After three weeks of the season, I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing what kind of team the Bears are, or if they’re a serious playoff contender. But we could get a better idea of that when they take on the division rival Green Bay Packers on Sunday, who make their first trip back to Chicago to the scene of last year’s disappointing season finale.
The Bears are in a great position to separate themselves from the Packers in the division race. At 2-1, the Bears can put themselves up by two games in the division if they can walk away on Sunday with a win.
Divisional games are of the utmost importance and the Bears have struggled against the Packers throughout Jay Cutler‘s run as Bears quarterback. In fairness to Cutler, he only had a couple awful games. The rest of the time, the Packers were simply a better football team. The talent surrounding Cutler on offense has gotten significantly better.
The power in the NFC North could be shifting now. The Packers have a shaky offensive line, a stagnant run game, and a subpar defense. While the Packers are seemingly on the decline, the Bears look to be improving from last season.
Through three games, Cutler has thrown eight touchdowns and just two interceptions with a 98.2 passer rating. All this coming while star receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have been hampered by injuries. Whereas the passing attack seems to be clicking, the Bears run game has been nonexistent. The Bears are ranked dead last in the NFL with an average of 64 rushing yards per game. They just may get some relief this week against a Packers run defense ranked 30th in the NFL, allowing 156.3 yards per game on the ground.
Sunday marks the return to Soldier Field of former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, who has been playing outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme. Contrary to Peppers’ opinion, he was released by the Bears in the offseason in a cost-cutting move because Peppers just wasn’t contributing enough. With the Packers, he hasn’t been spectacular but he has shown a renewed sense of energy in his new environment. Peppers had a sack and a forced fumble in last week’s loss to the Lions.
Meanwhile, Peppers’ replacement with the Bears — Jared Allen — has improved each week this season, but has yet to record a sack and has some questioning how much he has left in the tank. Allen is quite familiar with Aaron Rodgers, having played against him twice a year while with the Minnesota Vikings. Allen will have quite the responsibility on Sunday applying pressure on Rodgers and yet not losing containment, allowing Rodgers to escape the pocket and make plays on the run, something he’s so deadly at doing.
Bears rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller, who is off to a great start this season, will get his first real test of the year, in my opinion. The Bills’ E.J. Manuel, the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, and the Jets’ Geno Smith were hardly prolific passers. With one of the best quarterbacks in the game slinging passes, Fuller will be put to the test.
If the Bears can somehow keep Rodgers in check, they need to prove that they can stop Packers running back Eddie Lacy, who, like the Bears’ Matt Forte, is off to a rocky start this season. In two games last season, Lacy rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries against the Bears. The Bears look as though they’ve improved a little bit from last year at defending the run, but much improvement remains. At the very least, they need to maintain their responsibilities to prevent the broken play that results in big gains.
Injuries are a source for concern again this week for the Bears. Starting offensive linemen Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson are out again, as are defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, linebacker Shea McClellin, and special teams ace Sherrick McManis. The biggest injury concerns, though, are with Marshall, Allen, and starting safeties Ryan Mundy and Chris Conte.
I’m among those who are not quite ready to write off the Packers. For starters, as long as Rodgers is taking snaps for this team, they’re going to be competitive week in and week out. And I know that while the Bears have made strides toward defensive improvement, there are still areas of concern, primarily rushing the passer and defending the run. But with the Packers’ problems on defense, this game could turn into a shootout.
It may be wishful thinking on my part, which I try to avoid in an effort to objectively analyze matchups, but I think this is a game the Bears can and will win. Turnovers and penalties are a difficult metric to predict, but if the Bears win those battles, I think they’ll come out on top. They have homefield advantage, they have the better overall skill position players on offense, and they’ve been playing better thus far this season. It’ll be close, but I think the Bears pull off a big divisional win.
Prediction: Chicago 30, Green Bay 27