The teams: The Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) vs. the Chicago Bears (8-7).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: Soldier Field, Chicago.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 87-49-1 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Chicago's Marc Trestman is 8-7 in his first season as coach of the Bears and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Bears lead the all-time regular-season series, 92-87-6, including the teams' Nov. 4 meeting at Lambeau Field, 27-20. The Packers still have won eight of the last 10 meetings, however.
The rankings: The Packers' fourth-ranked offense is No. 7 in rushing and No. 7 in passing. Their 26th-ranked defense is No. 26 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Bears' eighth-ranked offense is No. 18 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 29th-ranked defense is No. 32 against the run and No. 14 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 3 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: OLB Clay Matthews (thumb). Questionable: WR Randall Cobb (leg). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (ankle), RB Eddie Lacy (ankle), TE Ryan Taylor (illness), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), LB Nick Perry (foot), DT Ryan Pickett (knee), TE Andrew Quarless (ankle), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone), TE Jake Stoneburner (illness).
Bears – Questionable: WR Earl Bennett (not injury related). Probable: LB Lance Briggs (shoulder).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Rustoleum endorsement: Rodgers can hear it now. If he's off-target on a few early throws or – gasp! – throws a rare interception, he knows what the reason will be: Rust, from the longest layoff of his career as a starter at any level.
He insists it won't be an issue. But he might be wrong.
"I'm sure if I miss a pass, that it's because I'm rusty, or if I hit one it's going to be a big deal or something," Rodgers said. "But it's about preparation for me and going through the practice reps like I did today and tomorrow, and getting ready to play."
Although Rodgers rode the pine for three seasons behind Brett Favre from 2005 through 2007, he's never been out of commission as a starter in high school, junior college, college or pro football for as long as he has been since fracturing his collarbone Nov. 4. It's been seven weeks and six days since the Bears' Shea McClellin drove him shoulder-first into the Lambeau Field turf, and at the time, he had completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions (108.0 rating) in seven games plus one offensive series in Game 8.
Asked if he would be thinking about the collarbone when he returns to action, Rodgers quoted the great philosopher Kobe Bryant, who returned from a ruptured Achilles' tendon and then suffered a knee injury a few weeks later.
"I read a great quote by Kobe, actually, recently. He was talking about his injury and how when you're injured it heightens kind of your awareness of that injury. But when you get back on the court or the field, it's all about performing and trying to block that out," Rodgers said of the Los Angeles Lakers star. "I think that's the easy part when you're out there. It's easy to talk about it with you guys and understand the risks. But when you're out on the field, it's about performing and playing and not worrying about it."
One thing McCarthy made clear: He won't be calling a bunch of three-step drops and handoffs to Lacy all game long for fear of protecting Rodgers from harm. If Rodgers is going to play, which he is, then he's going to do what he does.
"It's a lot like going to the restaurant. You have a menu. You decide what you want to use and what you probably shouldn't use. That's a meeting that goes on Friday morning between Aaron and myself," McCarthy explained. "You have to trust your plan, trust the process and we definitely trust Aaron Rodgers.
"If we were thinking that way, the decision wouldn't be what it is. The decision's been made. Obviously it was a thorough one. And it's time for Aaron to play. We're going to cut him loose and we're going to go play. We're going to play to win."
Protection racket: McCarthy and the players can talk until the cows come home about how the game plan isn't going to change with Rodgers' collarbone still not 100 percent healed, and maybe that's true. But the fact remains that no quarterback in the NFL had been sacked more times from 2009 through the midpoint of the 2013 season than Rodgers, and his injury occurred during the last of the 18 sacks he's absorbed this season. While the goal each week is to protect The Franchise, that responsibility is heightened this week for the offensive linemen and running backs/tight ends.
"No question. There's definitely an added urgency to keeping Aaron clean in the pocket. There's no question," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "I don't think we need to coach our guys any differently – their responsibilities or who they have, that's all game-planned during the week and prepped on their part – but I'm sure they're feeling a little more pressure to keep him clean, which is understandable, obviously. But at the same time, I'm sure that Aaron's going to get hit, he's going to get knocked down at some point. That's just the way the football game goes. But those guys I'm sure have a little added urgency to keeping him clean."
The Bears are dead last in the NFL in sacks at 28, but veteran defensive end Julius Peppers still has 6.5 sacks on the season. Tasked with blocking the eight-time Pro Bowl pick (although not this year, of course) will be rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who's essentially had one bad game all season (at Detroit on Thanksgiving, and he was hardly alone that day) since assuming the role after veteran Bryan Bulaga's season-ending knee injury in training acmp.
"Those times, I really didn't care. Now, I do," Bakhtiari joked about protecting Rodgers. "It's kind of status quo. I still have to do my job. I guess there's just more riding on it if I don't. Aaron's a tough guy. Our goal going into every week is, we want to keep him clean. That's always the mindset.
"We're going out there to win a game. We've got the face of our franchise back. It's going to be fun. (But) everyone gets paid to do what they're supposed to do. Regardless of who's behind me or who I'm protecting, I've got to do what I'm supposed to do. I still have to do my job. Of course there's an idea, an awareness, a sense of urgency, but there's always been a sense of urgency. Now, you just add another layer to the reasons why. That's the biggest thing. There's another reason why I have to do my job."
