NFC North: Epicenter of Humanity

Epicenter of Humanity: So long, tarp

January, 23, 2011
1/23/11
11:55
AM ET
CHICAGO -- Greetings from Soldier Field. The snow has stopped after four surprise inches overnight. The sun is shining and the tarp is coming off the field. Take an amateur glimpse through this link to our NFC North Facebook page.

As we noted Saturday, the NFL approved the condition of the field and had heated the ground to a temperature of 51 degrees. The blowers are now off and the air temperature is 18 degrees.

The biggest pregame news will be whether Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris (hip) feels good enough to be in the starting lineup. Roster decisions are due by about 1:30 p.m. ET. We’ll keep you updated, probably via our Twitter feed, of any micro-developments.

BBAO: LET'S DO THIS

January, 23, 2011
1/23/11
9:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

CHICAGO -- IT'S HERE.

WE MADE IT.

NO MORE TIME FOR TALK.

NO NEED TO DEBATE.

THE DAY HAS COME TO PLAY THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME.

GREEN BAY PACKERS.

CHICAGO BEARS.

LET'S DO THIS.

Sorry, my caps lock was jammed.

I'm writing from downtown Chicago, where we are getting a light dusting of snow that apparently will taper off in a few hours. Still, it has given us our own little white Christmas in the NFC North.

While we nervously pace the room, let's take a glance at some headlines from those who have been covering the Packers and Bears all season. I'll check back in with you from Soldier Field in a few hours:
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Bears coach Lovie Smith: "But if the Bears beat the Packers, it will force us to start rethinking the way we view a guy who enjoys more respect around the league than in his own city. It would be time for everyone to show Lovie a little more love."
  • Dan Pompei of the Tribune: "A very good chance exists the quarterbacks will decide whether the Bears or Packers goes to the Super Bowl."
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Bears-Packers, for everything. If that doesn't give you shivers, nothing will."
  • This game puts Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz at center stage, writes Mark Potash of the Sun-Times.
  • Can the Bears' offensive line stand up against the Packers' blitzes? That's one of Michael C. Wright's five things to watch in this game over on ESPNChicago.com.
  • Michael Wilbon of ESPNChicago.com writes of his boyhood hatred for one of these teams.
  • Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "You can bet your cheesehead or your old William Perry poster that Dom Capers and Rod Marinelli, the respective defensive coordinators of the Packers and Bears, spent every waking moment last week crafting game plans to limit the effectiveness of the opposing quarterback."
  • Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel on Packers general manger Ted Thompson: "What got the Packers to the position they're in now is the confluence of two natural actions in the Thompson system: the maturation of young players into good players and the natural selection process of replacing good players with better ones. In theory, what you should have is a roster blossoming at the top and budding at the bottom. Whenever a blossom falls, there's a bud ready to bloom and take its place."
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette speaks to former Packers president Bob Harlan about the decision to hire Thompson.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette: "Yes, today's game at Soldier Field between NFC North rivals is huge. Yes, it will go down as the most important game in the 182-game history of the series. Yes, the winner will dance all the way to Dallas carrying huge bragging rights, while the loser will suffer through an especially long and painful offseason. But no animosity exists between these teams, no matter how hard some try to manufacture it."
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com traces the rising public confidence of Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
  • Check out who Wilde picked in this game. He is 14-4 in Packers games this season.
  • Seven out of 10 ESPN experts are picking the Packers.
  • If you want a pregame speech from the actor who plays Vince Lombardi in the currently-running Broadway show, check it out.

Epicenter of Humanity: All quiet

January, 22, 2011
1/22/11
11:03
PM ET
CHICAGO -- There aren't many cities that can offer the view I got Saturday night as I cruised into downtown Chicago.

I counted two skyscrapers with the office lights arranged to spell out "Go Bears." One of the bronze lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago is wearing a Bears helmet. The other had Bears ear muffs and a scarf. (I guess we know which one is the alpha of that pair.)

Soldier Field was dark and its parking lots empty -- for now.

Michigan Avenue seemed quiet to me, but maybe I was in the wrong area.

Regardless, in a few hours, that will change.

Let's all rest up now for what promises to be an epic day in NFC North/Central history.

For a little while, at least, I expect we'll be at the epicenter of humanity.
After a week's worth of discussion about the playing surface at Soldier Field, the NFL felt compelled to weigh in as we head into the final 24 hours before the NFC Championship Game.

