Bears coach Lovie Smith usually prefers to low-key anything controversial that might distract his team from preparing for a game.
But Smith, as much as anyone, seems to be enjoying the hype and excitement that accompany Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. It's the 182nd meeting between the Bears and Packers, the most frequently played rivalry in NFL history, and the fact that the winner of this one goes to the Super Bowl heightens the interest exponentially.
This is just the second time the two teams have met in the postseason. The Bears prevailed in the first, just over 69 years ago, with a 33-14 victory in a semifinal game en route to the NFL championship in 1941.
When he was hired in 2004, Smith made beating the Packers his top priority, followed by winning the NFC North and then the Super Bowl. Players realize how important the rivalry with the Packers is and why the outcome against a particular opponent matters so much, and it's not just because Smith says so.
"It's not that beating Green Bay wins you championships or anything like that," four-year veteran tight end Greg Olsen said. "I think it's more that it sets an attitude. 'Hey, let's start off with first things first.' To win our division, we've got to beat our rival. Green Bay is that rival. We play them twice a year, so let's get two wins. It's not so much that these two wins are our Super Bowl and then we don't care about the rest. But it's just, 'Let's set this attitude. Let's beat our rival and then carry that momentum into these other games.' That's step one."
Smith said he appreciated the seriousness of the rivalry even before he set foot in Chicago, but it was reinforced soon after he arrived.
"I'm a fan of the National Football League," said Smith, who is 8-6 vs. the Packers. "I grew up a big Dallas Cowboys fan and knew quite a bit about the Packers from that. I was always on the other side. I haven't ever been with a team where we were cheering for the Packers, so I had a little dislike for them, even way back then.
"One of the first things (Bears chairman of the board) Michael McCaskey went over with me when I came here to interview for the job was to make sure that I knew about the rivalry. Believe me, we know exactly how we're supposed to feel about that rivalry."
So, too, do his players. It's not the same as it was in the mid-1980s, when Mike Ditka coached the Bears and Forrest Gregg coached the Packers. They had played against each other in the rivalry and hated each other. That attitude seeped down to the players.
It's still an intense rivalry, just not as personal.
"If you look at our history together, it does have a respectful tone," Smith said. "But it can be nasty also. It's going to be a physical game. We don't like each other. Believe me, there is not a whole lot of love for us up north. But games are supposed to be played on the field and, in the end, if I felt like me doing a whole lot of talking would help us play better, I'd start doing a whole lot more of that. It will come down to how we play. Our guys realize that."
Since Smith has been in charge, he's emphasized the rivalry, and players get it and they buy into it. But now it's more of a team vs. team, city vs. city thing.
"I don't think there's personal animosity at all," Olsen said. "But I think it's a heated rivalry. The two teams want to beat each other. I think [the players] take a lot of pride in representing their city well. It's nothing personal against those players. We want to beat the Packers. It's not that we want to beat Aaron Rodgers or we want to beat Charles Woodson. It's not the players vs. the players. It's the team vs. the team. It's the Bears vs. the Packers."
NOTES AND QUOTES
His 111.3 passer rating was the third highest in franchise history and capped off an interesting week, in which he was vilified by ESPN.com's Rick Reilly for his personality.
"I saw a lot of it. They showed me a few things," Cutler said. "Mr. Reilly wasn't very happy with me, and I saw that. It is what it is. Like I said, nothing outside [Halas Hall] is going to affect me, or hopefully anybody on our team. There are a lot of distractions, especially in the situation we're in now, and we just have to focus and do our jobs."
Cutler was then jokingly asked if he was going to be warmer and kinder to the media.
"I'm trying," he said, smiling and drawing laughter. "Can you tell?"
Cutler also had his biggest day ever as a ball carrier, rushing for two touchdowns and picking up a career-best 43 yards on eight carries that included three kneel-downs, each of which lost a yard.
His first touchdown on the ground came on a 6-yard quarterback draw. He broke attempted tackles by Seahawks strong safety Jordan Babineaux and free safety Earl Thomas before diving across the goal line. The second toucdhown was a 9-yard rollout.
"The first one was called," he said. "The second one was [supposed to be] a shovel pass and the guy collapsed, so I had to run."
Cutler also had a 21-yard scramble on which he declined to save himself by sliding, instead going head-first for extra yardage.
"When it's there, we'll take it," he said. "I'm not afraid to do that." ...
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris who had one-half of a sack in the first 15 regular-season games, had two against the Seahawks after getting one in the regular-season finale.
"Tommie has worked hard each week, but we haven't gotten the production that we've wanted or he's wanted," Smith said. "But all you can do is just look at how he's practicing. He's been on top of everything. We have no complaints about his preparation at all. Normally, if you just keep working hard, things start falling your way a little bit. Hopefully, it will keep going." ...
Late in the first quarter, linebacker Brian Urlacher was taken to the locker room with what appeared to be a hip injury. He returned without missing a snap but wouldn't divulge the nature of his injury.
"I had to go check on something in the locker room," he said. "Things were good, though, thanks. I don't think I missed any plays, did I?"
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