Bears offense vs. Packers defense
One of the best things the Bears have going for them as of late is their team balance. When one phase has been down, the other two have been good and have made up the difference in performance. Lately, the defense has been a tad alarming while allowing high scores and a lot of yardage whereas the offense has been putting up big numbers. The Bears are expected to play their starters this week in what should amount to a meaningless game after the noon games commence. How long and to what extent they play remains to be seen. Jay Cutler has been solid since the bye week and has played particularly well in the past month of the season. Last week against the Jets he completed 13 of 25 passes for 215 yards and three touchdown passes and had a nearly-flawless third quarter. The Bears are not asking him to do too much, which had been a problem last year when they acquired him in a trade with the Broncos. They’re putting greater emphasis on the run game and that is serving them well. Over the last eight games, the Bears are the only team to run the ball more than pass, which is a far cry from what the game plan was to open the season. Matt Forte rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against the Jets. Forte is now averaging 4.4 yards per carry, a more-than-respectable average that surpasses other backs like Atlanta’s Michael Turner, Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, Baltimore’s Ray Rice, and the Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. That says a lot for how much offensive line coach Mike Tice has improved his line’s play. Forte’s also doing great things in the passing game with 43 receptions for 487 yards. He needs just 22 rushing yards and 13 receiving yards to finish with 1,000 and 500, respectively, for the season. He’s expected to get that early against the Packers — at least the rushing yards — but I’d expect to see a lot more of Chester Taylor in this game so as not to expose Forte to unnecessary injury in a meaningless game. Wide receiver Earl Bennett is likely to sit out with an ankle injury. The Packers bring one of the best defenses in the league, which also ranks No. 2 in scoring while allowing just 15.8 points per game. The Packers’ 22 interceptions rank third in the NFL and their pass defense is ranked fifth overall. The one area in which they have not been good is stopping the run. They rank 19th in that department and are yielding 115.2 yards per game on the ground. The Packers operate out of a 3-4 defense and are solid on all three levels of the defense, even with all the injuries they’ve sustained. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins is out for this game with a calf injury but the Packers still feature two other beasts on the line in end Ryan Pickett and tackle B.J. Raji. The Packers have suffered many injuries to their linebacking corps throughout the year. What once featured Clay Matthews, Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, A.J. Hawk, and Brady Poppinga has been reduced to Matthews, Hawk, Desmond Bishop and Diyral Briggs. Even Frank Zombo, a backup outside linebacker who has done a good job all season while filling in due to injury, will not play in this game with a knee injury. The secondary is solid featuring a pair of Pro Bowlers in safety Nick Collins and cornerback Charles Woodson. Tramon Williams has been having a good season at the other cornerback spot and Charlie Peprah is filling in at strong safety.
Bears defense vs. Packers offense
Three Bears defenders were selected to the Pro Bowl this year and all deserved to be there thanks to their contribution to the team. If not for the play of Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Brian Urlacher the Bears would not be 11-4, NFC North division champions or the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Peppers is receiving consideration for NFL defensive player of the year for the way he’s changing games. He’s recorded 50 tackles, eight sacks, 11 pass defenses, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Those numbers would be even higher if he received some help from his interior linemates. Peppers has been fighting constant double teams all season because of it, although that’s nothing new to him. The health of the linebacking corps has been a major reason why the Bears are ranked No. 3 against the run this year. The Bears have great team speed, specifically at the linebacker position, and are able to penetrate gaps, play sideline to sideline and quickly diagnose and react to run plays. The Bears were at their best against the run with a healthy Pisa Tinoisamoa, who is battling a knee injury. He had full participation in practice this week, but it might make sense to give him two weeks of rest until the Bears play in the divisional round of the playoffs. The secondary has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise this season, although it’s not without its flaws. Tim Jennings was inserted into the lineup earlier this season because Zack Bowman was not performing at the level the Bears coaching staff had expected and Jennings has done an admirable job. He may be small in size, but he helps in the run game and hasn’t been exposed on any major broken plays — he’s given up some plays, but nothing back-breaking. Charles Tillman has been having a good season. He is still adept at punching the ball loose and can compete with physical receivers. The fact that a lot of slant passes are caught in front of him has more to do with the defensive system than how he plays. The biggest reason the Bears have been consistent on defense this season is that they’ve been starting the same safeties all season for the first time in several years. During the Mike Brown era and shortly after that, the Bears had been shuffling around safeties so much that it was difficult to get into a rhythm. Danieal Manning and Chris Harris, while not spectacular, have been dependable. There have been a few broken plays, but nothing consistent that would hinder this team’s chances of making a long playoff run. The Packer offense is a good one. Although I’m not outraged like some, I am surprised that Aaron Rodgers did not make the Pro Bowl this year. He’s got great accuracy and mobility and that’s why I don’t like this matchup for the Bears defense. Unless the Bears generate consistent pressure against him, he’s going to pick apart the defense. He’s been without his top weapon — tight end Jermichael Finley — for most of the season and yet he still spreads the ball around to so many different receivers. Greg Jennings (72 receptions) and Donald Driver (46) are his top receivers, although No. 3 receiver, James Jones, has three more receptions than Driver. Fourth receiver Jordy Nelson is solid, too, and has 43 receptions on the season. The Bears could have trouble containing all the options that Rodgers has at his disposal. As for the offensive line, it has been up and down for most of the season. Sometimes they protect Rodgers awfully well, and other times they’re like swiss cheese. Against the Bears earlier this season, the Packers committed 18 penalties, many of those were holding and false starts due to the presence of Peppers.
