The Green Bay Packers are on a roll and on a mission.
They head into this week’s NFC championship game on a run of four straight victories that were essentially win-or-go-home – the last two regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs, and then two road playoff games, at Philadelphia and Atlanta, to advance to the conference championship.
In the championship game, the Packers will go on the road a third straight time to face their NFC North Division rival Chicago Bears (12-5), who won the division title and then after a playoff bye dominated Seattle on Sunday, 35-24, in the divisional round.
“They’re in the way,” cornerback Charles Woodson said Saturday night on the possibility of facing the Bears this week. “That’s the way we look at it.”
This week will be only the second time these storied franchises have played in the postseason. The other was in 1941, when they tied for the Western Division title and needed a playoff to determine which would play in the NFL championship game. Chicago won that game 33-14 at Wrigley Field.
The rivalry started in 1921, and this will be their 182nd meeting, including that 1941 playoff game. The Packers are 83-92-6 against the Bears after the teams split their home-and-home series this season.
“It’s a big deal,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said after beating the Seahawks on Sunday. “We have a lot of history with them. We don’t like them, they don’t like us.”
Five weeks ago, it was difficult to envision the Packers being where they are now. They had just lost 7-3 at Detroit in their worst performance of the season. They were 8-5, in danger of missing the playoffs, and their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, had sustained a concussion that would keep him out of the next game, which would be a second straight loss, at New England.
Since that New England game, though, the Packers have won four straight games by a combined score of 124-57. The Packers’ recent play, and especially their dominating performance against Atlanta in their 48-21 win on Saturday night, has made a strong impression on oddsmakers. Though they’re on the road for the NFC championship game, they’re the favorite against the Bears on Sunday.
Three bookmakers – Sportsbook.com, Bookmaker.com and betED.com – listed the Packers as three-point favorites. Three other books surveyed didn’t have a line on the game yet.
The general rule of thumb is that the home team gets three points, so those lines mean that if the game were on a neutral field, the Packers would be about a six-point favorite.
“When we got hit early on (with injuries and losses) nobody gave us much of a chance,” Woodson said, “and we just kept fighting and put people in the right places to go out there and help our team. We’re not going to worry who’s picking us, we’re going to worry about guys in the locker room and going out there and executing and trying to take this.”
The Bears, who as division champs had a first-round bye in the playoffs, outplayed Seattle much more than the 35-24 score suggests. They led 21-0 at halftime and 28-0 late in the third quarter before Seattle rallied to make the score respectable.
“It just doesn't get any better than for the NFC championship to come down to the Packers coming down on our turf this time,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said after the Seahawks game. “The Packers and Bears to finish it up, that’s how it should be.”
The Packers and Bears split their two regular-season games, both low-scoring games.
In Week 3 at Chicago, the Packers moved the ball with a short-passing game (379 yards in total offense) but were penalized a team-record 18 times and lost 20-17 on a 19-yard field goal by Robbie Gould with 4 seconds to play.
In the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field, in a game the Packers had to win to qualify for the playoffs, the Bears played all their starters all game even though they’d locked up the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Both teams finished in the top five in the NFL in scoring defense – the Packers at No. 2, the Bears at No. 4 – and the Packers won the tight defensive game, 10-3.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had moved his team to the Packers’ 32 in the final minute, but with 20 seconds left he overthrew an open Devin Hester, and safety Nick Collins’ interception sealed the win.
That loss gave Smith an 8-6 record against the Packers. Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ coach, is 5-5 against the Bears.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Cutler said after the Seahawks game. “To be in an NFC championship situation, at home, and then to bring Green Bay in on top of it just adds to it. They’re a really good football team, they’re really hot. To go to Philly, to Atlanta, and now to come to us in Chicago – they’re used to the road. I’m sure their confidence is sky high.”