From Green Bay Wisconsin to Chicago Illinois, football fans alike can be heard pacing the halls, nervously awaiting the final game of the regular season. For Packers' fans, beating their rival Chicago Bears on Sunday may be the only chance they have at earning the final sixth-seed in the NFC playoffs. This, after much of the media had already dubbed them Super Bowl-bound earlier this spring. The Bears, having already locked up at least the number-two seed in the playoffs, have the dubious task of deciding whether or not to play their starters against Green Bay, or rest-up for the playoffs. And you can bet, Bears' fans have been out in full-force; expressing their opinions as to what Head Coach Lovie Smith should do. After all, it's been three seasons since the Bears have played their way back into the playoffs after losing to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
Give the Packers credit. Despite having what could be the most injury-stricken team in the NFL, they've managed to put themselves in the driver's seat with only the Bears standing in their way. We're talking about a team who nearly picked off the New England Patriots in their own building, with their backup quarterback at the helm. Last week, Aaron Rodgers threw for 404 yards and 4 touchdowns against a sixth-ranked Giants' defense. If you'd say that the Bears are a good football team who has had their share of good-luck this season, you'd also have to say that the Packers are a good football team who has had more than their share of bad-luck. While the Packers technically could make the playoffs even if they lose to the Bears, they would need the Giants and Buccaneers to also lose. But, the Packers don't have the luxury of thinking that way since the Giants don't kickoff until 3:15 CT. They have to enter the game vs. the Bears needing a win.
The Bears on the other hand, have the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs on lock. They can't do any worse, and the only way they can do any better is if the Falcons lose to the Panthers with the Saints also losing to the Buccaneers. With both of those games kicking off at noon CT, the Bears will likely know at kickoff if they have any shot for the No. 1 seed. Which begs the question-of-the-day on how to prepare? Do you risk potential injury to your starters, particularly Jay Cutler, if the game does prove meaningless? Do you sit your starters and allow the Pack to play their way into the playoffs knowing you may have to face them for a third time this year? Do you play your starters because you know that there can be a fine-line between rest and rust? No matter what your feelings are as a fan, I believe two things are certain: You don't play scared and you don't play stupid.
The Bears can't concern themselves with the idea of facing the Packers a third time if they do decide to rest. They also cannot send Jay Cutler out onto the field for 4 quarters of one-sided, playoff-atmosphere, football if the outcome of the game is essentially meaningless. Either way, the Bears will still prepare to beat the Packers. They will likely let the course of the game dictate how long the starters play. If the seemingly impossible does happen, and the Falcons and Saints both lose, the Bears will play to win, no doubt. If the game does prove meaningless, I'd still expect Lovie to start everyone as planned. But, if either the Packers or the Bears start running away with the score shortly after the half, I'd expect him to pull key players. No matter what the scenario on Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere should prove extremely exciting. But, more exciting than that may well be the match-ups.
In the Trenches
Last time the Bears and Packers met, Julius Peppers forced the opposition into roughly 60% of their franchise-record 18 penalties. The Packers walked away feeling like they had essentially choked, handing the game over to the Bears. This week, we'll see Peppers lined up across from LT Chad Clifton on most of the snaps. While McCarthy will certainly send some reinforcements to assist Clifton, Peppers will bounce out to RT Bryan Bulaga from time to time. But, when Peppers is busy on the left-flank, Israel Idonije should be favorable match-up over the rookie Bulaga. "You can't think about the guy you're going up against and all the hype. Just play," Bulaga said of the Bears' defensive ends.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears' offensive line will have its hands full; especially with pass-protection. Only four teams in the NFL have accumulated more sacks than the Packers, and only three teams in the NFL have allowed fewer passing touchdowns. But, both of the Packers' starting defensive ends appear to be questionable against the Bears on Sunday. Left DE Ryan Pickett was limited in practice all week but will likely get the start. Right DE Cullen Jenkins, who did not practice on Thursday, is a bigger question-mark heading in. But, it's linebacker Clay Matthews who has 12.5 sacks through 14 games this season. The Bears can't afford any blown assignments when Matthews comes up off the edge on Sunday.
