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Lovie’s recipe for success: Vanilla

Donald Lee Packer fans celebrated only touchdown game Green Bay’s 10-3 victory against Bears 
Lambeau Field Jan. 2. The Bears

Donald Lee and Packer fans celebrated the only touchdown of the game in Green Bay’s 10-3 victory against the Bears at Lambeau Field on Jan. 2. The Bears almost won by going ‘‘vanilla’’ on both sides of the ball. | Mike Roemer~ap

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Updated: February 19, 2011 12:28AM

Lovie Smith insisted his team would play to win in the regular-season finale in Green Bay even though the outcome meant little to the Bears while the Packers had a playoff berth on the line.

His players gave every ounce of effort on the field. Smith even risked injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and other prominent starters but left them in the game until the bitter end. What the Bears coach didn’t tell you, however, is that his staff didn’t game-plan for that game like they will prepare for the rubber match in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on Sunday.

The Bears were clearly the better team while defeating the Seahawks 35-24 in Sunday’s divisional playoff game. Even though Green Bay has lost six starters to injury this season, that won’t necessarily be the case when the Bears host the Packers in the first postseason meeting between these storied rivals since 1941.

That’s why the Bears need an advantage greater than playing at Soldier Field, where they defeated the Packers during the regular season. They need something that could serve as an equalizer against a Packers team that destroyed the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons 48-21 on Saturday night and have outscored their last four opponents 124-57.

Smith gave his team just such an edge by going “vanilla” on both sides of the ball and still nearly ­pulling out a victory before losing 10-3 on Jan. 2.

The Bears should have a pretty good idea of how the Packers plan to attack them based on the cards a desperate Mike McCarthy played three weeks ago. McCarthy is less sure what offensive coordinator Mike Martz and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will do, which could give the Bears a leg up in a game in which the Packers are three-point favorites.

“Every time you play an ­opponent, you learn a little bit more about them,” Smith said. “Those are the types of games we’ve had. We beat them by three down here. The game went right down until the end last time. But we felt pretty good about how we played. We made a couple mistakes, didn’t take care of business a little bit there late in the game. But we feel pretty good about how we matched up against them the first time around, and the second time around.”

Nobody wearing a headset will ultimately decide which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. It’s the players who will determine the outcome.

If the first two games between these teams was any indication, however, Sunday’s title game will be decided by the slimmest of ­margins. That means a dropped pass, a missed tackle or a clever play call by a coordinator who was able to gather an extra game’s worth of information before devising his ultimate plan of attack could play a significant role.

“They’re going to be ready this time,” said former NFL scout Dave Razzano, who worked with Martz in St. Louis. “They’re going to do some things. I would think they definitely have things up their sleeve. They’re not going to play straight cover-2 again. That’s their core defense, but they’ll throw in some wrinkles to try to get Aaron Rodgers out of rhythm.”

Martz got the matchup he wanted on the Bears’ third offensive play against Seattle. Greg Olsen streaked past ancient Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy, collected a perfect pass from Jay Cutler and scored on a 58-yard catch and run. It was the kind of play we’ve come to expect from Martz and the kind of call he wasn’t dialing up in the regular-season finale.

After that game, Cutler acknowledged that the Bears used the same basic game plan they used against the Packers on Sept. 27, which gave Green Bay a strategic upper hand. Because they often knew what was coming, they took away many of Cutler’s “hot” reads, which contributed to him being sacked six times and having one of his worst statistical games of the season.

Marinelli had his defense line up in their base package even more than usual in that game, and his players turned in a solid effort by focusing on fundamentals.

“Just to see our guys, how they would respond, knowing we didn’t have a lot we were playing for except that it was Green Bay, and our guys went up there and played their hearts out,” Smith said when asked what he learned from the last game. “We were beaten that day by the better team. But we know more about the opponent, so it has to help us. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing.”

Make no mistake, Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews will do more to decide the outcome than Martz or Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. But unlike the last time these teams played, it’s the Bears that have the strategic advantage this time, and it could prove to be the difference.

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