Packers at Bears: Gameday notebook

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber clears his tape recorder and empties his notebook before the game. What is Mike McCarthy saying about the importance of this game? What happened to Devin Hester? What are some of the players' Christmas memories? We have that and a lot more.

Playing spoiler doesn't interest Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

Winning a game is all that matters.

Green Bay, which has lost four in a row and hasn't won since blasting the Bears 36 days ago, visits frigid Chicago in the second-to-last game of the season tonight. With NFC North-leading Minnesota (9-6) losing to Atlanta on Sunday, the Bears (8-6) remain in the thick of the playoff picture.

"We're going to beat the Chicago Bears; that's our mind-set," McCarthy said. "This is the Chicago Bears. This is a rival football game. This is a game that when the schedule comes out at the beginning of the season, everybody looks at. I know I do. I know our football team does. It's important for us to go down and win this game. We talk about the importance of division games, and this is a big one. That part has not changed. We know they are fired up to play us, and trust me, it will be a physical game and we'll be ready to go when we step out there Monday night."

In 2006, the Packers won their final four games to salvage a .500 season out of a 4-8 start. While McCarthy no doubt would like the Packers to build some momentum these next two weeks, his only focus is getting back on track this week.

"I'm stressing this game," he said. "This is an important game because it's a game we need to win, and that's really our focus. It's a common opponent. It is two teams that know each other very well. They are in Year 4 or 5 of their program; we're in Year 3. There won't be a whole lot of secrets, and it will come down to tough, hard-nosed, fundamental football Monday night."

Even for a team that went from playoff contenders to also-rans in the span of a month, the players say motivation won't be an issue.

"It's being a professional. That's your job," running back Ryan Grant said. "It's no different than you guys having to finish up with something. You take your job serious. That's why we play the game. You play the game hard. I love the game. I play the game to win. We still have two opportunities to finish strong and get two wins."

Added receiver Greg Jennings: "I don't think motivation is an issue for anyone. Nobody in here wants to lose. Nobody in here wants to be looked at as a loser, so to speak. Nobody wants to be in this position."

Bears coach Lovie Smith is awaiting the Packers' best shot. Last year at this time, his out-of-the-running Bears demolished the powerhouse Packers at cold and windy Soldier Field.

"If you're a professional, you get up for every game and you play hard each game," Smith said. "I think rivalry games in general, it doesn't really matter what the record is. And for us (last year), we were out of the playoffs, but we wanted to finish up on a high note. I'm sure Mike is telling his crew the same thing. It's the Bears and the Packers. That's enough in itself to get up for a football game."

Tables are turned

Last year, the Packers had a shot to claim home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs but were crushed 35-7 by Chicago. In miserable conditions, Bears quarterback Kyle Orton outplayed the Packers' cold-weather legend, Brett Favre, and he used that as a springboard to claim the starting job this season.

No doubt, similar assessments will be taking place in Green Bay the next two weeks.

"Yes, that helped, because in a way, the evaluation started for this year the last two games of the season," Smith said. "I did learn a lot about our football team and individual guys when you have to go out, when there's not any playoff things involved, and for us last year, it was about guys going out and competing in a tough situation. It was good for me to see our quarterback and how he handled the situation."

Speaking from experience, Orton says there's plenty to play for even when eliminated from postseason consideration.

"This is the NFL," Orton said. "You're playing for your job, you're playing for your starting position, you're playing for pride. I don't think you make this level if you're not a competitive person."

"I think once you're out of it," he added, "you've got to play for something. You're basically playing for next year. I think that holds a lot of weight. Anytime you can finish up strong, it makes the offseason a little bit better."

Is it worth it?


Devin Hester has emerged as a solid receiver, but at what price to the special teams?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

During his first two NFL seasons, Devin Hester returned 11 kicks for touchdowns. Eleven! For a guy who touched the ball, maybe, eight or 10 times a game, he was arguably the most-feared player in the league.

Enamored with Hester's speed and open-field skills, Smith turned Hester into a starting receiver this year. He's turned out to be OK, with his 43 receptions ranking third on the team and tops among receivers. He leads the Bears with 568 receiving yards. His 17 catches the last four games are more than every other Bears receiver combined.

"I think all year he's progressed," Orton said. "But I really see the last three or four games, he's had a lot of confidence in his route running. He's making a lot of plays for us. He's going to just keep on getting better and better. He's learning the position at the NFL level, which is tough to do and it's going to take some time."

But at what price? Hester is averaging only 5.6 yards per punt return — far below his career average of 14.1 yards — with a long of 25. He's been replaced on kickoff returns, where his average was only 21.9.

"We like the production we've been getting from Devin at the wide receiver position," Smith said. "He's made a lot of progress at the wide receiver position. As far as the reasons why he hasn't scored every time he's touched the ball as a punt returner, that's hard to say."

Christmas memories

The TV folks were asking players about their favorite Christmas memories this week.

From Aaron Rodgers: "I got a Huffy bike when I was 10. It was red with like blue lightning bolt stripe stuff. When you're 10 years old, that's the coolest thing to wake up to." Were there any gifts he didn't like from his parents? "Yeah, but I don't want to say anything. But some of the outfits that they used to dress my brothers and I up in, when you look at the pictures from the ‘80s and stuff, it's like, ‘what are you doing?' The color schemes and the stripes and patterns, it was pretty bad."

From Jennings: "One Christmas present that I got was an electronic drum set that I had always wanted. I didn't think I had gotten it because we were done opening presents. Then my mom or dad, one of them told me I had one more and it was in our family room away for everything. I couldn't believe I had gotten it. I beat those drums probably for the next week, two weeks straight."

James Jones recalled getting a skateboard. That day, he wiped out and scraped the skin off of the left side of his face, sending him to the hospital for the first time. "When I was in the hospital, my mom was crying, and the only words I said was, ‘Where's my skateboard?' She's like, ‘You ain't getting back on it.'"

Exceeding expectations

In a draft full of quality running backs, few have been better than Chicago's second-round pick, Matt Forte.

Forte rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a senior at Tulane, and he's shown that production wasn't a byproduct of playing at a lesser school. He's rushed for 1,115 yards, and his 1,539 yards from scrimmage rank third in the NFL.

"Whenever you draft a running back that high, the plan, of course, is for him to eventually help you," Smith said. "We liked Matt a lot coming out of college. We liked him as a person, we liked the production that he had Tulane, like that he could catch the ball out of the backfield. A lot of the things that he's been able to, we were hoping he'd be able to do. We didn't know exactly how soon he would be in the lineup. He's definitely exceeded our expectations as far as that's concerned."

Forte, who ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing and just ahead of Grant, tops all NFL backs with 58 receptions.

"He's a cure-all for a lot of things," Orton said. "Whether it's running the football, obviously, or catching the passes and pass protection and just being able to adjust on the fly. We do a lot of communication at the line of scrimmage. To be able to adjust like he does as a rookie is very impressive."

Stat of the week

The Packers are 0-6 in games decided by four points or less. That ties Lindy Infante's 1991 team for the most four-points-or-less games in franchise history.

Stat of this week

The Packers' offense ranks sixth in the NFL in converting 44.1 percent of their third downs. The Bears' defense ranks sixth in the NFL in allowing a third-down conversion rate of 33.7 percent.

Weather report

It's not going to be a nice night in Chicago. Temperatures could dip to less than 0 degrees, with winds of 15 mph making the wind-chill index minus-15.

The last word

From Jennings, on being able to knock the Bears out of the playoffs: "Definitely, it's a motivational tool that we can definitely use. A good Christmas gift for them? I don't know. But for us? Maybe yes. For our fans? Yes."

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.


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