On the Ground
The Packers' No. 1 running back Ryan Grant has missed 15 games this season with an ankle injury. Just for a little perspective, last season Grant had 1,174 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through 15 games. Grant's 15 games missed this season is more than all of the Bears' No. 1 starters on the roster combined. Now compare Grant's stats to Brandon Jackson, who has 684 rushing yards and just 3 TDs through 15, and it's easy to see why the Packers are not the formidable rushing offense they once were. Aaron Rodgers even has more rushing TDs than Jackson with 4. With the 22nd ranked run-game in the league, the Packers are still one-dimensional. Luckily for them, it's one really, really, good dimension.
For the Bears, Matt Forte, who got off to slow start with limited opportunities before the bye week, has come alive. Since bye, the Bears have played five games against top-10 NFL rush defenses with Matt Forte averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Forte is on pace to finish the season with 1,043 rushing yards and 519 receiving yards. He'd be the first Bears' running back since Walter Payton to eclipse 1,000 rushing and 500 receiving in the same season. Lovie Smith: "I just think right now we wouldn't trade Matt Forte for many guys. He's not on that all-pro team, but what running back has played better football than him as of late?'' Perhaps it's another subject altogether, but look for Forte to be one of the next Bears to get an extension from the club. It certainly won't be a walk in the park for Forte against the Packers defense. Against the Giants last week, the Pack limited RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw to 78 yards on 20 carries while forcing a fumble from each of them. The afore mentioned Clay Matthews will play a crucial role in trying to stop Forte.
Through the Air
The Packers have the fifth-ranked passing offense in the NFL and the third-ranked quarterback. I highly doubt that ANY team in the NFL has lost more impact players as the Packers have, yet still manage to remain one of the best in the league at what they do. It's quite a testament to their quarterback play, no doubt. But, one can't overlook the impact of WRs Greg Jennings (2011 Pro Bowl selection) and Donald Driver, who's amassed four touchdowns through 12 games this season while battling injury. Jennings on the other side, has a staggering 1,168 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns through 15 games. The Bears' secondary will have its hands full against a big-play offense who ranks eighth in the league in passing plays of 20+ yards and sixth in the league in passing plays of 40+ yards.
The Bears' offense and QB Jay Cutler have clicked as of late, scoring 71 points in their last two. If you include the Bears' points on special teams, they've scored more points as a team in their last two games than any other team in the NFL (78). And there's no doubt that special teams and Devin Hester will play a huge role in the Bears' offense this week, given field position alone. The Bears have had a lot of success over the years, particularly in the endzone, when utilizing their tight ends in the passing game against the Packers. But, it's the Bears' speedy receivers that may challenge the Pack's secondary the most. "You don't see many pairs, impact players on the field like that," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said of Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. "You've got to always pay attention to those guys and know where they're at all times."
What does it all mean for the Bears?
I honestly see the Bears losing to the Packers on Sunday and - either way - holding the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. It's hard to beat a division rival twice, and although the Bears have done it this year against the Lions and Vikings, they've also been in this position before. In both the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the Bears had their playoff spot locked up heading into their last game of the season. Ironically, they also had an opportunity to go undefeated in their division both of those year's as well; facing the Vikings to end the season in '05, and the Packers in '06. The Bears rested key players in both of those games and lost. Keep in mind, it's not that I think the Bears can't beat the Packers, but conventional wisdom tells me that it's very difficult for a team to NOT take its foot off the gas when they're in the position the Bears are in. Likewise, the Packers have everything in the world to play for. I imagine a scenario in which the Packers come out fast and try to run up the score quickly, forcing the Bears to sit their starters and seal the deal for the Packers. Beardown, Bears' fans. We're headed for the playoffs!
Filed under: Game Preview
Tags: Aaron Rodgers, Brandon Jackson, Bryan Bulaga, Chad Clifton, Chicago Bears, Clay Matthews, Cullen Jenkins, Devin Hester, Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers, Greg Jennings, Greg Olsen, Israel Idonije, Jay Cutler, Johnny Knox, Julius Peppers, Lovie Smith, Mike McCarthy, Ryan Grant, Ryan Pickett, Tramon Williams, Walter Payton