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NFL Preview - Chicago (11-4) at Green Bay (9-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Chicago Bears know they'll be playing again after this Sunday's trip to historic Lambeau Field, and that it won't be next week. The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, have an opportunity to extend their season when the playoff hopefuls participate in one of the most pivotal contests on the Week 17 schedule.
The Packers can earn a second straight postseason trip with a victory over the NFC North champion Bears, which would give Green Bay the sixth and final seed for the conference tournament and a date at NFC East titleholder Philadelphia in next weekend's Wild Card Round. However, a loss on Sunday would require the Pack to get help from a couple of teams in order to advance.
If Green Bay comes up short in the regular-season finale, it needs both the New York Giants and Tampa Bay to suffer Week 17 defeats to make the playoffs. The Giants are at Washington on Sunday, while the Buccaneers visit postseason-bound New Orleans.
The New Orleans/Tampa Bay game will also have a bearing on Chicago's status, as a Buccaneers victory and a loss by current NFC front-runner Atlanta to doormat Carolina would give the Bears the conference's top overall seed and home-field advantage up until the Super Bowl.
Chicago has already clinched a first-round bye as one of the top two seeds by virtue of Philadelphia's upset loss to Minnesota on Tuesday.
The Bears will know their fate prior to kickoff, as both the Falcons and Saints will be competing during the early portion of Sunday's docket.
If Chicago is locked into the No. 2 position heading into the game, that would present the chance for the team to hold out a number of valued starters in preparation for the playoffs. However, head coach Lovie Smith has steadfastly stated during the week that the Bears will approach this matchup strictly with the intent to win
Chicago has done plenty of that during a turnaround campaign that has produced the organization's first NFC North crown and postseason invitation since 2006. The Bears improvement to 11-4 on the season with last week's hard-fought 38-34 triumph over the New York Jets, giving Smith's charges victories in seven of their past eight tilts.
The Packers have been less consistent over the course of the season's second half, but they've really turned it on of late. After giving AFC leader New England all it could handle in a four-point road loss behind backup quarterback Matt Flynn in Week 15, Green Bay regained control of its own destiny with a 45-17 throttling of the Giants this past Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Regular triggerman Aaron Rodgers returned from a concussion that caused him to miss the New England game and engineered an offensive explosion for the Packers, who hung up a season-best 515 total yards on the bewildered Giants en route to the rout.
Rodgers showed no aftereffects from the layoff, with the standout signal-caller amassing 404 yards and four touchdown passes without a turnover and hitting on a crisp 25-of-37 attempts.
Green Bay, which has prevailed in 10 of its past 11 outings at Lambeau Field dating back to last season, will have some additional incentive for Sunday's showdown. The Packers were dealt a stinging 20-17 defeat by the Bears in Chicago back in Week 3, in which the team squandered an initial 10-point lead and committed a franchise-record 18 penalties totaling 152 yards and had two costly turnovers, including a fumble by wide receiver James Jones in the final minutes that set up the deciding field goal.
Chicago holds a 91-82-6 advantage in the NFL's most-played series, which dates back all the way to the 1921 season, following the above-noted 20-17 comeback win at Soldier Field back in September. The Packers swept the 2009 home-and- home set between the bitter rivals, however, including a 21-15 victory at Lambeau Field in the season opener, and routed the Bears at home by a 37-3 count the previous year. The Bears' most recent win in Wisconsin came in 2007, also the last year Chicago won both season meetings with the Pack.
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 8-5 all-time against the Packers as a head coach, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy owns a 4-5 career record against both Smith and the Bears.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
One reason for Chicago's success has been the evolution of an offense that was a major detriment over the beginning stages of the season but has gradually become a more effective unit. The Bears have both run the ball and protected quarterback Jay Cutler (3106 passing yards, 23 TD, 14 INT) considerably better than in the early going, and the 78 points the team has scored over the past two weeks indicates the progress that has been made. Running back Matt Forte (978 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 9 total TD) has excelled as a dual-threat performer in coordinator Mike Martz's sophisticated attack, while second-year wideout Johnny Knox (51 receptions, 960 yards, 5 TD) has emerged as a big-play weapon as the featured receiver. Knox is averaging nearly 19 yards per catch and connected with Cutler for two long scores against the Jets last week, with Forte adding 169 yards from scrimmage (113 rushing, 56 receiving) and a touchdown in the win. Cutler's done his part as well, having thrown for three scores in each of the past two games, with wide receivers Earl Bennett (46 receptions, 3 TD) and Devin Hester (39 receptions, 4 TD) having also made steady contributions to the passing game. Bennett may sit out on Sunday after tweaking his ankle in last Sunday's test, however.
