NFL Nation: 2010 NFC Championship

The house that Ted Thompson built

January, 23, 2011
B.J. RajiAP Photo/Jim PrischingB.J. Raji's pick-six turned out to be the difference in the Packers' win over the Bears.
CHICAGO -- As he always does, the man with the white mane sat stoically in his press box seat. Believe me, I checked.

Every time the Green Bay Packers' rookie nickelback made a play, I stole a glance down the aisle. Ted Thompson was unmoved. There was no hint of vengeance when rookie tailback James Starks scored a second-quarter touchdown, and I saw no reaction of note as punter Tim Masthay flipped the game's field position all afternoon.

The Packers' general manager had every reason to feel wholly vindicated Sunday as his team advanced to Super Bowl XLV with a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears. On a day when quarterback Aaron Rodgers' best play was a touchdown-saving tackle, Thompson's brand of team building proved especially prescient. This was a Ted Thompson victory if there ever was one.

"Ted built this house," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He is responsible for everything that goes on."

We've all had our fun and taken our shots at the way Thompson constructed this team. Eschewing veteran free agency puts a premium on your own development program, leaving no margin for error in the draft and little patience in bringing along young players. You've got to hit nearly every time, and after watching Sunday's game at Soldier Field, I think we can agree that Thompson batted 1.000 in a year when the Packers lost more starting players to injuries than any NFL team.

Undrafted nickel back Sam Shields became one of 11 rookies in NFL history to intercept at least two passes in a playoff game, including the game-clinching play with 37 seconds remaining. Starks continued his postseason surge with 74 yards and his first touchdown since he was a junior at Buffalo in 2008. Masthay, plucked off the street last winter, pinned the Bears inside their 20-yard line on five of his eight punts. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, Thompson's first pick in the 2009 draft, returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown that served as the final margin of victory.

The Packers have their share of elite players in Rodgers, receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. But without Shields, Starks and Masthay, the Packers might not have a ticket for Arlington, Texas, in two weeks.

[+] EnlargeSam Shields
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireSam Shields, who was an undrafted free agent this season, had two interceptions against the Bears.
"I think this really to me showed all of Ted's work over the last two or three years," team president Mark Murphy said. "You look at the depth of the roster, the players he's been able to identify. We have starting players playing key roles for us who were undrafted free agents this year. It's a tribute to Ted and his staff that he's able to find these players."

I missed Thompson after the game. I'm guessing he wouldn't have been in a gloating mood. It's not his style, and it's what I like best about him. He doesn't need to tell us I told you so. We saw it ourselves Sunday, and it was a development not lost in the Packers' locker room.

"It starts up top with Ted and players and the personnel department," veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "They do a good job of bringing in players. Somebody gets hurt, and they bring in a guy where there's almost no drop-off. We have a lot of talent on this team. I don't know if I've ever seen this much, as long as I have been playing. There are players all over this team that were overlooked by other teams."

On the day the Packers advanced to their first Super Bowl in 13 years, you might not be up for patting their shy general manager on the back. Sorry folks. If Rodgers had pulled another of his postseason gems, I would be telling you all about it. If Matthews had put together another of his three-sack games, this post would have been easy to write.

The assumption has been that the Packers would ride Rodgers as far as he could take them. But Sunday, the Bears' defense limited him to 17 completions in 30 attempts. He threw two interceptions, including one to linebacker Brian Urlacher on what he called a "terrible throw" in the third quarter. Rodgers managed to trip up Urlacher at the Bears' 45-yard line, preventing what almost certainly would have been a touchdown, but he was unable to take the Packers to a second-half touchdown that would have put the game out of reach.

On this championship day, that task fell to players like Shields, Starks and Masthay. We've had plenty of discussions about Starks, who has vindicated Thompson's decision not to seek a veteran replacement (albeit a little late). Shields, meanwhile, was Thompson's version of an answer to the Packers' thin depth at cornerback last season.

Signed as an undrafted free agent after the draft, Shields initially was a candidate to be the Packers' kickoff and punt returner. But as soon as he arrived at training camp, he had defensive players and coaches turning their heads.

