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Green Bay Packers (8-4) at Chicago Bears (5-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, noon.
TV: Fox (Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick).
By the numbers: 6 — Consecutive years the Packers have played the arch-rival Bears at Chicago during the regular season in December or January. The Bears have won three of the five previous late-season meetings at Soldier Field.
Series history: 178th regular-season meeting. Bears lead 90-81-6. The NFC North rivals meet for the first time since the Packers prevailed 21-15 in the Sept. 13 season opener at Green Bay. The Packers last swept the season series in 2003. Green Bay is only 4-7 against Bears head coach Lovie Smith since 2004, including a 2-3 record at Chicago. The Bears have won the last two meetings at Soldier Field, both played in December.
Keys to the game
The Packers intercepted Bears QB Jay Cutler four times in a season-opening victory at home, and the defense has only improved as it leads the league in yards allowed. Chicago ran the ball a season-high 38 times last week vs. St. Louis and needs to stay committed to the ground game to keep Cutler out of dangerous third-and-long situations. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers struggled in the first meeting while under constant pressure, but his pass protection has improved of late. Chicago has had good success limiting RB Ryan Grant to 61 rushing yards in each of the past two meetings.
Rodgers leads the league with a 132.0 passer rating on third downs with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. ... The Packers have allowed only four sacks in the last three games. ... The Packers and Eagles/Cowboys, all 8-4, are tied for the two NFC wild-card spots, with Dallas and Philadelphia battling for the East title. The Giants (7-6) host the Eagles. Atlanta (6-6) would be finished with a home loss to New Orleans (12-0). ... Ryan Grant needs 69 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. He hasn't fumbled on a running play all season. ... Cutler has been held under 200 passing yards for three consecutive games. He's 13-0 for his career with a passer rating topping 100. ... Charles Tillman has three interceptions and three forced fumbles against Green Bay. The Bears are 16-5 when he has an interception.
Packers: Out — LB Jeremy Thompson (neck). Doubtful — NT Ryan Pickett (hamstring). Questionable — DE Johnny Jolly (knee). Probable — LB Nick Barnett (knee); T Chad Clifton (hamstring); TE Jermichael Finley (knee); DE Cullen Jenkins (hamstring); DL B.J. Raji (ankle); CB Charles Woodson (shoulder).
Inside the Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Bears allowed the Packers just 226 total yards in the season opener on Sept. 7 at Lambeau Field, and no opponent since then has come close to shutting down the Green Bay attack that well.
Even more impressive, the Bears had held the Packers to just 156 yards of offense with 2:35 left in the game, and they led 15-13. But 84 seconds later, Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings got behind free safety Kevin Payne, and Aaron Rodgers found him for a 50-yard TD pass, which proved to be the game winner.
"We played a good football game all the way around, but we didn't finish," coach Lovie Smith said. "For three-plus quarters we did everything well. I feel like we shut down the run and didn't give up any big pass plays until that last one."
Jennings' 50-yard TD is the longest pass play against the Bears all season, and it was the Packers' only play that picked up 20 yards or more in that game. Rodgers, who was sacked four times, had only 184 passing yards, his lowest total of the season and 99 yards less than his average. Green Bay rushed for just 76 yards and averaged only 3.5 yards per try.
"The guys played hard with energy," Smith said. "All the things you want to do going into the game we were able to do — except finish. That's what we need to do this time."
After that game, the Bears were No. 5 in the league in total yards allowed, now they're 15th. They were No. 10 in rushing yards allowed, now they're 25th. They were tied for third after sacking Rodgers four times, but now they're 20th and have had just one game with that many sacks in the previous 11 games. They were tied for No. 8 in third-down efficiency but have plummeted to No. 29.
"We played great defense that first game," said Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. "It just came down to that last big play. We're always going to play the Packers tough. They are definitely on a roll right now. The offense is kicking. They have the best defense in the league. As a team they are playing better, but when it comes to the Packers, man, throw all that out the window."
What did the Bears do better in that first game than they've done in any game since?
"It was a lot of the things we've been struggling to do all year," said Hunter Hillenmeyer, who has filled in at middle linebacker and created a turnover in each of the past two games. "We were great on third downs (the Packers converted only 2 of 14), stopped the big plays and had some pretty sure tackling.
"Obviously we did some good things, but I think in some ways that almost gives them an advantage because they'll know what to adjust, but we don't really know how they're going to attack us this time. They'll certainly try to do some things differently than they did last time."
While probably a case of too little, too late with a 5-7 record and fading playoff prospects, the Bears have gone back to their longtime staple of running the football to try to save Jay Cutler from making even more mistakes in throwing the football. Four of his league-high-tying 20 interceptions came in the Packers' season-opening win at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay would love to keep adding to its season haul of 21 picks (No. 2 in the league), but its ability to stop the run has been as much of a factor in the four-game winning streak, in which teams are averaging a scant 67.3 rushing yards per outing. So, the Packers will welcome a ground-oriented plan of attack from the Bears, with the idea that Chicago ultimately will have to rely on Cutler again and the door will open for Green Bay to blitz, blitz, blitz.
The uncertainty of injured receiver Devin Hester for the game — he didn't practice all week and will be a game-time decision — could create a scenario in which Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who has been blanketing the opponent's top wideout the last two games, reverts back to a desirable freelance role in the secondary and sticks with tight end Greg Olsen, as occurred to Green Bay's advantage in Week 1.
On offense, the cold, windy conditions along Chicago's lakefront won't deter coach Mike McCarthy from throwing the football from the outset. The Bears aren't good playing the run, giving up an average of 126.4 yards per game, but Ryan Grant has been held to 61 yards each of the last two outings against Chicago.
Key to the success of the Green Bay offense, which has spun its wheels too often on early downs, will be how the Bears handle quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the money down. Rodgers leads the league for passer rating (132.0), completions (85), yards (1,223) and touchdowns (11) with no interceptions on third down. The Bears are No. 4 in the league for being generous in third-down situations — opponents are converting at a clip of 42.9 percent — but they changed their tune in Sunday's win over the St. Louis Rams, who were only 2-of-14.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.