While the AFC had divisional foes square off last week, the NFC title game will feature the oldest rivalry in the league. The Bears and Packers meet for the third time this season with a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line.
Bears coach Lovie Smith, who said in 2004 when he took over that beating the Packers was priority No. 1, has an 8-6 record against Green Bay, including 4-3 at Soldier Field. Even the addition of Aaron Rodgers as the starting QB hasn't changed the Packers' fortunes in Chicago, where he is 1-2.
Something that could be different this time around is the emergence of running back James Starks. He has changed things for the Packers the past few weeks, adding balance to the offense. That's something Chicago found out about midseason, when Matt Forte became a much more important part of the attack.
Defensively there is a significant difference in how both teams go about their business, but the results are similar as both units finished in the top 10. The Bears play a traditional 4-3, Tampa 2 defense and line up in an over front most of the time and look for execution. The Packers play a 3-4 defense and attack with a multitude of calls and pressures.
Both defenses finished in the top five in points allowed, which would suggest a low-scoring game. Last time these two teams met, it was a 10-3 win for the Packers. The first meeting went to the Bears, 20-17. But don't be surprised if this game has more fireworks.
Here are the key questions heading into the NFC Championship Game.
1. Will Rodgers stay hot?
Rodgers has taken a very big step in his development this postseason. He has led his team to road victories against the Eagles and Falcons. He has completed 77.8 percent of his passes for 546 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions and been sacked four times. His two best receivers are Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, neither of which have a touchdown in the playoffs. That tells you Rodgers is reading coverages and throwing to the open man. The Bears held him to just two touchdown passes in the two meetings, but they also only sacked him twice.
The way Rodgers is playing, the Bears are going to have to get more pressure in the pocket. Julius Peppers didn't get to Rodgers in the previous two games, and Green Bay's offensive line is getting better. The Packers will call at least 35 pass plays, and keep in mind that Rodgers ran nine total times in the first two meetings and was the leading rusher in the Week 17 matchup.
Even though the Packers have more offensive balance, the passing game is still their bread and butter. Rodgers has seen the coverages Chicago will use, and the Bears don't use many different looks. If Matt Hasselbeck threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns last week in Chicago, Rodgers is capable of much more.
2. Can Chicago stop Green Bay's new-found run game?
There's no doubt the emergence of Starks helps the offense. In two playoff wins, he has touched the ball 50 times for 198 yards. The Bears have only seen him for seven carries for 35 yards. Starks reminds me of what the Packers had when Ryan Grant was healthy, a solid zone runner. Grant has averaged 5.6 yards per carry against the Bears in his career, and a performance similar to that would be a big help.
I don't think Starks will have a big day against the second-ranked run defense in the NFL -- a unit that held the Seahawks to 2.8 yards a carry. The Packers are going to have to pass to set up the run in this game. I don't expect more than eight runs in the first half. The toughest part for the Packers is the fact that the Bears will stop the run with seven and won't drop a safety down into the box to support the run. That could mean the Packers spread the Bears out with three and four wide receivers and look for some run opportunities.
3. Can Cutler handle heat?
The Packers will go after Jay Cutler with zone dogs, blitzes and anything else defensive coordinator Dom Capers can come up with along the way. Green Bay sacked Cutler nine times in two regular-season games (once every 8.3 pass attempts). Things haven't changed in the playoffs with the Packers recording eight sacks on Michael Vick and Matt Ryan.
Green Bay loves the double inside linebacker blitz when A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop work a pressure off nose tackle B.J. Raji. They always have Clay Matthews working a pressure from somewhere, and corners Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams will get the green light a few times.
The Bears have done a good job of shortening the pass drops for Cutler and getting the ball out of his hand quicker, but he has still been sacked nine times in his last two games. Cutler has thrown 16 interceptions and lost six fumbles this season and has to be careful not to turn the ball over against the pressure calls, thus giving the Packers' offense a short field. Look for Cutler to take off and run a few times, especially on third down with 4-6 yards to go.
4. How will Packers defend Forte?
The Bears have really committed themselves to Forte, with the versatile back getting more touches in the second half of the season. He had 15 carries for 91 yards and another eight receptions for 60 yards in the Week 17 meeting. Against the Seahawks, he had 28 touches for 134 yards. The Packers have to figure Forte will see close to 30 touches against their 18th-ranked rushing defense.
The Packers did a masterful job against Michael Turner and LeSean McCoy. Those two backs combined for 26 touches, 121 yards and just one touchdown. Forte has one career touchdown against the Packers in six games. He will get his chances, but he has to find the end zone. The solid play of tight end Greg Olsen in recent weeks will help loosen up the linebackers for Forte.
The Bears are a very good story and only my good friend Jim Miller, a former Bears quarterback who covers the team every week, warned me in August that everyone had underestimated just how good this team could be. They had a first-round bye and relatively easy game against the upstart Seahawks a week ago. Conversely, the Packers have been on the road against the best the NFC had to offer and won. I like the Packers to get a third road victory to reach the Super Bowl because of Rodgers and Capers' defense.