"We saw him and said, 'Why didn't this guy get drafted?'" Pickett said. "This guy has been making plays since the moment he got here. He might be the best rookie cornerback in the league."

It would be hard to argue based on Sunday's game. Shields ended two consecutive Bears series in the second quarter. The first was a sack of quarterback Jay Cutler on third down. Less than two minutes later, his athletic interception prevented what would have been a long 42-yard touchdown pass to receiver Johnny Knox.

According to the database at, Shields is the first rookie in NFL history to collect two interceptions and a sack in a playoff game.

"He is going to be a great player for the Green Bay Packers for a long time," McCarthy said.

The Packers have more than their share of similar stories.

Ted Thompson is their ghost writer.

He won't tell you.

He doesn't need to.

You saw it yourself.

CHICAGO -- Cyberspace buzzed Sunday with talk of the single-worst thing you can say about a player in a team sport.

Did Jay Cutler quit on his Chicago Bears teammates in Sunday's NFC Championship Game?

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler completed six passes for 80 yards with an interception against Green Bay.
Moments after the game, I suggested we table that discussion until we heard from the participants and knew all of the facts about Cutler's left knee injury. Let's just say that postgame interviews didn't do a lot to clear up the question.

Speaking to reporters, Cutler said he suffered the injury -- the details of which he did not specify - on the second-to-last series of the first half. (The final play of that drive was a sack by Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields.)

Asked how the knee felt, Cutler said: "It hurt."

Asked why he played the first series of the third quarter and then left for good, Cutler said: "We gave it a go that first series but couldn't really plant and throw, so they kind of pulled me."

Asked to clarify if he or the Bears' medical staff made that decision, Cutler said: "Yeah, I was going to keep playing. But they made the decision giving Todd [Collins] a shot would be better for the team."

Cutler said he hoped the injury wouldn't require surgery but will have an MRI on Monday.

I think it's awfully hard to speculate that Cutler didn't want to continue playing because his team was down 14-0 and he had completed only six of 14 passes to that point. The question is not whether Cutler tapped out. It's whether, in the NFC Championship Game, Cutler should have insisted on continuing to play regardless of the pain and debilitation involved.

Although we don't know the exact nature of his injury, we do know Cutler stood on the sidelines for the remainder of the game. If there was medical fear of, say, a torn ligament, it's more likely he would have been on crutches or in the locker room to limit swelling.

I'm not a huge fan of the macho attitude that compels players to push through debilitating injuries, but it's clearly a part of football at the professional level. Everyone is dealing with one kind of injury or another, the thinking goes.

As a result, a number of current players criticized Cutler via Twitter during the game. One was Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who tweeted:

"All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one ..."

Based on the hits we've seen Cutler take this season, I think we can all conclude he is a pretty tough guy. But barring some surprise discovery in Monday's MRI, I fear this episode could define Cutler's career for a long time. Fair or otherwise, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers set the bar by playing an entire 2007 playoff game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Two Bears players, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Brian Urlacher, suggested Cutler sprained his MCL. Urlacher said "it’s easy to talk [expletive] about someone when you’re sitting on your couch watching their game" and added: "He's one of the toughest players on our football team."

Was he on Sunday? Unfortunately, that question will hound Cutler for years.

CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on an NFC Championship Game that got pretty interesting in the second half:

What it means: The Green Bay Packers became only the second No. 6 seed ever to advance to the Super Bowl, where they will take on either the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Jets. It will be the fifth appearance in the Super Bowl in franchise history for the Packers.

Clutch: The Packers took a 14-0 lead early with 11 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the first half before the Bears' defense caught its breath. So as it turned out, the Packers’ final margin of victory was nose tackle B.J. Raji's 18-yard touchdown return of an interception. (We’ll get to why Bears No. 3 quarterback Caleb Hanie threw that pass in a moment.) Raji backed off the line as part of a zone blitz, and Hanie never saw him as he threw a dump-off pass to tailback Matt Forte.