Here is what league spokesman Greg Aiello said via Twitter:
Game Ops folks say Soldier Field is in good shape. Field is tarped w/ hot blowers under the tarp and heating coils under the field.

The heating coils under Soldier Field are 70 yards wide, extending beyond the field border that is 53.33 yards (160 feet) wide.

Another point re: Soldier Field. Surface is all grass, not painted dirt. Grass is browning some as grass does in Chicago in January.

Field re-sodded Dec 1 w/new turf installed between sidelines. So turf from sidelines out is firm, but not frozen + continues to be heated.

Since re-sod of Soldier Field, 3 games played, no other events. Heat-8" below surface. Temp kept at 51 degrees. Heating extends to benches.

Players from both the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have criticized the field this week, and Packers receiver Greg Jennings called it "probably the worst" in the NFL. The league monitors the conditions of every field, playoffs or otherwise, and so you can view Aiello's series of tweets as acknowledgment it has approved Soldier Field for Sunday's game.

No one expected otherwise, of course. To me, the issue at Soldier Field has never been its condition in December or January. A grass field is going to be torn up by then. But it's often in poor shape much earlier in the season, the result of it being a multiple-use venue. That's less easy to rationalize.

There is also a question of player safety, and whether a torn up and/or frozen field increases the chance of injury. Saturday's statement was the NFL's way of saying that everything has been done that could have been done to ensure a safe field. As we like to say, it is what it is.
We touched on just about every topic I wanted to hit in anticipation of Sunday's epic NFC Championship Game matchup. (Catch up through this filter.) But Friday's weather snap was a nice reminder that January can get pretty frigid here in the Upper Midwest.

(For those who didn't leave the house Friday, it was 10 degrees in Chicago exactly 48 hours before kickoff. It was 3 degrees in Green Bay, minus-5 in Minneapolis and 14 degrees in Detroit.)

Sunday's forecast is calling for a relatively balmy game-time temperature in the low 20s. That shouldn't be anything new for either the Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers. So how have their quarterbacks fared in such weather conditions? Allison Loucks of ESPN Stats & Information provided the information in the chart below based on starts in 30 degrees or colder:

Getting inside the Friday practice report:

Chicago Bears: With temperatures hovering in the single digits for most of the day, the Bears wisely practiced indoors. The only limited player was safety Chris Harris (hip), who was able to participate in part of practice but is questionable for Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Harris has vowed to play but hedged a bit Friday. Harris: "We'll see. I think I'll be fine. I'm hoping to be fine. I was able to get a little work in here today indoors, so we'll definitely see before the game. ... You got to be smart, you definitely have to be smart about it. If it happens to bother me to a significant extent, then absolutely, I'd come out of the game. I wouldn't play tough guy for my own gratification to say I played in the NFC Championship Game." If Harris can't play, rookie Major Wright would make his first NFL start.

Green Bay Packers: It was even colder in Green Bay on Friday, with temperatures just above 0. With the doors of their indoor facility open, the Packers practiced in 18-degree weather, according to coach Mike McCarthy. Only two players among the Packers' 53 are an injury question for this game. Linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) was ruled out, while offensive lineman Jason Spitz (calf) sat out Friday's practice and is listed as questionable.
Clay Matthews & Tommie HarrisUS PresswireClay Matthews, left, and Tommie Harris will play important roles in Sunday's playoff matchup.
As we approach the NFC Championship Game -- anyone else feel like we're on sundial time? -- I'm dealing with a smash-up of post ideas. So let's combine a few angles into a look at four players who can be tied together in a unique way.

