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CHICAGO -- If you're looking for a trash-talking conference championship preview, you better look toward Pittsburgh and New York, because here in the humble, humble Midwest, everyone plays nice -- off the field at least.
Yes, fans of the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears might hate each other's teams with a passion normally reserved for meter maids and the IRS, but the Bears' defense has nothing but good things to say about the Packers' red-hot offense in anticipation of the NFC Championship Game matchup at Soldier Field next week.
|Aaron Rodgers might be the NFL's hottest quarterback.|
So, the Bears' defense, a hard-hitting, quietly cocky veteran unit, must think Aaron Rodgers is an overrated, shaggy-haired punk, right?
"He's hot right now," Julius Peppers said. "Hot. Smoking. So we've got to be at our best. We've got to be at our best to have a chance to win the game."
"I like Aaron," said linebacker Nick Roach, a Milwaukee native. "He's a good quarterback, a good dude."
Whither Antonio Cromartie?
"Secondary-wise, we've got our hands full," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "If Green Bay comes out and plays like they played last night against Atlanta, yeah. It's going to be a tough day for us."
I thought maybe D.J. Moore, the fast-talking nickelback, could give me some fodder on Rodgers. Nope.
"I mean, he's good," Moore said. "I don't know what else to tell you."
C'mon, Tommie Harris, help me out.
"I have the utmost respect for Rodgers," he said. "But I have to get him off his feet."
And that summarizes the entire defense's feelings on Rodgers. They like him, but they hope he spends most of next week experiencing the goat track that is Soldier Field. One thing's for sure, Rodgers wowed the Bears, and pretty much the entire football-watching universe, with his performance in the Packers' dominating 48-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.
Well, except Tillman. He was the only Bear I talked to who said he didn't watch the Packers-Falcons game. What did he do instead?
"I was watching 'RED: Retired and Extremely Dangerous,' with Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman," he said. "I was watching that."
Ooh, that sounds like trash talk, right? Tillman was like a more reclusive Tom Brady, eschewing his opponent's game for a widely-panned movie. Well, not quite.
"My focus was trying to beat Seattle," he said.
These guys are certainly on message, aren't they?
But the respect they have for Rodgers is earned. Rodgers went 31-for-36 for 366 yards for three touchdown passes, and he accounted for another score on the ground against Atlanta. In 15 regular-season games, he threw for 3,922 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and somehow didn't make the Pro Bowl.
"You're not going to trick him," Brian Urlacher said. "He knows where to go with the football right when the football is snapped, and he doesn't make bad throws."
Jay Cutler might be the only guy to trash talk Rodgers, but it's done privately, via text message.
"We'll have a friendly little banter," he said, while praising his friend's game.
Just one win from an improbable trip to the Super Bowl, the Bears are not interested in a war of words or playing an intimidation game, which is probably a good thing.
"No matter how you say it or how you talk it, you have to play," Moore said.
|The Bears' defense dominated the Seahawks from the jump on Sunday.|
The Bears had no problems coming out focused against Seattle, a double-digit underdog with a losing record, albeit with one win over Chicago already. The Bears went into halftime with a 21-0 lead, as Seattle converted just 1-of-8 first downs, picked up 26 rushing yards and Matt Hasselbeck completed 10 of 20 passes for 78 yards.
The Packers, meanwhile, gained only 18 yards in the third quarter, before scoring three touchdowns in the fourth against the Falcons.
"One thing Rod Marinelli stresses to us a lot, respect your opponent, and that's what we do," Harris said. "We'll get ready for Rodgers. We've seen him [two] times and we've got to break the tie."
In the teams' first matchup, Rodgers went 34-for-45 for 316 yards, with one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and one interception in a 20-17 loss.
It was a classic test of the Bears' Cover 2 base defense and the Bears passed.
With time winding down Urlacher stripped James Jones on a 12-yard catch, and Tim Jennings, who was beaten on the play, recovered it at the Packers' 46.
Robbie Gould's 25-yard field goal won the game.
In the season finale, a 10-3 Packers win that put them in the playoffs, Rodgers went 19-for-28 for 229 yards, again with a touchdown pass (a 1-yarder to Donald Lee) and an interception.
Green Bay's depleted running game picked up only 82 yards on 29 carries in the two games, so don't expect John Kuhn or James Starks to be much of a factor.
The only negative, defensively, in the two matchups is that the Bears didn't pressure Rodgers enough. He wasn't sacked in the first game, and was sacked only twice in the finale. Rodgers was sacked 31 times during the regular season, or 25 fewer times than Cutler.
"As long as you got time, the defense will whine," Moore said, apparently channeling Walt Frazier.
So, while Rodgers and the Packers open up as three-point favorites at Soldier Field, the Bears know they can handle their business as usual. That's how it goes in Lovie Smith's world, where quiet confidence is the presumptive mood.
"We do fine against him," Moore said. "We know each other. Normally just a couple points separating us or whatever."
While the Bears choose to focus on the present, the recent past isn't lost on them.
"It's bittersweet in a way because we could've put those boys away early," safety Danieal Manning said. "But now they're back and we got a second time to put them away when it really counts."
Tillman, who played a great game against Mike Williams, was lamenting his two dropped interceptions, one that resulted in a Williams touchdown, after the Seattle game -- a contest most people forgot about two quarters before it was over -- rather than fantasizing about next week's game. In fact, he mocked the whole dramatic angle.
"You know what, to me, it's just another rival game," he said. "I think that's how Green Bay will look at it, too. I think the media will create, 'It's Bears-Packers! It's the biggest rivalry in the history of the NFL since 1900-something.' At the end of the day, it's just football."
Peppers was already fatigued by the thought of the hype machine churning. He said he understands the rivalry, he just doesn't dwell on it.
"It's not going to come down to all the Hall of Famers that played in the past," he said. "It's about all these guys in the locker room."
Safety Chris Harris, a guy who knows how to communicate to the masses with a very popular Twitter account, acknowledged the obviousness of this matchup against Green Bay.
"It's great," he said. "This will probably be the most watched NFC championship ever. You've got the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers playing for the George Halas trophy, for a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy. It doesn't get any better. I know Fox is licking its chops that this is the matchup that happened."
Harris also admitted to predicting a rematch. Again with the respect.
"I told Donald Driver after we played them, we'll see you in Chicago for the NFC Championship Game," he said. "I had a feeling they would make it. I was very confident in what we could do. We got the rematch."
Try as we might, the Bears' defense won't do the talking this week. That will be up to the fans and the radio hosts and the columnists. But one thing I'm sure of, the defense will be ready to play.
"We're definitely amped," Harris said. "It can't get here fast enough."Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.