Packers vs. Bears: Keys to the game

The Bears have homefield advantage in the NFC wrapped up. The Packers almost certainly have no chance at the playoffs. The mind-sets of the teams will go a long way toward determining the winner tonight.

A spot in the watered-down NFC playoffs for the Green Bay Packers is all but out of the question after the New York Giants handled the Washington Redskins on Saturday night.

The Packers will be playing only for pride when they face Chicago tonight at Soldier Field, and the Bears won't have any more incentive than Green Bay. The mind-sets of these formerly bitter rivals highlight this week's keys to the game.

 

1. The Packers' mind-set

No doubt, a little wind has been taken out of the Packers' sails with the Giants shoving them to the brink of elimination.

Still, the Packers have plenty to play for, and they'll give themselves a chance to win if they think that way tonight.

An 8-8 record would be a huge accomplishment. Avenging the 26-0 loss to Chicago in Week 1 would be a great way to enter the offseason. Finally beating a good team — the Packers haven't beaten anyone with even seven wins this season — would provide a huge boost of confidence. And simply beating the Bears, a rival (if not as bitter of one as the Minnesota Vikings) and the division's undisputed kingpin, would be reason to celebrate.

"What better way, if things don't go our way (with getting into the playoffs), than to say, ‘Hey, we finished the season strong. We had a four-game winning streak," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "There's plenty to play for."

 

2. The Bears' mind-set

No doubt, the Bears won't be playing with quite the same emotion, considering they have bigger fish to fry than taking out their neighbors to the north.

The Bears were in a similar situation last year, with a first-round bye locked up, when coach Lovie Smith rested several of his key players for the season finale at Minnesota. The Bears lost that game, then got bounced from the playoffs two weeks later by Carolina.

Smith has said he won't make that mistake twice, but then again, he's been known to fib to reporters.

Will Smith play his top guns — at the risk of a needless injury — and if he does, for how long?

"He knows we want to play," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We all want to play. But at the same time, we want to be healthy. It's a double-edged sword."

 

3. Special effort needed against Hester

The Bears lead the NFC and rank second in the entire league in scoring, with 420 points this season.

Of course, much of that credit goes to freakish kick returner Devin Hester, who may be the most-feared rookie in the league, ahead of even Reggie Bush and Vince Young.

"He's a very fast guy who's aggressive, and he's better than when we played him that first week," special-teams coordinator said of Hester, who returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown during the Week 1 matchup for the first of his six return TDs this season.

"He knows more about the schemes, he knows more about where they expect him to be. You can tell he's more comfortable and more daring than he has been, than he was that first week we played him. He was feeling his way around a little. Now he's at that point where anytime, anyplace, any way, he's got a chance."

Especially on bad kicks. The key for punter Jon Ryan and kicker Dave Rayner is to get enough hang time to give their respective coverage units a chance while pinning Hester as close to a sideline as possible.

"I think Hester is special," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You could see that in college. It speaks a lot when he's drafted in the second round. I think he's everything they thought he was. He's a unique returner in our game right now. He's had an incredible season."

One thing that could help the Packers: Hester has seven fumbles this season, second-most in the NFL among non-quarterbacks.

 

4. Don't fear the Bears' defense

Chicago's defense ranks first in the NFC in points and yards allowed. They've got perhaps the NFL's top defensive player in Brian Urlacher, another Pro Bowl linebacker in Lance Briggs, a pass rush speareheaded by unheralded fifth-round draft pick Mark Anderson and a ballhawking secondary that ranks second in the NFL with 23 interceptions.

Still, in the last five games, the Bears have allowed at least 327 yards, falling from first to fifth in the defensive rankings. They've yielded in successive weeks 27 points to St. Louis , 31 to Tampa Bay and 21 to Detroit.

Blame it on injuries. The Bears lost star safety Mike Brown to a season-ending foot injury in October and defensive tackle Tommie Harris' season ended this month with a hamstring injury.

Cornerback Charles Tillman missed last week's game against Detroit with a back injury and may miss tonight's game. Fellow starting corner Nathan Vasher missed games against the Rams and Buccaneers the preceding two weeks with a bum hamstring.

Add in a two-game absence for defensive tackle Tank Johnson after his legal troubles, and the Bears have been vulnerable.

"I definitely think we can get back to that (level)," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, a former Packers draft pick, said. "We've made correctable mistakes the last couple of games. It hasn't been that people are playing smashmouth football and dominating us physically. It's been mental things or taking the wrong angle or busts in coverage. It's not one guy making 10 mistakes; it's 10 guys making one mistake each."

Still, the fact the Bears have been exposed by the Buccaneers' and Lions' weak offenses should give the Packers reason to attack rather than play conservatively.

5. Quarterback battle

 The burning issue in Chicago for much of the season was the play of quarterback Rex Grossman. After a miserable stretch in which he threw three or more interceptions in four of seven games, he's thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions over the last three games. Not coincidentally, the Bears are averaging 34.0 points per game in three consecutive victories.

 The burning issue in Green Bay is the future of Brett Favre. He hasn't helped himself with a series of subpar performances. In his last five games, Favre has three touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, has topped 60 percent passing just once and topped a passer rating of 60 only once.

His inaccurate passes — and a bunch of drops — are a big reason why the Packers have been awful in the red zone. In 45 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, the Packers have scored touchdowns 15 times (33.3 percent). Only Oakland's 29.4 percent is worse; San Diego's 69 percent is best.

Those woes have been especially evident of late — the Packers are 2 for 14 in the red zone the past four games.

"It's very frustrating. Because you know when you get into the red zone, that's when you should light up," Pro Bowl receiver Donald Driver said. "But it seems like the bulb hasn't been working, so we've got to light the bulb up a little bit."

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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