Listed below are four big-time performers who, for various reasons, have been overlooked in the hype of Sunday's matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Player: Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris
2010 season highlight: Three sacks in the Bears' past two games, including two in last Sunday's divisional playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks
Important because: A havoc-wreaking "three-technique" defensive tackle is a boon to any defense, especially one that uses a four-man rush as much as the Bears (nearly 75 percent of the regular season). Whoever plays that position for the Bears has a tremendous opportunity, given the attention most opponents pay to defensive end Julius Peppers.
Overlooked because: A three-time Pro Bowler, Harris lost his starting job this season because of low productivity. According to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com, Harris urged coaches to reinstall him as a starter last month. He already has more sacks in the playoffs (two) than he had during the entire regular season (1.5).
Quotable: "It's great. When Tommie is Tommie, he's good. He's really good. He played great last week. I think the last couple of games coming into the playoffs he was playing well, too. If we can get him playing to his level, he's like [Peppers]. You have to double team him or he's going to get a sack on you. It's good to have him back." -- Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Mike DiNovo/US PRESSWIREBears tight end Greg Olsen caught this 58-yard TD pass in the first quarter of Chicago's divisional playoff game against Seattle last Sunday.
Player: Bears tight end Greg Olsen
2010 season highlight: A 113-yard performance in last Sunday's victory against the Seahawks, including a career-long 58-yard touchdown reception.
Important because: The Packers' injuries at linebacker and safety this season have at times left them vulnerable against tight ends, as Football Outsiders noted last week. (We should point out that Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez managed only one catch last Saturday, however.) In two regular-season games against the Packers, Olsen caught 10 passes, including one for a touchdown.
Overlooked because: As a tight end in Mike Martz's offense, Olsen has had to wait his turn and block more than at any point in his career. He caught 41 passes, a record for a Martz tight end, but still the fewest in a season since his rookie year.
Quotable: "It's a game of momentum. You get that confidence and that going forward definitely comes week to week. I don't expect the game plan, just like it wasn't really different for the most part last week. Each week, guys have different opportunities to make plays. Each week we don't go in saying, 'Hey, we're going to try to focus on getting the ball to him or whoever.' Last week it happened to be me that got some chances to make some big plays. I would welcome those chances again, but you never know who it's going to be." -- Olsen

Player: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews
2010 season highlight: Three sacks in each of the Packers' first two games this season. Finished the year with 13.5, fourth in the NFL.
Important because: It goes without saying that an outside pass rusher is one of the most valued commodities in the NFL. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will know where Matthews is on every play. Although he slowed down during the middle of the season, Matthews has four sacks in the Packers' past three games. He overwhelmed Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Winston Justice in the wild-card round, forcing Eagles coaches to bench him in the fourth quarter.
Overlooked because:
Matthews had six sacks in the first two weeks of the season and then 6.5 over the following 14. A shin injury limited his practice time and effectiveness, taking a bit of the public focus off what was still an All-Pro season.
Quotable: "Just had a tremendous start. He was pushing through the leg injury, and he missed a bunch of practice time there in the middle of the season, and of late has been able to get the practice reps that he needs and has really picked his game back up here down the stretch." -- Packers coach Mike McCarthy

[+] EnlargeB.J. Raji
Josh D. Weiss/US PRESSWIREB.J. Raji has quietly been a force in the middle of Green Bay's defensive line this season.
Player: Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji
2010 season highlight: From an entertainment standpoint, Raji's most memorable play might have been his debut as a goal-line fullback last week against the Falcons. But his best game was probably a two-sack performance against the New England Patriots in Week 15.
Important because: As with Harris, Raji stands to benefit from attention paid to the defense's premier pass rusher, in this case Matthews. Raji has been a durable and active pass rusher, and his 340-pound frame makes it tough to move him out of running lanes. He is a rare three-down player on a defense filled with personnel specialists.
Overlooked because: Nose tackles in a 3-4 scheme don't get many opportunities and therefore little attention. But the reality is the Packers ran their nickel defense nearly 75 percent of the time this season, moving Raji to his more natural position over the guard. He won't be a national secret much longer.
Quotable: "He's been tremendous. Obviously he's really continued to progress his game this year, taking it to what I believe is a Pro Bowl level, how he performs on the field. He is making plays in the backfield, not only in the pass game but is being disruptive in the run game as well. He's only helping guys like myself out tremendously in the fact that all 3-4's start with a big guy in the middle who can eat up double-teams and get pressure and collapse the pocket. That's what he's been doing as of late, and I look for him to continue his progression as well with him and myself only being second-year players." -- Matthews
We've been discussing the possibility of our ascent to the Epicenter of Humanity for two weeks. We've noted how rare a Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears playoff game is, how the current rivalry among the franchises is more about respect than hatred and spent most of our time on the X's and O's of the matchup.

All along, I knew that talented ESPN.com writer Wayne Drehs was working on a lengthy piece on the meaning of this rivalry to fans and some of the past participants. That story posted earlier Friday.

You can read how current Packers radio voice Wayne Larrivee has handled his history as the former play-by-play man for the Bears, why the Brat Stop in Kenosha, Wis., has such a key role and, most important, how former NFL safety Matt Bowen locked himself out of the Packers' team hotel before a game against the Bears in 2002.

