KICKOFF: Sunday, 5:00 ET
WHERE: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas, Chris Myers
SERIES: 171st meeting. The Bears lead the series, 86-78-6. The Packers had dominated the previous 11 years, winning on the road every year and taking 19 of 22 games overall. But the Bears have now won two of the last three meetings, 19-7 three weeks ago at Soldier Field and 21-10 at Lambeau Field last year.
2005 RANKINGS: Bears: offense 29th (9th rush, 31st pass); defense 1st (8th rush, 1st pass). Packers: offense 18th (30th rush, 9th pass); defense 8th (25th rush, 2nd pass)
PREDICTION: Bears 20-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: If QB Brett Favre puts the ball in the air 58 times like he did in the first meeting, the Packers will be in serious trouble considering his penchant for blindly winging it downfield this season. The problem is Green Bay is down yet another running back with RB Samkon Gado (knee) being replaced by third-down back Tony Fisher.
The Bears have held five of their past six opponents to 10 points or less, and any turnovers could prove fatal to the Packers, who lost 19-7 to the Bears on Dec. 4. The Bears won't go away from being a run-first team offensively, but QB Rex Grossman taking over for rookie Kyle Orton means they can open up the passing game a bit more. If nothing else, it should make life a bit easier on RB Thomas Jones, who has faced a constant barrage of eight and nine-man fronts most of the season. Jones has been a fan of Lambeau Field, where he rumbled for a season-high 152 yards last season.M
Bears: Cinch the NFC North title with a victory or a Minnesota loss. ... Are 4-0 against the NFC North this season. ... Lead the series 86-78-6.
Packers: Are 13-1 (9-0 at home) within their division in December and January under coach Mike Sherman. ... Favre needs five touchdown passes to join Dan Marino (420) as the only players in NFL history with at least 400.
INSIDE THE BEARS CAMP:
The good news is that six Bears were named to the Pro Bowl.
The better news is that their average age is just 26, and they could be the nucleus of the team for years, especially since everyone is signed through the end of next season and all but Lance Briggs are signed through at least the 2007 season. "We've got some good, young talent on this team, and it's nice to see they got recognized for their play, because they're not the biggest names," said 28-year-old linebacker Brian Urlacher, the oldest of the Bears' Pro Bowlers. "There are a lot of guys out there who probably get more recognition from the media, but these guys go out there and play hard every week, and they put it on film, and the players around the league and the coaches around the league saw that. That's why they're going."
That's why the future is so bright for the Bears they've got to wear shades.
"It's good to have a core in place for the future," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "That's what it's about, getting your core established. We have that. You would like to see the guys grow together. Even though we already have a core in place, they're still young. We haven't played our best ball. It would be good to see it through, and hopefully we'll be able to do that."
Five of the Bears' Pro Bowlers are on defense. Coordinator Ron Rivera would like to build a dynasty like the one at Tampa Bay, where the Bucs have had one of the league's top defenses for nine years.
"It bodes very well for our future," Rivera said of the youthful Pro Bowlers. "As this team continues to grow and develop within the scheme, we'd love to have a run like Tampa Bay has had."
Urlacher is under contract through 2011, safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Tommie Harris are signed through 2008, and cornerback Nate Vasher and center Olin Kreutz are locked up through 2007. Vasher, 24, and Harris, 22, are both in their second season, and making the Pro Bowl is a major accomplishment but also a major responsibility, according to old pro Brown, who's 27.
"That's pretty impressive to be honored like that early in your career," Brown said. "It means the sky's the limit. Those guys are obviously great players, and now expectations will be that much higher. I think those guys will realize that. Once you lay it down, then people expect the same thing from you. They expect it every play, so you can't get fat and sassy; just keep working."
Even Pro Bowl first alternates Alex Brown and Brendon Ayanbadejo and second alternates Adewale Ogunleye and Thomas Jones all have at least two more years left with the Bears. Jones and Ayanbadejo are signed through 2007, and Brown and Ogunleye through 2009. Brown is 26, Jones 27, Ogunleye 28 and Ayanbadejo 29.
"That's quite an accomplishment for our program," Smith said. "We're trying to establish ourselves as one of the (best) teams in the league."
Ogunleye expressed no disappointment over his omission from the Pro Bowl. Instead he was excited for Harris and Vasher and the future of the Bears.
"These are guys that are going to be able to go year in and year out for the next couple of years," Ogunleye said. "I'm really excited for them."
But probably not as excited as Smith, who might have the core players necessary to make the Bears a perennial playoff contender.
"All these players haven't played their best football yet, which is good," Smith said. "They should definitely even go further with it."
The Bears' defense is already the league's best in points and yards allowed, but the best could be still to come.