What's at Stake?
The Chicago Bears (8-7) and the Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) will square off in a Week 17 matchup for all the marbles. The victors will earn the NFC North crown and a trip to the playoffs. The losers will go home.
It's a winner-take-all contest that will propel one team into the postseason, where anything can happen. Outside of the 2010 NFC Championship game, this is the biggest matchup of the past 30 years between these two storied franchises.
Buckle that chinstrap, things are about to get insane.
This is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, with the two teams meeting for the 188th time on Sunday afternoon. The Bears hold a 93-88-6 edge in the all-time series.
Since 2008, the Bears are 3-9 in the series, which includes the loss in the conference championship game. Chicago won the first matchup this year 27-20 at Lambeau Field in Week 9.
LB Lance Briggs was listed as probable on the injury report and will start his second straight game. WR Earl Bennett did not practice this week due to personal reasons and isn't likely to play. Marquess Wilson and Eric Weems will rotate in place of Bennett if he doesn't play.
"They've got to know where to line up, and they've got to know what to do, and we assume that they are capable of doing that," coach Marc Trestman said yesterday. "We'd be excited for both of them to play. They've done very, very well at practice, we can count on them and we think they'll do well and fit in. And if Earl's not with us, we're going to miss that, certainly, in the locker room and on the field. But we feel very confident in those two guys."
For the Packers, LB Clay Matthews (thumb) has been ruled out. QB Aaron Rodgers, who has been out since Shea McClellin broke his left collarbone in Week 9, will start the game. In addition, there's a chance Green Bay will activate WR Randall Cobb (knee) off the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list.
The following players are listed as probable on the injury report:
LB Brad Jones (ankle)
RB Eddie Lacy (ankle)
DE/LB Mike Neal (abdomen)
LB Nick Perry (foot)
DT Ryan Pickett (knee)
TE Andrew Quarless (ankle)
QB Aaron Rodgers
TE Jake Stoneburner (illness)
TE Ryan Taylor (illness)
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 3rd (27.8)
Total Offense: 8th (384.3)
Rushing Offense: 18th (113.8)
Passing Offense: 5th (270.5)
Green Bay's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 24th (26.7)
Total Defense: 26th (374.1)
Rushing Defense: 26th (125.3)
Passing Defense: 21st (248.8)
Turnover Ratio: 18th (-3)
Matchups to Watch
WR Alshon Jeffery vs. CB Sam Shields
Jeffery is sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,341) but was snubbed from the Pro Bowl yesterday. He's been the best deep-ball receiver in the NFL this season and has carried Chicago's passing attack for long stretches. Shields held him to just five catches for 60 yards in the first meeting, which won't be good enough if the Bears plan on keeping pace with the Packers' high-scoring offense. Jeffery needs to have one of the best games of his career, particularly if Green Bay coordinator Dom Capers again rolls safety help over the top of Brandon Marshall. If Jeffery, who has two games of more than 200 yards receiving this year, goes off, the Bears will have a chance of outscoring the Packers.
RB Matt Forte vs. LB A.J. Hawk
Hawk needs just five tackles to become Green Bay's franchise leader in career tackles, so he'll be chomping at the bit to break the record against Forte, who was named to his second straight Pro Bowl yesterday. Forte is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (1,229), third in yards from scrimmage (1,776), fourth in receiving yards by a running back (547), third in first downs (87) and seventh in rushing average by running back (4.7). He's the engine that makes Chicago's offense run. If he gets going on the ground and through the air, he'll be key in putting 30-40 points on the board, which is likely the total the Bears will need to earn the victory.
Keys on Offense
-Jay Cutler is 1-8 in his career against the Packers, with nine touchdown passes compared to 15 interceptions, good for a 61.5 passer rating. This is a game in which Cutler can prove he's Chicago's signal caller of the future. If he can finally play a good game against Green Bay and send the Bears into the playoffs, he'll earn his franchise deal, as well as the confidence of everyone at Halas Hall and in the City of Chicago. But if he puts up another stinker, it will be third time in his five years with the Bears that he's failed to end the Packers' season. Is Jay Cutler the quarterback who can bring Chicago to the Promised Land? We're about to find out.
