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Bears have to keep up with young Pack, Eagles

Linebacker Erik Walden (93) stepped for Frank Zombo wreaked havoc against Bears regular-seasfinale. | Morry Gash~AP

Linebacker Erik Walden (93) stepped in for Frank Zombo and wreaked havoc against the Bears in the regular-season finale. | Morry Gash~AP

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Updated: February 10, 2011 4:01AM

It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Philadelphia Eagles after quarterback Donovan McNabb and other key veterans departed, but a young nucleus developed faster than expected, quarterback Michael Vick blossomed into an MVP candidate and coach Andy Reid’s team continued its decadelong dominance of the NFC East.

The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, were a Super Bowl favorite before being ravaged by injuries. The team made a desperate late-season playoff run despite losing six starters and 15 players overall.

If the Eagles beat the Packers in today’s NFC wild-card game at Lincoln Financial Field, they will take on the Bears in the divisional round next Sunday at Soldier Field. If the Packers win today, they’ll head next to Atlanta — and it would keep alive a possible meeting with the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.

That’s the short view. The longer view is more sobering.

The Packers and Eagles not only have elite quarterbacks but were the third- and fourth-youngest teams in the NFC at the start of the season and have only gotten younger as injured veterans have been replaced by backups. The Bears are the third-oldest team and likely will have to fight through these teams again and again if they hope to remain competitive in the NFC in the coming years.

‘‘A lot of people didn’t expect us to be in this situation and didn’t give us a chance or had doubts we would make it,’’ Vick said. ‘‘It’s a new era.’’

The Eagles had been to the playoffs eight times, won five division titles, advanced to five NFC Championship Games and narrowly lost a Super Bowl under Reid before a 34-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card game last season convinced him that changes should be made.

The new era began when McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, safety Brian Dawkins, cornerback Sheldon Brown and offensive lineman Shawn Andrews, among others, left town, making way for younger players.

The Eagles have 25 players, including nine rookies, on their playoff roster with three years or less of experience.

Some have logged playing time by design, others by necessity.

‘‘My thing with injuries is they happen in this business,’’ Reid said. ‘‘I care for the kids who get hurt, but from a team standpoint, I don’t really care. I expect the next guy to jump in, and let’s go, let’s play. That’s why you’re here, and it’s not a free meal and a uniform. You’re here to play. Let’s go.’’

The Packers’ trying season is best symbolized at outside linebacker, where starter Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga were lost for the season, forcing undrafted free agent Frank Zombo into a starting role.

When Zombo was unable to play against the Bears in the Packers’ must-win regular-season finale, Erik Walden was forced into a starting role. Signed off the street in October, the third-year pro from Middle Tennessee State responded with 16 tackles and two sacks in the Packers’ playoff-clinching victory.

‘‘If there was one formula that makes it happen over a short period of time, I’m sure everybody would have it figured out by now,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of developing players. “We have been fortunate.

‘‘I know a big part of our success is our offseason program. To have the players here starting in March and to spend the individual time, we always talk about March, April, May as the opportunity for individual improvement. To see young players from Year 1 to Year 2 make a big jump, to me, that is a very important factor in developing a young football team, and we’ve been doing it now going on five years. That component that is in place has helped us overcome the challenges that we have had in the injury department.’’

The Bears have been remarkably injury-free this season but, unlike past seasons, have been able to develop young players such as D.J. Moore, Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina as well as rookies Corey Wootton and Major Wright. Second- and third-year players such as Johnny Knox, Matt Forte and Earl Bennett have played crucial roles.

It’s a trend that must continue if they hope to maintain success while turning over their roster the way the Packers and Eagles have done.

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