By midseason, the Bears were 7-1, in complete control of the NFC North and running neck-and-neck with Atlanta for conference supremacy. They did it with an astounding plus-16 turnover ratio powered by a big-play defense.
The Bears forced at least two turnovers in each of those first eight games, including five against Indianapolis, Dallas and Tennessee. Against Indianapolis, Dallas, Detroit and Tennessee, the Bears posted turnover differentials of plus-4. Chicago won the turnover battle in six of the eight games; one of the exceptions was their minus-2 against Green Bay in Week 2.
The Bears, however, enter Sunday's game against the Packers having lost four of their last five games. Not only have they fallen out of first place, but they're in danger of sliding straight out of the playoff picture unless they can right the ship.
Not surprisingly, turnovers have been the story. They're minus-3 in the last five games.
"Early on, we made plays, things went our way," Bears coach Lovie Smith said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "During the course of the year, you just have to realize things aren't all going to go your way for a period of time. There's going to be a period of time normally when things just don't, where you're a play away from things going your way, and that's been the case lately."
In the first eight games, Chicago was guilty of 12 giveaways. In the last five games, they've turned over the ball 10 times. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw one touchdown pass and four interceptions against the Packers in Week 2, had 11 touchdowns and four interceptions in the other games during Chicago's 7-1 start. In his last four games — he missed the game at San Francisco with a concussion — Cutler's thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions.
"We've got to limit our turnovers, not give them anything easy on offense field position-wise, convert on third down," Cutler said during his conference call. "They're a ball-hawking defense. They find ways to get a hold of the ball, whether it's fumbles or interceptions. I think we've got to play a ball-security game and just be smart."
Turnovers have been the Packers' calling card against Cutler. He's started six regular-season games against the Packers since Chicago made the blockbuster deal with Denver to land him in 2009. Cutler is 1-5 with seven touchdowns, 15 interceptions and only one game with 60 percent completions.
"I think they've had good schemes against us," Cutler said. "I haven't played my best ball against them. It's a lot of different scenarios. A lot of different variables go into the quarterback position. At the end of the day, I've just got to play better."
On the other side of the ball, the Bears have forced a total of four turnovers in their four recent losses.
Still, the Packers are taking nothing for granted, with coach Mike McCarthy calling takeaways a "staple of their defense." Tim Jennings leads the NFL with eight interceptions, Charles Tillman leads the NFL with a stunning nine forced fumbles, and Kelvin Hayden leads the NFL with four fumble recoveries and Julius Peppers is tied for fourth with three. Chicago has scored seven defensive touchdowns.
"This team thrives on creating turnovers, whether it's picking the ball off — they've had a number of pick-sixes — but they also do a good job of stripping the ball," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Charles Tillman is probably the best in the business at it but all of those guys are trying to get arms and punches on the ball and get that ball out. That's how they have won a lot of games."
While Cutler has struggled against the Packers, Rodgers has excelled against the Bears. He's 7-2 against Chicago in the regular season. In going 6-1 in the last seven games, Rodgers has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. In his last six games, he's never completed less than two-thirds of his passes.
"That's the way you want your quarterback to play," McCarthy said. "Aaron's very conscientious with the football. He has experience playing in this game. Playing this game is different. We have a lot of respect for the defense, the way they're coached, the way they play. We look for it to be a tough game. He'll spend more time than he usually does this week and that speaks volumes of the importance of this game. You want to be on top of your game with this one."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.