Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Packers-Bears NFC Championship Game:
The stakes: It's been quite a week for NFC North fans, or at least 50 percent of them. The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are set for only the second playoff game in their 89-year history of matchups, and you can read back through it all with this handy "Epicenter of Humanity" filter. Here's the bottom line: We're going to have an NFC North/Central team in the Super Bowl for only the fifth time in the past 34 seasons. The Packers, so hot that they are favored by 31/2 points, are hoping to be the second No. 6 seed ever to advance to the game. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers were the other. It's a rare opportunity for the Bears as well. A victory would give them only their third opportunity to play for a championship in the past 47 years.
Scheming with DBs: Although they call themselves a 3-4 defense, the Packers have played with at least five defensive backs on the field an NFL-high 75.1 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That makes rookie nickelback Sam Shields essentially a starter and puts Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in a curious position. Cutler threw 16 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions during the regular season when opponents used at least one extra defensive back. To me, that's an illustration of Cutler's always-aggressive approach. The question Sunday will be whether he is rewarded for the risks he usually takes against coverage.
Hang time: On Thursday, we discussed the disparity between the special teams during most of the regular season. In the teams' Week 3 meeting at Soldier Field, the Bears got one of their two touchdowns on Devin Hester's 62-yard punt return. Hester capitalized on a 57-yard punt from Tim Masthay that advanced too far for the Packers' coverage. But according to ESPN Stats & Information, Masthay was fairly effective against Hester when he slotted his hang time between 3.5 and 4.5 seconds. In nine such punts against the Bears this season, Hester managed a total of 38 return yards. I realize we're getting into some inner football here, but it makes sense. Hester's day largely will be affected by whether Masthay gives him any opportunities.
Scrambled: Earlier this season, we noted that Cutler and Aaron Rodgers were among the top running quarterbacks in the NFL. That trend continued into the playoffs. Cutler had two rushing touchdowns last week against the Seattle Seahawks, and Rodgers had one against the Atlanta Falcons. ESPN Stats & Information separated called runs from scrambles and found that Rodgers and Cutler have had comparable success on scrambles. Rodgers has averaged 8.4 yards on 46 scrambles, including playoff games, while Cutler is at 8.7 yards on 33 scrambles. Long story short: Both defenses must be prepared for the opposing quarterback to take off.
Whither Peppers? Defensive end Julius Peppers had a quiet statistical year by his standards, finishing with 8 sacks, but I think we all can agree he made a substantial impact regardless. The Bears were able to send four or fewer pass rushers nearly 75 percent of the time, opening up opportunities for linebackers and defensive backs to make plays and cause turnovers. But the playoffs are a time when elite players need to take their team along for the ride. Peppers has two sacks in nine career playoff games. The Bears have won 12 games this year without big sack numbers from Peppers, but they probably need more Sunday given how hot the Packers offense has been.