I don’t think it can possibly get any better than this.
After the Packers impressive 48-21 over the Atlanta Falcons and the Bears’ easier than it looked 35-24 win over the upstart Seattle Seahawks, both teams prepare to meet for only the second time in their long and storied rivalry. For the first time since 1941, the Packers and Bears get together for– to steal a line from Brent Musberger–all the Tostitos.
Since the Packers faced the Bears twice already this season, I don’t think it’s necessary to break them down once again. We know them well enough by now and the same could be said for the Bears knowing the Packers. It’s a division rivals against one another, so the familiarity between the two teams is rather obvious.
Instead let’s go ahead jump to FIVE (hey, it’s a big game alright?) keys to the NFC Championship
1. The condition of Soldier Field
Much has been made this week over the shape the sod in Soldier Field is in. It was already showing noticeable damage during the Seahawks game last week, and with brutal cold settling in across the entire Midwest, there hasn’t been enough time to re-sod the entire football field
With the game also expected to be played under cold temperatures, the condition of the field will be crucial to both teams. The Bears obviously have had some experience playing in it and the Packers have not. You would think that would give the Bears an edge, but the Packers have played their share of games in Lambeau with the sod coming up in chunks.
While Lambeau has never been in this bad of shape, both teams will likely struggle with poor field conditions.
2. The officiating crew
In this week’s sign of the apocalypse, the NFL announced that Terry McAuley’s crew will be calling the NFC Championship Game.
Why is this significant?
Remember the Week 3 game in Soldier Field against the Bears where the Packers were flagged for a staggering 18 penalties? McAuley’s crew worked that game.
Will they do the same in this game?
My guess would be no. In the playoffs, officials tend to let players play more as one questionable call can stain an entire postseason and hurt the crew’s chances of calling more playoff games or even a Super Bowl down the line.
No doubt Mike McCarthy has his team prepared for this crew this time, but that lingering doubt will still be in Packer fans’ heads until the final gun on Sunday. It’s hard to forget that game even with how far the Packers have come this season. Winning the NFC title would be a good eraser for those memories.
3. Which Jay Cutler will show up?
Cutler has been one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the NFL the past two seasons. One moment you will be in awe over some of the throws he made and pulling your hair out the next over another boneheaded throw an interception.
It’s a question that the Bears have managed to avoid answering since they have been winning: Which Cutler will it be? Good Jay or Bad Jay?
The Packers obviously will be game planning for Good Jay. Cutler has one the best arms in the NFL and can make all the throws. What the Packers will likely plan on doing is force Bad Jay to rear his ugly head by throwing multiple looks and blitzes at him. No one has been better than Dom Capers at doing that this season and he has found a hot hand in the playoffs.
Look for Cutler to be under siege as the Packers try to force him into one of his patented multiple turnover games.
4. Which Mike McCarthy will show up?
McCarthy is in the same boat as Cutler. At times, his playcalling his downright brilliant and others make you want to bang your head into a wall.
That said, McCarthy has been in an absolute zone this postseason not unlike Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints a year ago on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIV. Like Payton, McCarthy has a quarterback playing better than anyone in the league and has absolute faith in his ability to make the plays needed to win.
Still, McCarthy’s clock management skills remain in doubt. If the game should remain close at the end of the half, many a Cheesehead will be reaching for the Pepto Bismol hoping that McCarthy doesn’t blow a shot at a Super Bowl.
All week long, the Packers have been hearing everyone picking them to win this game and move on to Super Bowl XLV. It’s a situation not too unlike the leadup to the NFC Championship three years ago when the Packers faced the Giants at Lambeau Field.
We all know how that one ended up.
The Packers are three point favorites despite being the visiting team and that makes the Bears all the more dangerous. They will come out ready to play and playing the disrespect card even though they are the home team. They feel they should be the favorites, not the Packers.
Will the Packers fall into the same trap that they did against the Giants? About half of the current roster was on the team that lost to the Giants and with the strong veteran leadership the Packers have, it seems unlikely that history will repeat itself.
Packers 23, Bears 17
The game has been hyped all week as one for the ages and there is very little reason to believe it won’t live up to the hype.
In what will be an emotional tug of war for nearly 60 minutes, the game likely will come down to the final drive. Aaron Rodgers will continue his hot hand Cutler will make another interception eerily similar to the one he threw against the Packers in Week 17.
Pack your bags, Cheesehead Nation. It says here that we’re going to Dallas.
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke