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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Feathers Plucked, Now the Fur Will Fly

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Admit it, Packer fans. Your Super Bowl dreams didn't include the sublime notion of getting there by beating the Bears at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship Game. That's the task after the Packers' 48-21 demolition of top-seeded Atlanta and Chicago's 35-24 elimination of undeserving Seattle. For the Packer backer on this page, the next step couldn't be sweeter.

Artie:
I can't wait for Sunday, when Chicago will truly live up to its name of Second City. Second in the conference and even in the freakin' division!

Frank:
Um, the Bears did win the NFC North in the regular season, right?

Artie:
Big deal. When is it better to be on top, December or January?

Frank:
Thanks to the wonderful world of wild-card playoff berths, you've got a good point. And the Packers have been one hell of a bottom-seeded team, knocking off the Eagles and Falcons on the road.

Artie:
With the Seahawks and Ravens done, there are no more bird cages to be cleaned out. But there's no doubt the Pack will send the Bears skulking back to their den!

Frank:
Chicago looked pretty good, at least until garbage time, in slapping Seattle around.

Artie:
I'm not buying that performance. The Seahawks won their lousy division at 7-9, and when you look at their losses, they got absolutely clobbered in most of ’em. But the Packers slaughtered a 13-3 team in their own building! And besides, they beat the Bears a couple of weeks ago.

Frank:
Yeah, but it was only 10-3. And the Bears won the Soldier Field matchup on a last-second field goal.

Artie:
I'm not saying it might not be a difficult game, but the Green and Gold is on a real roll. Aaron Rodgers couldn't be sharper—31 for 36 passing in Atlanta!

Frank:
Any worries that he can't maintain that sharpness?

Artie:
Why? It ain't luck; it's talent and good play-calling.

Frank:
Just playing devil's advocate here. Might be less than ideal weather, a dropped pass here and there—and you've gotta admit that Bear defense is tough.

Artie:
I think that secondary can be had—just ask Tom Brady about the Patriots’ shellacking of the at-home Bears 36-7 on a snowy Dec. 12—and the Pack has just the guy to do it. Plus James Starks is the featured running back now; in the Jan. 2 game he only got five touches.

Frank:
I stopped watching the Atlanta game in the final minutes. Starks didn't have a big game statistically, but was that because they were plowing him into the line to burn up the clock?

Artie:
Yeah, he got the yards when they were really worth getting. With him the Pack is definitely more two-dimensional, and more able to handle bad weather with a decent running game.

Frank:
The Bears' offense looked good against Seattle, although Jay Cutler threw one right to a Seahawk on the goal line and the guy dropped it.

Artie:
That's what I'm saying; I think we can expect more of that Sunday. Good Jay is never far from turning into Bad Jay. The Bears' luck will run out when they face a truly playoff-worthy team. The Falcons were supposed to have a strong, balanced offense and Dom Capers' defense didn't even let ’em have 200 yards!

Frank:
Again, just raising possibilities. Football can create some odd breaks.

Artie:
Sure, there could be problems. Bonehead penalties, a special teams breakdown—which happened in Atlanta on the kickoff return for a TD. But it'll take a lot of them to turn a 31-17 Packer win into a 24-23 loss.

Frank:
The Packers sure look like a team that won't be denied.

Artie:
It's just amazing when you think of all the injuries they've had. If you'd have told me before the season opener that they'd have to put 15 guys—fifteen!—on injured reserve, I'd have said their Super Bowl chances were nil. To be practically grabbing guys off the street to fill in at key spots… and now they're one game away from the Big One.

Frank:
Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy must have made some pretty wise personnel moves.

Artie:
Not the least of which was going with Rodgers three years ago. I'm sure Brett Favre is enjoying all this, ain’a?

Frank:
That kinda pleases you, huh?

Artie:
The Vikings' meltdown adds something else to Sunday's game. For a couple of years the rivalry with the Bears had faded a bit because Favre was wearing purple. But now the hatred for the Bears is back in the top spot.

Frank:
It's been about 90 years of collisions, but this'll be only the second meeting in the postseason. The teams tied for the Western Division title in 1941 and the Bears won a playoff at Wrigley Field.

Artie:
For me, this'll be payback for the ’63 season, when the Pack went 11-2-1 but the Bears beat ’em twice and won the West at 11-1-2. Paul Hornung missed the whole year with his gambling suspension and Bart Starr missed a bunch of games with injuries.

Frank:
And the Bears beat my Giants for the NFL title, 14-10—a game they had no business winning! That one hurt even more than the losses to the Packers in ’61 and ’62. Not that it still bothers me...

Artie:
Hey, maybe if I get in touch with Thompson he'll let me give a little pregame talk. Just three words: "Remember ’63, fellas." And they'll silently nod and get the job done.

Frank:
They'll silently nod and think, "Who is this geezer and why should we care about something that happened long before we were born?"

Artie:
But then they'll think, "If it makes him feel good, we'll win." That's all I ask.

The Way It Bounces

Frank: Boy, our two top college basketball teams took their fans on roller-coaster rides last week. Wisconsin blew a comfortable lead in the last couple of minutes and wound up losing in overtime at Michigan State, but then rebounded with a strong home win over Illinois. Marquette throttled Notre Dame by 22 points at the Bradley Center, then coughed up an 18-point lead in the last six minutes at Louisville and lost by one.

Artie:
Oh, that Louisville game was a killer! I just sat there stunned.

Frank:
Dwight Buycks caught a lot of flak, deservedly, for driving to the hoop in the last half-minute instead of milking the clock. His shot got stuffed and that led to Louisville's winning basket.

Artie:
But it was a lot of other stuff—turnovers, going tentative, and a hot stretch by Louisville.

Frank:
It was a great illustration of how the three-point shot has changed the sport. When you're making them in bunches, almost no lead is safe. Plus I don't think Buzz Williams has the Golden Eagles practice a "delay game" very much. It's just not their style; they're an up-tempo team.

Artie:
They did try to eat some clock, but it didn't work for them.

Frank:
MU sure played a wonderful game against Notre Dame, though.

Artie:
When they were clobbering Louisville I was thinking, "Wow, two straight wins over ranked teams. This bunch is gonna do something in the Big East."

Frank:
And they still will. As the TV guys said Saturday, their defense is just relentless. And that'll keep them in almost any game.

Artie:
After MU lost I was thinking it might be an omen for the Packers that night.

Frank:
But then you could just switch to the Badgers and be reassured.

Artie:
It's always satisfying to beat Illinois and that coach, W.C. Weber, or is it Bruce Fields? I swear, he looks like he's gotta be the grandson of W.C. Fields. That ruddy complexion and a similar nose—just put a straw boater on him!

Frank:
I'm certainly on board with Buzz Williams as a look-alike for Curly Howard, but I guess I'll have to take a closer look at Mr. Weber. Anyway, last week showed us that the Badgers and Golden Eagles will give us plenty of excitement—scintillating wins, heartbreaking losses—for the next six or seven weeks.

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