CutlerWatch: Hanie was in the game because No. 2 quarterback Todd Collins was wholly ineffective after replacing starter Jay Cutler in the third quarter. All we know at this moment is that Cutler injured his left knee at some point during the first half. He left early for the Bears’ locker room before halftime, returned for the first series of the third quarter, threw one incomplete pass and then left the game for good. Cyberspace lit up with criticism about the murky nature of Cutler’s departure. What was the exact injury? How hurt could he be if he stood and watched the second half on the sideline? As much as we all want to pile on Cutler, my suggestion is to wait until we get more information and hear from the main participants. If it turns out that he quit on his team in the NFC Championship Game, or at least wasn’t willing to tough it out, we’ll all have plenty of time to react once that becomes clear. Until then, let’s not jump the gun too quickly.

HanieWatch: How many Google searches were there for “Caleb Hanie” on Sunday afternoon? Hanie was the Bears’ No. 2 quarterback during the previous season and was set for the same role in 2010 before a preseason shoulder injury. He is mobile, competitive and, now, nearly legendary. This game wasn’t over until 37 seconds remained. Packers rookie Sam Shields capped an excellent game with his second interception.

RodgersWatch: This game appeared to be a runaway early on, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the Packers 84 yards on seven plays in the opening drive. But Rodgers hasn’t had many monster games in his career against the Bears and Sunday was no different. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards, throwing two interceptions. The second cost the Packers at least a field goal deep in Bears territory, although Rodgers did save a touchdown when he tripped up Brian Urlacher on the return.

ShieldsWatch: The improvement of the Packers’ pass defense from last year’s playoffs to this season was never more apparent Sunday. Even before his fourth-quarter interception, Shields made two spectacular plays in the second quarter, sacking Cutler and forcing a fumble on a third-down play and then intercepting him at the Packers’ 3-yard line on the next series. Shields was also blitzing on Raji’s interception.

What’s next: Two more weeks of hype before Super Bowl XLV.

Bears down to No. 3 QB Caleb Hanie

January, 23, 2011
CHICAGO -- You read that right.

Jay Cutler is out with a knee injury.

Backup Todd Collins has now departed with some sort of leg injury.

That leaves the Bears down to Caleb Hanie, who entered training camp as their No. 2 quarterback before a shoulder injury required the acquisition of Collins. Per NFL rules, neither Cutler nor Collins can return to the game.

Here we go.

Jay Cutler's return: 'Questionable'

January, 23, 2011
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has left the NFC Championship Game, having been replaced by backup Todd Collins.

Cutler has a left knee injury, according to the Bears’ radio network. The team termed his return questionable.

The injury apparently happened in the second quarter, and Cutler went to the locker room early. He returned for the first series of the second half, but Collins started the second series.

This makes a bad situation worse for the Bears. Collins was horrible in his only start of the season, throwing four interceptions against the Carolina Panthers.

It’s still 14-0 with 8 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
CHICAGO -- Just jumping over from our in-game Countdown Live chat to let you know that the Green Bay Packers played their second series without left tackle Chad Clifton, who left with a neck stinger. His return is questionable.

Second-year player T.J. Lang has replaced Clifton. That will be a tough swap for the Packers, who will have to find a way to deal with Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. I counted three plays Peppers made on that second drive.

*Update: Clifton returned with 7 minutes, 40 seconds left in the second quarter.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris (hip) is active for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and will start.

It will be interesting to see how long Harris lasts in this game. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reported, Harris has a torn muscle in his hip and needed a pain-killing injection Sunday morning. Rookie Major Wright will be available in reserve.

As expected, Bears tight end Desmond Clark will play in this game after being deactivated for 11 games during the regular season. As a result, the Bears have four receivers and four tight ends active for this game.

Here are the Bears’ eight inactive players:

Packers gameday deactivations

January, 23, 2011
CHICAGO -- We don’t yet have the Chicago Bears’ gameday roster decisions, but the Green Bay Packers were prompt this morning.

Safety Atari Bigby is active and so is offensive lineman Jason Spitz. Cornerback Pat Lee is inactive, meaning he isn’t a candidate to return kickoffs. Here are the rest of the Packers’ deactivations:

Epicenter of Humanity: So long, tarp

January, 23, 2011
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.

Epicenter of Humanity: All quiet

January, 22, 2011
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:

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, 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
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.
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.'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.


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