I read online this week that the Packers have devised some big plan for stopping Devin Hester, but they’ve been silent about it as if it’s some top secret war document at the Pentagon. If it’s new and revolutionary, I’m just dying to see it. Otherwise, they’re just blowing smoke up our hind parts. There are two methods to deal with Hester: either punt it into the stands so that you don’t risk a punt not making it to the sideline and allowing Hester to field it, or you kick it as high as you can and tell your coverage team to get down the field and make a play. The Packers’ special teams have been bad this season, so they had better choose Option A. The Packers have used two kick returners this season in Jordy Nelson and Sam Shields. Shields is the more explosive of the two, but they’ve recorded remarkably similar numbers. Nelson has returned 22 kicks for a 22.5 average whereas Shields has returned 21 kicks for a 21.5 average. Hester leads the league with a 35.6 average. Advantage, Windy City Flyer. Tramon Williams returns punts for the Packers but hasn’t been very good at it, averaging just 7.7 yards per return. Hester leads the league with 17.1 yards per return and has three touchdowns. Again, advantage, Mr. Ridiculous. Robbie Gould has converted on 83% of his kicks while his Green Bay counterpart, Mason Crosby, has made 78%. Gould is having a great year on kickoffs, too, and has 16 touchbacks compared to Crosby’s three. Packers punter Tim Masthay opened the floodgates that allowed Hester to return to prominence with a punt return touchdown in Week 3. But Masthay has steadily improved over the course of the season. He has a slightly better net average but is not as accurate as Brad Maynard. With coverage teams thrown in, the Bears have a huge special teams advantage.
We’ll know by kickoff if the Bears are playing for the first seed in the playoffs or not. However, the chances of the Saints losing at home to the Buccaneers and the Falcons losing at home to the Panthers are extremely slim. So, it’s likely that the Bears will be doing nothing else but trying to win a football game against their division rival to sweep divisional play for the season and end the regular season on a high note. If things don’t go well for the team early in the game, Lovie Smith might consider pulling his stars. The last thing the Bears would need is an injury to a key player considering their health has been one of the biggest factors to their success this season. On the opposite sideline, this game means everything to the Packers. While they still could make the playoffs if they lose — the Giants would have to lose to the Redskins and the Buccaneers would have to lose to the Saints — they don’t exactly want to back their way into the playoffs. Plus, the Packers aren’t exactly pleased with the way they lost to the Bears earlier this season when an abnormal number of penalties ruined what was a pretty good performance from them. During the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have not been a very good team in close games. They are 2-14 since the start of 2008 in games decided by four points or less. That is not the sign of a good team, and it doesn’t bode well for the playoffs. Fortunately for them, I don’t think this game will be decided by four points or less. We don’t know how the Bears would fare against the Packers if both teams faced a win-or-go-home scenario, but I would still give the edge to Green Bay if that were the case. Since the Bears have nothing to play for, I’m even less convinced they’ll come out with any sense of urgency and upset the Packers at Lambeau Field. I think we’ll see Green Bay’s best in a must-win game and Rodgers will lead his team to a big victory.
Final Score: Green Bay 27, Chicago 17