While the Chicago offense has been generally inconsistent, the Green Bay defense has been rock-solid throughout this entire season. The Packers have yielded a scant 15.8 points per game on the year, the second-fewest in the NFL, and rank third overall in interceptions (22), fifth against the pass (199.3 ypg) and are tied for fifth with 41 sacks. A stellar secondary is headlined by playmaking cornerback Charles Woodson (86 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) and free safety Nick Collins (67 tackles, 3 INT, 11 PD), both of whom were named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster, while corner Tramon Williams (54 tackles, 6 INT, 19 PD) made a case for inclusion as well by turning in an excellent season opposite Woodson. Also headed to Honolulu is outside linebacker Clay Matthews (58 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 1 INT), one of the game's premier pass rushers, while inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (97 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and nose tackle B.J. Raji (38 tackles, 6.5 sacks) anchor a run defense that held Forte to a paltry 29 yards on 11 carries in the teams' first meeting. Green Bay is expected to be without valued end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks) for a fourth straight week due to a calf strain, but is hopeful rookie linebacker Frank Zombo (38 tackles, 4 sacks) can come back from a knee sprain that's cost him the last two games.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay's potent offense was in top form during last Sunday's shellacking of the Giants, with Rodgers (3693 passing yards, 27 TD, 10 INT) slicing up a New York secondary with pinpoint accuracy and wideouts Greg Jennings (72 receptions, 1168 yards, 12 TD) and Jordy Nelson (43 receptions, 2 TD) combining for a whopping 266 receiving yards on 11 catches, with the latter hooking up with Rodgers for an 80-yard score. The Packers stand fifth in the league in passing yards (260.0 ypg) and sport four quality receivers in Jennings, Nelson, Jones (49 receptions, 5 TD) and reliable vet Donald Driver (46 receptions, 4 TD), but haven't been nearly as efficient running the ball. Top back Brandon Jackson (684 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 4 total TD) is averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry and mustered a mere 12 yards on seven totes against the stingy Bears in Week 3, but has made an impact as a capable outlet for Rodgers as a receiver. Rodgers, who threw for 316 yards in the last matchup with Chicago, wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl in spite of his outstanding numbers, but the dangerous Jennings and left tackle Chad Clifton did earn citations.
The Packers won't be the only team fielding a top-notch defense in this clash. Chicago has been tremendous on that side of the ball as well, ranking fourth in the league in points allowed (18.4 ppg) and limiting the opposition to a meager 92.1 rushing yards per game (3rd overall). Stalwart middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (120 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and weakside starter Lance Briggs (80 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) spearhead the team's run-stopping efforts and get ample support up front from free-agent pickup Julius Peppers (50 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT), who's been an unblockable force from his end spot in his first season in the Windy City. All three were chosen to this year's Pro Bowl squad. Peppers and fellow end Israel Idonije (47 tackles, 8 sacks) also give the Bears two productive pass rushers that provide aid to a secondary that's come up with 20 interceptions thus far. Safety Chris Harris (65 tackles, 5 INT) has been the club's best ball-hawk, with all of his five interceptions coming in the last eight games, and the ex-Panther can be an asset against the run as well. Chicago has compiled 33 takeaways for the season, tied for second-most in the NFC.
Since the Packers have considerably more riding on this game, the best sources of points figure to come from their players. Rodgers gets a thumbs-up after last week's prolific display and Jennings is a weekly lock in fantasy lineups, though the depth of the receiving corps makes the remainder of the lot less desirable choices. Jackson's a reasonable option as Green Bay's primary ball- carrier, however, and the Packers defense rates as a sound selection as well. Chicago's stop unit is normally a recommended play, but a matchup with a high- scoring offense and the possibility of Smith resting some starters assigns more uncertainty to the group than usual. That same method of thinking should apply to Forte and Knox, both of whom could be in danger of having their snaps reduced due to the circumstances. The unpredictable Cutler can be a risky proposition regardless of the situation, so it may be best to look elsewhere for a quarterback.
Although the Bears hold the title of NFC North champions, the Packers may rank as the better team in the public eye and come into this game with three distinct advantages. First off, they're essentially in do-or-die mode, whereas Chicago can treat this matchup as more of a tune-up for the bigger prizes that lie ahead. Secondly, Green Bay has been sensational on its home turf, having averaged over 33 points at Lambeau this season and posting four of its six victories there by double-digit margins. The final x-factor is Rodgers, the more dynamic and consistent of the two quarterback combatants who can utilize his surrounding talent and will his team to a win it absolutely has to have.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 34, Bears 20
12/30 18:49:07 ET
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