Senior writer jclombardi previews & predictions on NFL Championship game day.
Preview & predictions: Teams: Packers (12-6) vs. “Windy Carp” (12-5). Time: 2 p.m. CST. Place: Soldier Field, Chicago. TV coverage: FOX. Rankings: The Packers’ ninth-ranked offense finished the regular season ranked No. 24 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their fifth-ranked defense finished No. 18 against the run and No. 5 against the pass. The Bears’ 30th-ranked offense finished No. 22 in rushing and No. 28 in passing. Their ninth-ranked defense was No. 2 against the run and No. 20 against the pass. Packers injury report: LB Frank Zombo (knee) is out. C/G Jason Spitz (calf) is questionable. LB A.J. Hawk (knee), LB Erik Walden (shoulder), LT Chad Clifton (knees), RB John Kuhn (shoulder), LB Clay Matthews (shin), DE Cullen Jenkins (calf), CB Pat Lee (hip), DE Ryan Pickett (ankle), CB Charles Woodson (toe) and LB Diyral Briggs (ankle) are probable. Line: The Packers are favored by 3 ½ points. THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH–Familiarity breeds contempt: With this marking the third meeting of the season, don’t be surprised if you see something unexpected or new from both offenses and both defenses. Just because they know each other well doesn’t mean there won’t be a new wrinkle here or there. Meanwhile, Packers offensive coordinator said the coaches’ intimate knowledge of their opponent cuts both ways. “(Offensively), we’ve gone through their blitzes. We’ve had preseason blitzes in ’07 that they’ve run. Coach (Lovie) Smith’s been there since ’04, so he’s been there a long time. We’ve got some guys on the offensive staff that have been there as long as he’s been there. So I think we have a good handle on how they like to play, what their defensive calls are,” Philbin explained. “I think it can help you scheme. It can help you offensively stay out of a bad play potentially because you have a good grasp of what you anticipate from them. But, the surprise element, I’m sure they’ll have one or two up their sleeve and I’m sure we’ll have one or two. Again, I think when we attempt to surprise, it’s going to be about really the execution more than the surprise itself.” Giving opponents headaches: Aaron Rodgers never wants to watch another game from the sideline. Since then, though, Rodgers has been phenomenal. In the four must-win games since, he has completed 93 of 128 passes for 1,179 yards with 11 touchdowns and only one interception (126.4 rating). His least efficient game (one touchdown, one interception) came against the Bears on Jan. 2. Starting fast: Do the Packers need a big play early in the game to ignite them? Anecdotal evidence suggests they do. Philbin wasn’t sure, but the Packers would obviously take a big play early and the momentum it would create. “I think, in the ballgame,” Philbin said. “Certainly there is something to momentum, there is something to confidence. And sometimes we’ve got to realize well, if we make a mistake or two, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve got to get the mistakes fixed. We’ve got to move on and be more productive.” Running is his Forte: Matt Forte knows the numbers and he certainly doesn’t mind what they mean: He’s averaging about 18 carries per game in the Bears’ 12 victories, roughly 11 in their five losses. It seems like a safe bet that Forte, who ran 15 times for 91 yards when the Packers beat the Bears on Jan. 2, will get his touches Sunday. At least, that’s what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers expects and he knows stopping Forte and backup Chester Taylor will be vital to getting pressure on Bears quarterback Cutler. If the Packers can stop the run and force Cutler into more challenging third-down distances, their probability of winning would go up significantly. Laying it on the line: For all the talk about Rodgers and Cutler and the historic rivalry this week, the stark reality is that this game will be decided in the trenches. The smart money says the team whose offensive line has the better game punches its ticket to Super Bowl XLV in North Texas. Left tackle Chad Clifton figures to draw Peppers for most of the game, as he has in the past, while Bulaga warned that Idonije (eight sacks) is no slouch, either. On the flip side, the much-maligned Bears line has done just enough this season with their makeshift outfit, but rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb has held his own. His matchup with Packers sack-meister Clay Matthews will be key, especially after Webb did a nice job on Matthews with limited help on Jan. 2. THE PREDICTION–Mason Crosby booting a 43-yard field goal in the final minute to send the Packers to their fifth Super Bowl. Packers 23, Bears 20.
Packers are favorites: No one is giving the Chicago Bears a chance in today’s NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers. In an informal survey, McClure is the long wolf on the Chicago Tribune’s four-person prediction panel sides with the Bears. Writes McClure: “The Bears return to the Super Bowl thanks to Robbie Gould’s 10th career game-winning field goal. The formula? [WHAT THE BEARS HOPE HAPPENS TODAY] The front four gets to Aaron Rodgers, Matt Forte pounds out 100-plus yards and Devin Hester gives the offense outstanding field position. Not to mention Jay Cutler plays smart. Bears 20. Packers 17.” The entire Press-Gazette prediction panel is picking the Packers to win. Trotter of Sports Illustrated is picking the Packers. All of Pro Football Weekly’s nine-man prediction panel are picking the Packers. Of 15 prognosticators surveyed, 14 say the Packers are going to win. So even though the Bears beat out the Packers for the NFC North crown and have the home-field advantage today, they are the decided underdog. The latest odds by Bodog.com say the Packers are 3½-point favorites.
COMMENTARY: Over the past week, we appeared on sport programs throughout the country about the Packers in the NFL Championship game. It was an absolutely great week seeing the excitement build to Sunday afternoon. For the Packers and Packers nation, we simply say., “Hard work, luck, and destiny have brought you to this glorious day. The title is yours; so go Pack.”