It's worth your read.

More in a bit.
A tip of the cap to Jeffrey of New York, who forwarded a link to six of the coolest minutes of historic footage you'll ever see.

[+] EnlargeClarke Hinkle
AP Photo/NFL PhotosThe last time Green Bay and Chicago met in the playoffs, Clarke Hinkle and the Packers lost to the Bears 33-14 in the 1941 Western Division Championship Game.
Yes, the Chicago Bears have posted a highlight package from their one and only playoff game with the Green Bay Packers. You'll have to squint to see the numbers and identify players, but the neat thing is to get an extended feel for the flow of a football game played nearly 70 years ago.

Earlier in the week, meanwhile, the Packers posted an interview with former Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter Art Daley, 94, who offered his recollections of the game, which was played a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Bears won 33-14 at Wrigley Field to advance to the NFL Championship Game.

Here is an excerpt from Mike Spofford's report:
In the winner-take-all grudge match, Bears halfback Hugh Gallarneau fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Packers capitalized with Clarke Hinkle's 1-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. But Gallarneau quickly made up for his blunder with an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, the first of 30 straight points the Bears scored before halftime.

Chicago rushed for 277 yards, including 119 from George McAfee and 79 plus two touchdowns from Norm Standlee as the Bears cruised to a 33-14 win. The Packers couldn't hang with them, as end Don Hutson had just one catch for 19 yards.

"As far as the game itself, it was one of those things -- Don Hutson was hurt," Daley recalled. "He played, but he had a bad leg, I think it was. He just had a bad leg and could not play as well, and that was about the size of it.

"I think that was a factor, because he was the biggest thing they had. That was too bad."

As excited as we all are for this matchup, it's probably worth taking a moment to consider how rare it is. All it takes is a look at that video.

Epicenter of Humanity: More audio!

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
6:00
PM ET
We almost exclusively discussed the NFC Championship Game during Thursday's visit to "The Reusse & Mackey Show" over on 1500 ESPN. We noted the Green Bay Packers' defense has been consistent throughout the entire season, fought off Mackey's weekly diminishing of the Chicago Bears' accomplishments and broke down Aaron Rodgers' composure outside of the pocket. We also acknowledged Mike Tice's career rehabilitation.

Finally, we touched the Minnesota Vikings' decision to hire former Tennessee Titans assistant Craig Johnson as their quarterbacks coach -- and whether it fortells a possible pursuit of soon-to-be-former Titans quarterback Vince Young. I have a hard time believing that Frazier or new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave would tie any part of their careers to Young at the outset of this administration. But stranger things have happened.

All that and more for your listening pleasure.
Getting inside Thursday's practice report:

Chicago Bears: For the second consecutive day, the Bears practiced outdoors. Conditions in Lake Forest, Ill., were partly sunny and 20 degrees. Receiver Earl Bennett and cornerback Zack Bowman, who missed Wednesday's practice for personal reasons, were returned Thursday. Safety Chris Harris (hip) again missed practice but continues to insist he will be ready for the game. Finally, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa didn't practice. He has struggled with a knee injury during the second half of the season. ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson suggests the move was precautionary, noting Tinoisamoa also sat out last Thursday's practice.

Green Bay Packers: Practice took place in an indoor facility with the doors open, which brought the temperature to 29 degrees, according to coach Mike McCarthy. Linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) again was the only player to sit out practice. Limited participants included defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), running back John Kuhn (shoulder), linebacker Clay Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle), offensive lineman Jason Spitz (calf) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe). Everyone but Zombo remains on track to be available Sunday.
We've discussed the expected chess match between the Chicago Bears' offense and the Green Bay Packers' defense. We've noted the recent success of the Bears' defense in limiting production from the Packers' offense. Come Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, those battles will be fought closely and could turn on the slimmest of margins.

In reality, the biggest advantage either team will have over the other is on special teams. The Bears are top-notch and, well, the Packers haven't always been.

You would probably recognize that distinction anecdotally after watching both teams this year, but to put it into numbers: Our friends over at Football Outsiders ranked the Bears' special teams No. 1 overall during the regular season. The Packers ranked No. 27 on that scale. Take a look at the chart for more details based on regular season statistics.


