LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) – Aaron Rodgers, get ready for Julius Peppers. Jay Cutler, have fun dodging Clay Matthews.
With their rocket arms and fleet feet, both quarterbacks have a chance to cement themselves among the game’s best when the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears take their historic rivalry to a new level in Sunday’s NFC championship game at Soldier Field.
This will be the 182nd meeting between these teams — none more anticipated than this one. Only once have they played in the postseason and that was a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the Bears beat the Packers at Wrigley Field.
The men behind center will certainly be under the spotlight, but the guys on the other side just might steal it. After all, both defenses ranked among the league’s stingiest.
“It’s probably the best defense we’ve played to date, just fundamentally sound in the way they’re playing,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said, “Right now, the best thing we can do is out-execute their defense.”
It won’t be easy.
The Packers boast the league’s fifth-ranked defense and tied for second with 47 sacks, the highest ranking in franchise history. Matthews was fourth in the league with 13 1/2. That doesn’t bode well for Cutler, who got sacked a league-leading 52 times.
Yes, the protection improved down the stretch, but containing the blitz won’t be easy.
“I would expect them to be aggressive,” said Cutler, who got sacked six times in a loss at Green Bay to end the regular season. “They have in the past four or five games, you know with Charles (Woodson) blitzing a lot and Clay Matthews and those guys. We’ve just got to be on our keys and our tips, hit our hot routes and do what we do in the offense.”
Rodgers figures to have his hands full, too, against a team that seemed like a longshot at best to reach the playoffs not too long ago.
The Bears were a mess at 4-3, with three losses in four games heading into their off week. Cutler had little protection and there was no balance on offense, but they fixed that, sparking a 7-1 run that gave them the NFC North championship and a first-round bye.
The defense was never an issue, though.
The Bears made a big investment after missing the playoffs for three straight years when they signed Peppers to a six-year deal worth potentially $91.5 million. The return to form of healthy Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher after he missed almost all of last year with a wrist injury provided a major boost, too.
Throw in another Pro Bowl season from Lance Briggs, and it’s not hard to see why the Bears’ defense ranked ninth this season. But it’s not all about the stars.
Packers center Scott Wells mentioned Anthony Adams and Israel Idonije, not exactly the first names that come to mind when you think “Monsters of the Midway.” Then again, the Bears have never played that way under coach Lovie Smith. They’ve always been more about speed, technique and creating turnovers than bone-breaking hits, and they’re looking more like the defense that led the way to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006 than the one that struggled in recent seasons.
“Their starting four, they’re outstanding up front,” Wells said. “They do a great job holding their gaps and playing their scheme.”
Adams and Idonije are two important pieces on a defense that ranked ninth overall and second against the run. The same goes for D.J. Moore, who had two interceptions in an early win at Dallas and emerged as the Bears’ nickelback.
That gave the secondary a boost, as did the return of safety Chris Harris after three years in Carolina. He had five interceptions and tied Charles Tillman for the team lead, but it all starts up front.
Specifically, with Peppers.
Even if his eight sacks put him in single digits for just the third time in his nine seasons, he’s creating all sorts of problems whether it’s drawing false starts or double and triple teams. That leads to openings for teammates when he’s not making the big plays himself.
One beneficiary has been Idonije.
He wound up with a career-high eight sacks, tying Peppers for the team lead, in his seventh season with the Bears — and his first as a starter.
“When Izzy steps up and makes the plays that he’s been making this year, you start to understand why some of those decisions were made,” Briggs said. “I’m happy that Izzy got a chance to start and I’m happy with what he’s been able to do with it. He’s going to be key in our success this week and onto the Super Bowl.”
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