NFL Preview - Green Bay (8-4) at Chicago (5-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Chicago Bears have not defeated many quality opponents in 2009, but have stayed out of the NFL's sub-basement by feasting on some of the bad ones.
Inasmuch, beating the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on Sunday would prevent the Bears from having to admit that their hated NFC North rivals are indeed a good team.
The only three wins for Lovie Smith's club over the past two months have come against three opponents - the Lions, Browns, and Rams - who will head into Week 13 a combined 4-32 (.111). The Bears' 17-9 home win over St. Louis last Sunday was not exactly a thing of beauty, as the Rams remained in the game until late, though at least the beleaguered defense and running game were able to restore some much-needed confidence.
A Bears defense that had been feeling the strain in recent weeks limited the Rams to three field goals, and St. Louis had just one scoring drive on the day of any significant length. Chicago sacked Rams QB Kyle Boller three times, intercepted him once, and allowed him to accrue just 113 yards through the air all afternoon.
Meanwhile, what had been the NFL's lowest-ranked rushing attack took a step forward, as Matt Forte' (24 carries, 91 yards, 1 TD) and Kahlil Bell (11 carries, 35 yards) combined for 126 ground yards on a day in which Jay Cutler completed just 8-of-17 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
In all, there weren't a lot of highlight-reel moments in what was something far less than a signature win for the Bears at chilly Soldier Field, but the team wasn't about to apologize for the victory either.
Meanwhile, the next night, the Bears were forced to look on in nausea as Green Bay finished off a four-game winning streak with a 27-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at chilly Lambeau Field. The victory kept the Packers in line for the first postseason berth of the Aaron Rodgers era, and also furthered the notion that this is not the same dysfunctional team that started 4-4.
Rodgers continued an outstanding recent run of success by completing 26-of-40 passes for 263 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which was batted up in the air by wideout Donald Driver, and was not Rodgers' fault), and keeping Green Bay together after the Ravens had cut the Packers' lead from 17-0 to 17-14.
Baltimore had major trouble getting Rodgers and the Packers off the field for much of the night, as Green Bay boasted a 35:22 to 24:38 edge in time of possession. Rodgers, who was sacked only once, kept a number of plays alive with his feet and ended the game with 30 key yards worth of scrambles.
Meanwhile, a defense that had some trouble with penalties made up for it by harassing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco into three interceptions, none bigger than cornerback Tramon Williams' fourth-quarter pick in the end zone. At the time, the Ravens were down 24-14 but had 2nd-and-goal and looked to be on the verge of tightening the contest.
In addition to Williams, safety Nick Collins (one INT, one fumble recovery) and rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews (six tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble) were among the defensive stars.
McCarthy and company will have to carry those good feelings onto the road, as Green Bay will play at difficult venues in Chicago (12/13), Pittsburgh (12/20), and Arizona (1/3) over the next four weeks.
Chicago holds a 90-81-6 advantage in the NFL's most-played series, which dates back to the 1921 season, but was a 21-15 road loser when the teams met in Week 1. The clubs embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last season, with the Packers coming up 37-3 winners at Lambeau Field in Week 11, and the Bears returning the favor with a 20-17 overtime win at Soldier Field in Week 16. The Packers are 0-2 in Chicago since last winning there in 2006.
For all their storied history together, the teams have met just once in the postseason, a 33-14 Bears victory in a 1941 NFL Playoff.
Smith is 7-4 versus the Packers as a head coach, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 3-4 against both Smith and Chicago as a head man.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
After taking his share of criticism during the Packers' 4-4 start for holding onto the football too long and taking too many sacks, few are criticizing Rodgers (3399 passing yards, 25 TD, 7 INT) now. The former first-rounder has made a strong bid for his first career Pro Bowl appearance, throwing nine interceptions to just two picks during the club's four-game win streak, and never posting a passer rating lower than 87.8 or completion percentage worse than 65.0 over that span. That said, Rodgers' lowest passing total of the season came in Week 1 against the Bears, when he finished with 184 aerial yards. Five different Green Bay targets have caught more than 25 passes this year, with wideouts Driver (56 receptions, 6 TD) and Greg Jennings (53 receptions, 3 TD) the names most frequently mentioned but tight end Jermichael Finley (34 receptions, 3 TD) and third receiver James Jones (26 receptions, 4 TD) also worth accounting for. The second-year-pro Finley had seven catches for 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Baltimore on Monday night. The Packer running game has struggled of late, with Ryan Grant (931 rushing yards, 5 TD, 23 receptions) going over 100 yards just once in his last six games, and being held to a scant 41 yards on 18 carries against the Ravens on Monday. The Packers continue to lead the league in sacks allowed (45), though Rodgers has been dragged down just four times in his last three games combined.
