Packers-Bears keys to the game

In the storied and often bitter rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, it's hard to imagine a game ever meaning less than Sunday's game at Soldier Field.

The Bears certainly want to end their season with a bang by beating their longtime nemesis. As for the Packers, with the third seed in the NFC playoffs wrapped up regardless of the result, the keys to victory are far less meaningful than the key to game. No matter what coach Mike Sherman says about playing to win, he'd be a fool to put his star players in jeopardy for too long with a playoff game coming as soon as Saturday.

Thus, the first of Sunday's five keys is to simply get out of Chicago in one piece. Sherman's juggling act this week includes keeping his players safe but also keeping them sharp.

The Packers gained plenty of momentum by rallying past Minnesota in the fourth quarter last week, and Sherman wants to keep that going. That momentum will be vital because if the winner of the Carolina-New Orleans game emerges as the Packers' first-round playoff opponent, the Packers will be facing a red-hot team. New Orleans will have won four straight while the Panthers will have won seven of their final eight games.

"It's important that we have some consistency going into the playoffs, some momentum going into the playoffs," Sherman said.

Ideally, the Packers would play a tremendous first half today to keep Brett Favre and his receivers sharp, gain a big lead, and then clear the bench and let Craig Nall get some meaningful snaps. The Bears, however, will have something to say about that dream scenario.

"It doesn't matter whether you're competing in a pickup basketball game or whatever, you're going to be trying to win and you play for pride," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "It doesn't matter who is out there. It's still the Packers versus the Bears, and that's all you need to know."

While the game is meaningless in the big picture, the Packers will have plenty of motivation to put up a good fight for as long as the top guns are on the field. The Bears won a Week 2 stunner, and the Packers would like a little payback.

"We owe these guys," Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera said. "This is a game that we're not going to take lightly. We're going to go down there to win the game. That's the bottom line."

2. Avoid turnovers

It was the defining play of the Packers' 1-4 season-opening swoon. Trailing 7-3 but knocking on the door for a go-ahead touchdown just before halftime, Packers running back Ahman Green was stripped in the backfield, and safety Mike Brown scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 95 yards for a touchdown. Instead of a 10-7 halftime lead, the Packers trailed 14-3.

Sherman said the play left a hangover beyond anything ever suffered after too much New Year's Eve bubbly. "(The fumble) certainly had an effect on us, mentally. I could feel that that (next) week in practice. I was hoping that it wouldn't carry over. But I believe that it did."

As for the Bears, their 5-10 record doesn't reflect the play of the defense. Brown's touchdown was one of a franchise-record six scored by the Bears' defense this season. Chicago has 17 interceptions this season, an impressive figure given its weak pass rush. Rookie fourth-round pick Nathan Vasher, statistically at least, has outplayed Packers first-round pick Ahmad Carroll with five interceptions.

If the Bears can either score or set up a touchdown or two with their defense, they'll have a chance to sweep the Packers for the first time since 1991.

3. Bear down on running game

Brown's fumble return turned the game in the Bears' favor, and running back Thomas Jones finished the job. Jones rushed for 152 yards in that Week 2 game, including a 52-yard sprint to set up his short touchdown run to make it 21-3.

Green Bay's run defense, meanwhile, has fallen apart in the last three games. The return of Grady Jackson from a knee injury shored things up for several weeks but the Packers have been gouged for nearly 175 yards per game in the past three outings.

With the Bears' shortcomings at quarterback and the Packers' inability to stop the run, Chicago almost certainly will try to establish the running game. If the Packers aren't ready to play, the Bears will run it down their throat.

4. Hanging Chad

One reason why the Bears will want to run the ball is because they have struggled protecting their quarterbacks. Opening-day starter Rex Grossman was dropped five times in three games. That looks pretty good compared to the parade of others who have played for the injured Grossman. No. 2 quarterback Jonathan Quinn was sacked 15 times in three starts before being benched. No. 3 quarterback Craig Krenzel was nailed 23 times in five starts before getting injured. No. 4 quarterback Chad Hutchinson has been sacked 14 times in his four starts.

Hutchinson, a former pitching prospect, had a nice game in his starting debut against the Vikings but has been awful in his last three games, going 54-of-102 for 494 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. That touchdown, coming last week against Detroit, is the only one the Bears have scored in the last three games.

"We are a better team with Rex Grossman under center, but we can't use that as an excuse," Smith said.

Meanwhile, Green Bay's top pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, likely will square off against Marc Colombo. The former first-round pick has been beset by knee injuries but earned a starting nod last week. He was a blue-collar player before the injury; the injuries have limited his athleticism even more. That will work in KGB's advantage.

5. In the trenches

Even with defensive end Adewale Ogunleye out for the season — the AFC's leading sacker last year was put on injured reserve last week with an ankle injury — the Bears are formidable up front. Rookie first-round pick Tommie Harris is developing into a handful; he'll use his quickness against Green Bay's Rivera.

With Ogunleye injured, Alex Brown has finally emerged as the pass rusher the Bears thought they were getting when they drafted him in 2002. He has a team-high six sacks. That sack total nearly matches the 7.5 he had in his first two seasons combined. He's a KGB-style rusher, using quickness to offset his lack of size. He'll face left tackle Chad Clifton.

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