When the Bears' Kyle Orton outplayed Brett Favre in Chicago's wicked, windy victory late last season at Soldier Field, who would have thought Orton would be the lone quarterback starting for their respective teams this season?
Orton — assuming he's sufficiently recovered from a sprained right ankle — will be back behind center when the NFC North co-leading Bears visit Lambeau Field on Sunday, Orton beat out first-round flop Rex Grossman during training camp and has turned into a surprisingly efficient player for the Bears' surprisingly potent offense.
The Bears — you know, those grind-it-out, conservative Bears — rank seventh in the NFL in scoring with 26.3 points per game. And Orton is a big reason why, with a superb passer rating of 90.8, with 10 touchdowns against four interceptions.
"He's our leader," Bears coach Lovie Smith said during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field on Wednesday. "Most teams start with the quarterback position and what type of guy you have at the position. Of course, the same thing with Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers, I've liked him for a long time. Seems like he's a great leader. We have the same thing with Kyle Orton. He gets it. He makes the right decisions. He can throw the football. He's a great leader."
Orton is in his second run as the Bears' starting quarterback. He went 10-5 as a caretaker starter in 2005, even though he was the NFL's lowest-ranked starting quarterback. Orton watched all of 2006 from the sideline, then went 2-1 as the starter after the Bears' season went down the drain last year.
He's been anything but a caretaker quarterback this season. The league's 10th-ranked passer enjoyed a five-game stretch in which he threw for 1,370 yards (274-yard average) before injuring the ankle on Nov. 2 against Detroit.
"Well, the first time he got a chance, he was a rookie, so they didn't really give him a chance at all," linebacker Brian Urlacher said during a separate conference call. "He runs our offense good. The best thing he's done is, he's taken sacks but he hasn't turned the ball over in bad spots. We have turned the ball over, but not where it hurts the defense."
Without Orton last week, the Bears' offense reverted to form. Grossman started against Tennessee but performed poorly, with 173 yards in 37 attempts, along with one touchdown and one interception.
"Kyle has done a good job when you look at where that team has been offensively — where it was last year and where it's been for quite a few years," Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who will join Joe Buck in the Fox booth for Sunday's game, told the Chicago Tribune.
The Packers' new starting middle linebacker, A.J. Hawk, is impressed by what he's seen from Orton, dating to Hawk's career with Ohio State and Orton's days at Purdue, where Orton ran the spread offense that coach Joe Tiller implemented for Drew Brees.
"He's transitioned very well, I think, in the NFL with not only in the shotgun a little bit like he was in college, but with taking the snap from the center and dropback passing and throwing some good concepts at you," Hawk said. "I think he does a good job of that. I like how their offense has really changed with the times, and I give their coordinator a lot of credit. They've been doing a lot of different things this year."
Meanwhile, for the first time in a long time in this storied rivalry, the quarterbacking microscope is affixed firmly to the Packers' signal-caller because Rodgers, for the first time in his young career, has shown a couple chinks in his armor. While Rodgers remains one of the NFL's top-ranked passers — his 93.3 rating stands fifth — he has a 75.2 rating in two games this month.
While not making excuses, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said part of the reason for Rodgers' struggles might be a lack of practice time leading to flawed footwork and timing. But, with Rodgers' injured throwing shoulder continuing to improve, he took most of the reps on Wednesday and all of them on Thursday.
Plus, McCarthy and Smith agreed, Rodgers simply is in a bit of a slump. Nothing more.
"I don't think you can get too high or too low based on what happens (in one game)," Smith said. "It's a long football season. You have to look at the entire football season. Aaron Rodgers is a good football player. He's going to help the Packers win a lot of football games."
Rodgers, of course, endured a miserable game at Minnesota last week, when he was sacked four times and hit on at least a dozen other occasions. Rodgers seemed rattled and seems to expect the Bears will try to duplicate the Vikings' game plan.
"Teams are going to make adjustments, not only within a game, but from game to game," Rodgers said. "They're going to watch previous film and see how they were attacked and see how they were effective and try and duplicate it. It's a copycat league. Blitzes or schemes that may have worked one week or didn't work are going to be thrown out or put in by different teams."
Smith, meanwhile, expects the Packers to come out firing. It would be an obvious choice against a Bears defense that ranks fourth in the NFL against the run but 30th against the pass.
"How we play pass defense, I assume most teams would want to pass it just about every time on us right now," Smith said.
If there's one key to the game, it will be turnovers. While Rodgers (five interceptions) and Orton (four) have taken care of the football, the Packers' defense has an NFL-high 16 interceptions and the Bears rank fourth with 12.
Turnovers can hide a lot of sins, as the Packers almost proved last week against Minnesota.
"Sometimes, passing, just statistics in general, can be a little misleading," Smith said. "We haven't made some plays in some key situations, but overall, I'm pleased with some of the things that we've done on the defensive side. To me, you talk about good defense, you're talking about how are they doing on scoring. And we're about 15th in that. Third downs are also important. We're a top-five team in that. You look at takeaways, which we've done. Then you look at rushing and passing. Right now, we're playing running the run well and haven't played the pass well. Hopefully, we can get that taken care of."
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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