The Bears were able to stay in the game with the Packers in Week 1 due in large part to the abilities of the pass rush, in particular the work of defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (35 tackles, 6 sacks) against since-deposed Green Bay tackle Allen Barbre. Ogunleye has not kept up that pace, notching only 1.5 sacks in his last eight games, though he did have one of the Bears' three sacks of Boller last week. The biggest matchup problem for Chicago will likely come within a struggling secondary, where cornerbacks Charles Tillman (59 tackles, 2 INT), Zack Bowman (50 tackles, 4 INT), and safeties Kevin Payne (35 tackles) and Al Afalava (44 tackles, 2 sacks) will all have a hand in stopping the Packers' many targets. That unit couldn't have had things much easier than it did against the Rams' nondescript receiving corps last week, and St. Louis wide receivers finished with just seven catches for 68 yards in the contest. A porous Bears run-stopping group that ranks just 25th in NFL rushing defense (126.4 yards per game) could be in trouble if linebackers Lance Briggs (83 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (55 tackles, 1 INT) are unable to shake off injuries and suit up. Briggs missed the St. Louis game with a knee problem while Hillenmeyer - who sealed the game with an interception of Boller last week - is a question mark due to a groin problem.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
In a sense, Cutler's performance against the Packers back in Week 1 was an early indication of how his season would go. Cutler (2814 passing yards, 17 TD, 20 INT) completed just 17-of-36 passes for 277 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions in that loss, the first of five multi-pick games for the former first-round draft choice this season. Cutler has thrown just three interceptions in the three outings since his five-pick meltdown against the 49ers on Nov. 12th, but has also come in under 200 passing yards in all three games and appears to be suffering from a lack of confidence in throwing the ball down the field. Cutler's most notable target in last week's win was Earl Bennett (45 receptions, 1 TD), who caught the QB's lone touchdown pass of the day and also had a 71-yard grab in the game. Devin Hester (54 receptions, 3 TD), the team leader in receiving yards (682), is questionable for Sunday after battling a calf injury in last week's contest, while formerly trusty tight end Greg Olsen (49 receptions, 6 TD) was shut down to the tune of two catches for one yard last Sunday. Olsen had just one catch against Green Bay in Week 1. The Bears moved into 31st place in NFL rushing offense (88 yards per game), just ahead of the Colts, thanks to the efforts of Forte' (634 rushing yards, 4 TD, 47 receptions) and Bell (116 rushing yards) last week.
Cutler and company figure to have their hands full against an ascending Packers defense that ranks No. 1 in NFL turnover margin (+18), total defense (273.5 yards per game), and opponents' completion percentage (52.3). The playmaking secondary, led by cornerbacks Charles Woodson (58 tackles, 7 INT, 2 sacks) along with Week 13 heroes Williams (34 tackles, 3 INT) and Collins (37 tackles, 5 INT, 1 sack), should be of particular attention to the quarterback. Helping the secondary will be a pass rush that has played well despite the recent absence of mainstay Aaron Kampman (knee). Matthews (35 tackles, 7 sacks), the promising first-round rookie, was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after notching his second two-sack game of the year against the Ravens. The Packers limited Baltimore running back Ray Rice to just 54 yards on 14 carries Monday night, but the front seven does have some injury concerns as it heads to Chicago. Both linebacker Nick Barnett (knee) and defensive end Ryan Pickett (hamstring) are regarded as questionable for Sunday, and their absence would place more strain on rookie nose tackle B.J. Raji (17 tackles, 1 sack) and the defensive line, as well as inside linebacker A.J. Hawk (67 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). The Packers are fourth in the league against the run (87.2 yards per game).
Though he doesn't have the same reputation as a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees, the Packers' Rodgers has become an ultra-reliable fantasy quarterback as he always puts up numbers and rarely turns the ball over. There isn't one Green Bay target you can necessarily count on to give you huge numbers each week, but Driver and Jennings belong in fantasy lineups, and Finley has become an attractive tight end option. A Green Bay defense that has ratcheted up the playmaking of late merits a start, especially against the turnover-laden Bears. Packers kicker Mason Crosby has been inconsistent and is more of a backup at this point.
On the Chicago side, reliability goes begging from a fantasy standpoint. Cutler and Forte' have sunk fantasy teams from coast to coast, and even the formerly reliable Hester and Olsen have started to slide. Bears kicker Robbie Gould has an accurate leg and has posted a trio of 12-point games this year, but you don't want to be starting a kicker playing at Soldier Field in December.
There should be little to dispute that the Packers are a better team than the Bears at this point, as Green Bay has been more consistent in just about every aspect of play than has Chicago. But division rivalries can be a funny thing, and a Bears team that has often looked lethargic should pull out one of their best efforts of the year at home against the hated Pack, who follow a physical Monday night game with a short-week road trip. Ultimately, the game will probably come down to the error-prone Cutler making one more mistake than the protective Rodgers, but look for the result to be in doubt until late in the fourth quarter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 24, Bears 17
12/10 13:01:11 ET