When Lovie Smith was hired as Bears coach seven years ago, he sounded like a man who had come directly out of a pep talk from the McCaskeys, who were tired of having their franchise humiliated for more than a decade by Brett Favre.
Now Smith has a game with the Packers that is the most meaningful in seven decades, a chance to earn a trip to Super Bowl XLV if the Bears can accomplish his simple, seasonal goal: Beat Green Bay.
The Bears earned a third meeting with the Packers this season by stomping the Seahawks 35-24 on Sunday afternoon in the divisional round at Soldier Field with a fast start that turned into a 28-0 lead and an impressive outing by quarterback Jay Cutler.
The sixth-seeded Packers, coming off a 48-21 thrashing of the top-seeded Falcons, were installed as a three-point favorite for the title game that will be played at 2 p.m. Sunday at Soldier Field. The complexion of the playoffs changed dramatically as the Patriots, the top seed in the AFC, were upset by the Jets, making it a wide-open race.
Cutler threw two touchdowns and ran for two scores and the Bears had 437 yards of offense, the most in the postseason for the team during the Super Bowl era. The defense didn't get a takeaway, but the Seahawks were limited to 34 rushing yards and Tommie Harris sacked Matt Hasselbeck twice.
"After last year and the disappointment and the struggles we've had offensively and kind of rebuilding, it's been a fun ride," Cutler said. "But it's not over yet."
Cutler will have to lock horns with Aaron Rodgers, the man who has made Green Bay forget Favre. It's the Bears' first trip to the championship game since after the 2006 season when they reached the Super Bowl, and the first for the Packers since they lost to the Giants the following year in Favre's final game with the franchise.
"It's going to be a shootout," Bears wide receiver Devin Hester predicted.
The No. 2-seeded Bears were equipped for one against the Seahawks, who finish the season 8-10. Matt Forte had 80 of the Bears' 176 rushing yards and Cutler completed 15 of 28 passes for 274 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown to Greg Olsen on the first postseason pass of his career. Safety Lawyer Milloy looked for Olsen to break off a short route on third-and-2 and the tight end blew past him on a seam route. That quick strike set the tone and with the Seahawks converting just one of their first nine third downs, it was easy for the Bears to methodically chip away as they controlled the ball for 37 minutes, 10 seconds.
The Seahawks had one real chance to get back in the game when, trailing 7-0, safety Jordan Babineaux dropped a gimme interception at the goal line in the first quarter with lots of open space ahead of him. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz got cute in the fourth quarter, calling a halfback pass from Matt Forte with a 25-point lead. Aaron Curry intercepted and the Seahawks rallied for three touchdowns in garbage time.
The victory makes Smith 3-2 in the playoffs and puts him in an enviable position a year after he finished his third consecutive season out of the playoffs.
"Head football coach, you take heat from the moment you become one," he said. "Not being in the playoffs for three years, normally you are going to go through some things. But the guys have fought. We had a good feeling going into the season."
Said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: "It's been a long way back. We've had some bad years there. We've struggled for a couple seasons. But the coaches just kept staying on us. Now, we're back."
What has marked this turnaround season has been consistent defensive performances and an improving offense. The offensive line, which was overrun by the Seahawks in Week 6, was much better. Now, the Bears have a chance to reach the Super Bowl with a game that will have a frenzied buildup this week. The Bears split their series with the Packers this season, losing 10-3 in Week 17 at Lambeau Field, a game the Packers had to win to reach the postseason. Rodgers, who was terrific in defeating the Falcons, posted a 91.4 passer rating vs. the Bears this season.
The hype started in the locker room after the win. One player didn't seem to want anything to do with it in what came across as a facetious reply.
"(Rodgers) looked like the greatest that ever did it," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "He's the greatest. So, you know we have to be at the top of our game to be competitive."
Let the buildup commence. It's about the Packers and a trip to Dallas, everything a Texan like Smith could have dreamed about.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times