport.”

So, What Happens?

I don’t know. I can’t wait to find out.

***

As a programming note, should the Packers win on Sunday, there will not be an Opposition Research prior to the Super Bowl. I may write something in the days before the game, but my being out of the country for work until February 1 will make following news or team developments rather difficult.  Furthermore, with the likely exception of gametime tweets, the vast majority of any Twitter updates will be of a non-football nature. You’ve been warned.

And, if this is the last game the Packers play until a new CBA, let me please take the opportunity to say: thank you for giving me a soapbox and stopping by every now and again to listen.  You guys make this fun for me.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (13) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Globalpack's picture

Thanks for all the articles this year. I greatly enjoyed them and made a point to read them each week.

Pooch's picture

You rock Holly,lets not pray for win,lets pray are team remains healthy throughout this game,then the Pack will win

SpartaChris's picture

Great piece, Holly. Enjoy your time in Thailand. GO PACK!!

Bearfan Mallen's picture

If the Pack is sooo much more talented, why did Da Bears win the division?
Pack doesn't stand a chance but I'm sure it'll be a good game.
"Goin' All The Way" available soon on CDBaby

EXCELSIORMANPACKERPIG's picture

SERIOUSLY ALL ANALYSIS AND OPINIONS ASIDE...THE BEARS STILL SUCK!!!!!! Good old fashioned smack! I'm bringing it back!

The Rated Republican Superstar's picture

Great article and a reminder that we should not take the Bears lightly. However, after the Packers crush the Bears, the Democrat Governor of Illinois will be calling the EPA to get the Chicago Bears declared an Endangered Species.

BTW, I’m tired of hearing about how Charles Martin body slammed Jim McMahon back in the 80s. It was a belly to back suplex and payback for the Bears competing in a Battle Royal match at WrestleMania 2.

The Anonymous General Manager of Political Entertainment, The Rated Republican Superstar
http://www.twitter.com/RatedRepublican

Honest John's picture

That "Green Bayness" Holly mentions is what makes the team special.

A few days ago, my daughter asked me, "Were is Green Bay."

So I told her. It's up north in Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan. It's the smallest city with a pro team. It's the only publically owned team - owned by thousands of people just like us. And they have more championships than any other NFL team.

Not Titans, or Giants, or Lions or Bears, the team took the name of a bunch of working stiffs. Meat packer is one of the nastiest jobs you could get. Standing all day in the cold. Blood, ugly things to look at, bad smells, cutting yourself. Day after day. Year after year.

For all these years, come Sunday afternoon, the spirits of Packer fans have soared above the green north woods and the golden fields while the Packers beat teams from the big cities with big names and big dough.

Packers. Nobodies from nowhere. Champions.

When the playsrs put on that Packer uniform and take the field, I hope they understand how special they are.

MarkinMadison's picture

No politics please, just football.

Sean's picture

Holly Phelps is my favorite. Ever.

Great point on the lack of questions these teams should have against one another. I think this game comes down to which defense can capitalize on their opportunities the most.

Also, i think this game has redefined the Packers-Bears rivalry for the younger generation. Being only 20, the main rival i always knew was the Vikings. Sure, i hated the Bears--because i had to. But the Vikings were almost always the better team, so my natural hatred and spite flowed towards them. I've never trash talked with Bears fans as much as i have this week, enhanced by the fact that i go to college with a good amount of students from the CHI area. If we lose, i will not live it down. I will proudly be displaying my cheesehead on campus on Sunday.Basically, GO PACK!

Dave S's picture

Wow-fantastic job.

There is no getting around the fact this is a game that we will be boring our kids/grandkids over a generation from now, win or lose. You hit on about everything I have been thinking about. They will force you into 10 play drives, counting on you to make a bad read, drop a pass, hold Peppers somewhere along the way. They really do a nice job of swarming the ball and going after the football hard.

I expect Martz and Cutler will give us a golden opportunity or two as well. Hope we cash in on them. I dread the thought of kicking to Hester in the slop.

All in all, I expect something in the 17-14 type range, so naturally it will probably be a total offensive shootout.

Cuphound's picture

I hereby nominate Holly to be the next head coach of the Green Bay Packers. The speech was perfect and exactly what our team needs to hear. I almost cried. Brava!

Tom Legener's picture

Writing like this is why I come here. Great advice and analysis.

If they win, I may be raptured away. If they lose, I'll be muttering something that sounds like a city in Thailand, "Phuket".

PackersRS's picture

I’m sick and tired of this Bears talk like they’re the underdogs and that the media consistantly overlooks them.

Boohoo. Grow a pair. You know the Packers are more talented. We know. The media knows. Everybody knows we are more talented, but that they’re playing better.

Now we have to go to their house and crush them, so that they know who they are dealing with and stop whining.

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"I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious."
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