-Capers has proven in the past that pressure on Cutler is recipe for shutting down the Bears' passing game. To that end, he's brought relentless pressure from his 3-4 front seven, never allowing Cutler to become comfortable in the pocket. Matthews is out, as he was during the Week 9 contest, one in which the Packers managed just 1.0 sack. Not coincidentally, Chicago won that game, albeit with Josh McCown under center. The front five must again be stout to keep Cutler clean in the pocket but the emphasis also falls on Trestman to call plays that quickly get balls out of his quarterback's hands. The short-passing attack must be on point, which will put extra emphasis on the receivers to beat press coverage. If the Bears can exploit Green Bay's blitzes early, it will put Capers in a bind.
-B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett get a lot of attention but the beast along Green Bay's defensive line is DE Mike Daniels. He's second on the team in sacks (6.0) and he's been a force against the run. Daniels will line up between LG Matt Slauson and LT Jermon Bushrod on most of his snaps. If those two can keep Daniels under wraps, the offense will have a much easier time moving the ball.
-Middle linebackers Brad Jones and Hawk both struggle to separate from blocks. If Slauson and RG Kyle Long can locate those two at the second level, Forte should be able to turn a few short runs into big gains.
-OLB Nick Perry has been hampered by a foot injury all season, forcing him to miss four contests. Yet he's still a weapon off the edge on passing downs. On the other side, Mike Neal has proven very capable as a pass rusher and leads the team in QB hurries (36, according to Pro Football Focus). If RT Jordan Mills struggles in this game, as he has for most of the campaign, Neal and Perry could create havoc for Cutler.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 30th (29.7)
Total Defense: 29th (389.3)
Rushing Defense: 32nd (161.5)
Passing Defense: 14th (227.8)
Turnover Ratio: 11th (+5)
Green Bay's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 9th (25.6)
Total Offense: 4th (395.4)
Rushing Offense: 7th (131.7)
Passing Offense: 7th (263.7)
Matchups to Watch
DE Shea McClellin vs. RT Don Barclay
McClellin had a huge outing in the first matchup between these two teams, racking up five tackles and 3.0 sacks. Yet he's been nearly invisible since then, missing two games with a hamstring injury and picking up just six total tackles and 0.5 sacks in the past five contests. If the Bears have any shot at slowing down Rodgers, they must apply pressure off the edges. As a team, Chicago is dead last in the league with 28 sacks. If the pass rush disappears again, the best quarterback in the NFL is going to absolutely annihilate Chicago's secondary. If McClellin has a repeat performance and is able to collapse the pocket against Barclary, an average pass blocker, the pressure could force a rusty Rodgers into some crucial turnovers.
CB Tim Jennings vs. WR Jordy Nelson
Nelson ranks 13th in the league with 1,153 receiving yards and is first with 16 catches of 25 yards or more. He's a potent deep threat, particularly in the end zone. Nelson's 30 TD catches since 2011 are sixth most in the NFL. Even if Cobb returns, expect Nelson to get plenty of looks down the field, which will present another tough task for Jennings. Yet Jennings, coming off an All-Pro season, has been up to the task of late. Over the last three games he's kept some of the best wideouts in the league under wraps: Josh Gordon (3 catches, 67 yards), Dez Bryant (2 catches, 12 yards), DeSean Jackson (4 catches, 29 yards). If Jennings, who has raised his level of play since Charles Tillman's injury, can shut down Nelson in the same fashion, it will go a long way toward limiting Green Bay's aerial attack.
Keys to the Game
-RB Eddie Lacy is expected to play but even if James Starks gets the start, the challenge will be the same for Chicago's last-ranked run defense. During the second half of the season, nearly every running back to touch the ball against the Bears has rushed for 100 or more yards. The defensive line has not been stout at the point of attack and the linebackers, even with the return of Lance Briggs last week, have been horrible filling their run gaps. If Jon Bostic and James Anderson, two of the worst run-stopping linebackers in the league, again disappear, Lacy or Starks or whatever warm body totes the rock, will run wild. If that happens, Rodgers on play-action passes could be deadly.
-Cobb is considered a long shot to play but if he does, nickelback Isaiah Frey will have his hands full with one of the best slot receivers in the game. If Frey struggles, so will the entire defense.
-The Bears must be cognizant of the gaps to either side of LG Josh Sitton, who has been outstanding this season as both a run blocker and in pass protection. When they need yards the most, the Packers will run behind Sitton. If Chicago can fill those gaps, they'll have a chance of limiting Lacy and company, particularly on 3rd and short.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.