The Packers return to the scene of where they advanced past their chief rivals for the right to go to Super Bowl XLV on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field. And while the Chicago Bears have all said that what is past is past, don't think that they have been allowed to forget January's loss by Chicago fans and media.
Certainly there is some evidence to the testiness of some Bears players that have had to live with the criticisms since Jan. 23. Even other players around the league such as Maurice Jones-Drew, Darnell Docket, Raheem Brock, and Asante Samuel ripped Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, who left the game with a knee injury. Brock went as far as to call Cutler both a "wussy" and a "sissy" on his Twitter feed before the game was even over. Not surprisingly, Cutler was testier than usual at his mid-week conference call with Green Bay reporters when the subject of leaving the contest midway came up.
Question: "Were you offended by what people said after the NFC title game?"
Question: "Were you surprised at the backlash you received?"
Question: Did it hurt that it came from other players more so than media?
Packers PR: "Is there anything else for Jay? (pause) Jay, thanks for your time today."
(Immediate sound of the click of the phone hanging up.)
Last week, Cutler lost another perception battle when the Fox cameras caught him on the sidelines pacing and yelling at his teammates after taking yet another sack. Last week alone Cutler was dropped six times by the Saints in Chicago's 30-13 loss at New Orleans. While this is hardly headline news in and of itself, it does underscore the tension that is building between a quarterback that is frustrated with his lack of protection.
Conversely, the Packers defense has not exactly been adept at getting the same push into the opposing team's backfield. In the last two weeks, Drew Brees and Cam Newton both scorched the Green Bay secondary for more than 400 yards. Fortunately, the Packers still won both contests.
One key factor for Green Bay will be how Charlie Peprah responds to the challenge of replacing Nick Collins in the starting lineup at free safety. Collins' absence for the rest of the season means that both safety positions are now being manned by one player that hasn't started in place of another healthy option (Peprah) and a second-year player that spent most of last season in injured reserve (Morgan Burnett).
Peprah did step up and played well last season when called upon to do so, but he was also out there with a two-time All-Pro alongside him. Burnett has looked good in Green Bay's first two games; but again, how he fares without Collins helping out will be something Packers fans will be keeping a close eye on.
Three key matchups to watch:
The Green Bay pass rush vs. the Chicago offensive line. The Packers are missing Cullen Jenkins, now in Philadelphia, more than they would like to admit. After two full seasons in the NFL, teams are starting to key in on LB Clay Matthews. Conversely, the Bears offensive line has been nothing short of putrid, allowing Cutler to be sacked 11 times through the first two games of 2011.
LG Chad Clifton vs. Chicago DE Julius Peppers. Clifton has been adequate, and at age 35, that's a remarkable accomplishment for a LT in the NFL. However, Peppers is an elite pass rusher, and Sunday will be a good litmus test to see if Clifton can still rise to the occasion. Backup Derrick Sherrod, the Packers first round pick in April, is the future but he is still quite some time away from replacing Clifton.
Green Bay K Mason Crosby and P Tim Masthay vs. Chicago KR/PR Devin Hester. After last January's NFC Championship game, Packers general manager Ted Thompson said that Masthay "won the game" for Green Bay. High praise for a punter, but the fact that he kept the ball away from the best return man in NFL history changed the entire complexion of the game. With the new NFL kickoff rule, there is no reason that Crosby can't pin Hester deep in his own end zone every time. For the Packers, it just needs to be a 60-minute game of keep-away.
Other key games around the NFL:
New England (2-0) at Buffalo (2-0) – New England quarterback Tom Brady is playing like a man possessed, throwing for a combined 940 yards and 7 touchdowns in the Patriots wins over Miami and San Diego. Buffalo is one of just seven undefeated teams in the NFL after two weeks. That unexpected perfection ends against the Patriots machine. My pick: New England 42, Buffalo 21
Detroit (2-0) at Minnesota (0-2) – In years past, this matchup wasn't fair. This year, this matchup isn't fair. Where the Vikings have dominated the Lions (like everyone else in the NFL) over the last several...well...decades, the script has finally flipped. Minnesota is sputtering with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, while Detroit looks like the real deal. My pick: Detroit 34, Minnesota 17
Atlanta (1-1) at Tampa Bay (1-1) – Last year, if not for a late season overtime loss to Detroit, the Buccaneers would have made the third team from the NFC South to make the playoffs, bumping the Packers out. The Falcons are coming off one of the most entertaining games of the year, a come-from-behind back and forth contest vs. Philadelphia. The Buccaneers also came from behind at Minnesota after trailing 17-0 at halftime. My pick: Atlanta 31, Tampa Bay 17
Washington (2-0) at Dallas (1-1) (Monday night) – In the last 10 seasons, 10 different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. Neither the Redskins nor the Cowboys have been in that group. Don't think their fans haven't noticed. Don't think their egomaniacal owners haven't noticed, either. Tony Romo likely will play after suffering a punctured lung and cracked rib last week at San Francisco. My pick: Dallas 23, Washington 21
New York Giants (1-1) at Philadelphia (1-1) – Philadelphia will likely have Michael Vick back after he was knocked out of the Eagles loss at Atlanta last Sunday night. The last time these two teams met was last December at the Meadowlands when the Eagles rallied from a 31-10 deficit with eight minutes left to play in the fourth quarter to win 38-31. If Vick is on, they're just a better overall team, especially at home. My pick: Philadelphia 31, New York Giants 16
For what it's worth: The Bears will be wearing their alternate orange jerseys for Sunday's game. If the forecasters are wrong and it is a sunny day, you might want to think about eye protection from the glare off of the retina-singeing duds the Bears will be sporting.
My Prediction: Green Bay 38, Chicago 27
Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at OnMilwaukee.com.
Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.
Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.
Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.