On Sunday, the Bears will have the best three special-teams players on the field. Cover man Corey Graham led the NFL with 22 special-teams tackles, according to press box statistics, while returners Devin Hester and Danieal Manning helped the Bears achieve the best average drive start in the league.

The Packers, on the other hand, never established a kickoff returner this season. While punt returner Tramon Williams is an explosive player, he averaged only 7.9 yards per return. And the Packers' coverage has had some disastrous moments, most recently in allowing a 102-yard kickoff return to Eric Weems in the second quarter of an eventual 48-21 victory this past Saturday over the Atlanta Falcons.

[+] EnlargeCorey Graham
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhCorey Graham is Chicago's cover man extraordinaire.
"It doesn't make me nervous because these impact returners can do that at any time," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum told reporters Thursday. "Our ball placement wasn't quite by design and we had a couple breakdowns in the structure of the coverage. The big thing is that after that play, we were productive in our kickoff coverage."

You could argue that it only takes one special-teams breakdown to lose a game, but it's only fair to note the Packers had been moving to a better place in the latter stages of the regular season. In fact, they had a particularly productive game in Week 17 against the Bears, downing four of Tim Masthay's eight punts inside the 20-yard line, limiting Hester to 35 yards on two punt returns and getting a 41-yard punt return from Williams.

"That was really good production," Slocum said. "If we could get that [Sunday], I think that would really help us."

Without a doubt. But suffice it to say, the Bears will make a repeat performance awfully difficult.
Perhaps President Barack Obama doesn't need to attend Sunday's NFC Championship Game after all.

It appears he has already learned the final score.

Full security clearance can do that for a guy.

The Chicago Tribune reports Obama has predicted a 20-17 victory for the Chicago Bears.

(Is he having a flashback to the teams' Week 3 game?)

If you're the Green Bay Packers, you now know the stakes of this game: It's you against the (leader of the free) world.
Is there anything to read into the NFL's referee selection for Sunday's NFC Championship Game?

If you haven't already heard, referee Terry McAulay will work the game at Soldier Field.

Cue the collective groan from Green Bay and hysterics from Chicago.

Yes, McAulay also worked the teams' Week 3 matchup, one in which the Packers absorbed a team-record 18 penalties. A few of them proved monumental in determining the outcome of the game; the Packers lost one touchdown and two takeaways, and they were also called for pass interference late in the fourth quarter to set up the Bears' game-winning field goal.

This time around, McAulay will head an "all-star" crew that won't necessarily include the same men who worked the Week 3 game. Regardless, the referee sets the tone for any crew, and for that reason I thought it was worth checking whether or not that Week 3 game proved a trend or an aberration for McAulay this season. Happily for Packers fans, it was more the latter.

Using a database maintained by ESPN Stats & Information along with NFC West colleague Mike Sando, I grabbed penalty totals for each crew this season. The numbers to the right represent both accepted and declined penalties, which I think provides a better gauge for how active a crew has been.

As you can see, McAulay called the eighth-most penalties this season, placing him squarely in the middle of the referee pack. (Detroit Lions fans will notice that Ed Hochuli, our resident activist referee, was tied for the most.)

McAulay's total included 24 called penalties (against both teams) in the Week 3 game. When you subtract that total, you find his crew called an average of 13.4 penalties in his other 14 games. (Crews work 15 games per season.)

So while his name might conjure bad memories for Packers fans, the assignment probably could have been worse. We won't even start with Hochuli. Look at the name who is third from the bottom of the list. Scott Green's crew called only 183 penalties this season; Green was the referee for the Packers' wild-card playoff loss last season to the Arizona Cardinals. There were two disputed non-calls in overtime of that game, a helmet-to-helmet hit against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an apparent face mask on the Rodgers fumble that led to the Cardinals' victory.

Sando examined a few specific penalty categories earlier this month, paying special attention to calls that require discretion and often lead to controversy. The only McAulay revelation that stood out to me was that his crew tended to call more offensive pass interference penalties than others. So watch the push-offs, guys. Let's play -- and call -- a clean game.
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has a special perspective on the opportunity he and his team have encountered.

His father, former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews, played 19 seasons and never made the Super Bowl.

"You can take these for granted," Matthews said on ESPN Radio . "I'm a second-year player already in the NFC Championship Game. ... But in talking to some of these guys, and guys that have been around the league for countless years, this is truly an opportunity you shouldn't squander and take advantage of. You don't know when you'll get back

"I know I'll come out swinging and I hope the rest of this team does."

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