A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Packers on Dec. 25, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Packers defense
At quarterback, Jay Cutler is out and Caleb Hanie is bad. In the backfield, Matt Forte is out and Marion Barber is doubtful with a calf injury. The Bears are down to their third-string quarterback and running back in Josh McCown and Kahlil Bell, respectively. The conversation can really start and end right there because there is no way that the best team in football loses a prime time game at home to an offense led by McCown and Bell. Nevermind that the offensive line is bad and the receivers are above average with Cutler but without him stink like moldy Wisconsin cheese. If a team can’t run the football and doesn’t have a quarterback who can throw it, forget about it. They’d have to have the best defense in league history to even sustain a chance at winning. But given the talent that the Packers have on offense — easily the best offense since the 2007 Patriots and in the same conversation as the 1999 Rams — it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Bears defense holds the Packers in the teens on the scoreboard. Heavy snowfall, maybe? Sadly, this is a game the Bears could have won if healthy. The Packers do not have a good defense this year and are clinging to the offense’s coattails. Green Bay has the second-worst pass defense in the league and would probably be the worst if not for the Patriots’ abnormally bad unit. They’re ranked 12th against the run which means any hope of Bell busting out for a big performance is all but bleak. The Packers will come out in their familiar 3-4 defense featuring behemoth nose tackle B.J. Raji. Fortunately, defensive end Ryan Pickett is out for the game with concussion symptoms. C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn are the only healthy ends on the depth chart. The Packers have a strong linebacker corps with Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Frank Zombo and Desmond Bishop, who is returning from a calf strain. Rookie D.J. Smith had been getting playing time in his stead. The Packers secondary, normally strong, has been getting eaten alive this year. Veteran Charles Woodson anchors the unit at cornerback opposite Sam Shields. Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah line up at safety. Although giving up large chunks of yards, the Packers lead the league — and by a wide margin — with 27 interceptions.
Bears defense vs. Packers offense
What more can fans ask for from the Bears’ strained defense than what they have shown in the last four games? They contained the Raiders offense, holding them to field goals while keeping them out of the end zone until they broke down late in the game. They handled the Chiefs for four quarters and held them to 10 points but couldn’t get any help from their offense. They smothered Tim Tebow and the Broncos’ league-leading rushing attack for three and a half quarters until getting fatigued late in the fourth quarter. Even still, they held Denver to just 13 points, fewer points than the league’s leading defense allows on average per game. And they stopped the Seahawks for a half before the offense gave up two pick-sixes and the defense mailed it in. Football is a three-phase game and the Bears enter each week handicapped. So, I ask all of the naysayers out there who are nitpicking the defense’s performance each week, “how much better do you want them to play?” They are playing good football as of late. Sure, they’re making mistakes here and there but you’d be foolish not to recognize that every defense in the league makes mistakes. Unfortunately, this is where they meet their match. The Achilles heel of the defense is defending the pass and Aaron Rodgers will pick them apart this week. Even without his top offensive weapon, Greg Jennings, who is sidelined with a knee injury, the Packers have more than enough talented playmakers to whom Rodgers can throw the ball. Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and rookie Randall Cobb. Not to mention, tight end Jermichael Finley. They put the Bears receiving corps to shame. Running back James Starks has been battling a knee injury but he is listed as probable for the game. The strength of this offense is clearly in the passing game, but they have enough of a run game to at least keep the Bears defense honest. The one area in which the Bears can look to gain an advantage is along the offensive line, where the Packers are without their starting tackles, Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga. Can the Bears attack the edges and collapse the pocket on Rodgers? That remains to be seen.
I can’t even definitively say that the Bears have the edge on special teams given how well Cobb has returned kicks and punts for the Packers this year. Hester is better, of course, but it’s up to the Bears coverage units to prevent any big returns. Besides, Hester is listed as questionable on the injury report with an ankle injury. Johnny Knox is out for the season, so that leaves whom? Rookie running back Armando Allen to return kickoffs and Earl Bennett to return punts? That inspires fear … for Bears fans, maybe. Bell filled in as a kickoff returner last week, but with him being the primary running back, they’re not going to risk him to injury. Robbie Gould and Adam Podlesh will have to play solid roles to dictate field position in this one. The Packers counter that with kicker Mason Crosby, who has converted on 88% of his field goals this year with a long of 58 yards, and punter Tim Masthay, who ranks 22nd in the league with a 38-yard net punting average.
I bet both the NFL and NBC executives are banging their heads against the walls and on the tables about a missed opportunity in this one. Instead of airing the best rivalry in the NFL in prime time on Christmas night between an undefeated Packers team and a red-hot Bears team breathing down their necks, America will see the NFL’s best one-loss team against one filled with scrubs due to the Chiefs’ improbable upset last week and Cutler and Forte’s injuries a month ago. I know that we’ve seen strange things happen over the last several years and we’ve learned to expect the unexpected in this topsy-turvy league year after year, but a Bears upset here is almost unfathomable. Rather than try to figure out a way the Bears can win this game, most of us are scratching our heads trying to decide whether we want to spend precious family time watching a national embarrassment unfold while the Bears coaching staff is trying to find a way to save face and keep its team competitive. The Packers have homefield advantage and have been relieved of the pressure of trying to obtain a perfect season. Fresh off their loss last week to the Chiefs, they’re less cocky and more inclined to focus and summarily finish off their rivals. Show me a path to victory for the Bears and I’ll show you one that leads to the nuthouse. Merry Christmas. Enjoy the holiday with your family.
Final Score: Green Bay 27, Chicago 13