Big receivers, big problems: Just as they did in their first meeting, the Packers cornerbacks will have their hands full with 6-foot-3, 216-pound Alshon Jeffery and 6-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall. In the Nov. 4 meeting, the pair combined to catch 12 passes for 167 yards (Marshall had seven catches for 107 yards; Jeffery five receptions for 60) and each had a touchdown. But the Packers' biggest concern is what the two oversized receivers do with their hands.
"I have 100 percent confidence in our ability to cover them. It just becomes harder if they're allowed to push and pull and grab," said Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who has seen it happen in the past – with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald during the 2009 season and with Marshall when he was with the Miami Dolphins in 2010. And nothing bugs Whitt more than officials letting big receivers get away with such shenanigans.
"I used to worry about it. I used to talk to people – I don't do that anymore. It's a waste of time," Whitt said. "I think they (officials) try to get it right, OK? They don't always. Nobody's perfect. One thing that's consistent: They (Marshall and Jeffery) consistently push and pull. And we're going to do our best to consistently play within the rules and defend it.
While Whitt said he has "no issue" with cornerbacks Sam Shields (5-11, 184) and Tramon Williams (5-11, 191) being able to handle the Bears receivers' physical strength, as long as the game is officiated properly.
"(If) they just run routes, I have no issue with that. It's when the other stuff is involved," Whitt said. "That's when we have a problem. It isn't done the correct way, we won't have issues like that. Then if they beat us, they beat us. I can live with that. That ball that (Jeffery) caught in the back of the end zone, hey, that's a good catch. Good for you. But I do have an issue with you pulling facemask and doing this and that and the third. Like I said, we're not going to complain about it. It's just the reality that we live in."
And the reality they also live in is that if they don't slow the big twosome down, they could wind up on the wrong end of a shootout.
"I thought that the first time we played them we did some decent things, other than two or three situations. We weren't consistent enough, we gave them a few plays," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "It's a lot different (defending Jeffery and Marshall), especially when you get down to the red area. These guys, all three of them (including tight end Martellus Bennett) are so big and tall that you see a lot of jump balls where the ball's just thrown up. They got one in here in the first game to Jeffrey where we were right there and he just outjumped us and got the ball."
Bad Jay, worse Jay: Capers did everything he could to downplay it, pointing out that the Packers have yet to face Bears quarterback Jay Cutler with Trestman's offense in place, but the fact of the matter is that Cutler has been epically bad against the Packers, especially with Capers running the defense. For all the criticism Capers has endured this season – some of it well deserved – Cutler is the one quarterback he has a consistent track record of success against. Including one loss with Denver in 2007, Cutler is 1-8 all time (including the 2010 NFC Championship Game) against the Packers as a starter, and having joined the Bears for the 2009 season after being traded from Denver, he's 1-7 against Capers, who replaced Bob Sanders as the Packers' defensive coordinator in 2009.
Cutler has an overall passer rating of 59.9 those nine games, throwing 17 interceptions against the Packers, and the last two times he faced the Packers in games that would have eliminated them from the playoffs, he failed – a 10-3 loss in the 2010 regular-season finale at Lambeau Field, and a 21-14 loss in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Cutler left that game with a knee injury after completing only 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception
In eight regular season games against Green Bay, including the game with Denver, Cutler is 131 for 257 for 1,702 yards with nine touchdowns and 16 INTs. He has twice thrown four interceptions in a game against them, and his single-game passer rating has been 82.5 or better only twice. His lone victory came on Sept. 27, 2010, when he completed 21 of 34 passes for 264 yards with one touchdown and a 95.7 passer rating. He's missed two other meetings, including the Nov. 4 game, with injuries.
"We've been fortunate, I think, to play well (against him)," Capers said. "This is the biggest challenge offensively. They've changed their scheme. They're the most talented physically. I think they've improved their line. Their tight end's a real good receiving threat. (Running back Matt) Forte's always been a guy that we know that you can't let him get going. He's a really good receiver. He's one of the best multipurpose guys, I think, in the league.
"It's a totally different team now than what we've played in the past. It's a new offensive philosophy. They've really improved their offensive line tremendously, so they pass protect better now than they have in the past. They've got really good balance in their run game and pass game. They've got more weapons than they've had. A couple years ago, their receiving corps looked a lot different than it does now. I don't know if anybody else has two more physical receivers than what they have. The running back is a great threat coming out of the backfield catching the ball and has run for 1,230 yards. There's a lot of different weapons there."
Run aground: For all the focus there will be on Rodgers return to action and Cutler's history of failing against the Packers – not to mention the uncertain future Cutler, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent at year's end, in Chicago whether the Bears win or lose – the running games could decide this one. Or, more accurately, the anemic run defenses.
"Probably neither team wants to let the opponent get the run game going," Capers said.
Fresh off giving up 291 yards on the ground in a 54-11 embarrassment against Philadelphia last Sunday night, the Bears come into the game giving up a league-high 161.5 rushing yards per game. For perspective on just how epically bad that is, the No. 31-ranked run defense in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, is giving up 135.9 yards per game. That means the Bears are giving up 25.6 more yards per game than the next-worst run defense.
"Sometimes we're in the right place but we're just not winning the one-on-ones or you missed a tackle. That's a big part of it," said Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, a former University of Wisconsin player. "Like I said the past couple weeks, it's not so much now knowing where to fit, it's when you get there and are you able to shed the block, are you able to finish on the ball, are you able to make the tackle, are you able to get there quickly enough? That's also part it too. So we have to play faster. We have to eliminate the hesitation, and continue to coach through and work through that as players. That's pretty much what it is."
Before the Packers get high and mighty about the Bears' bad run D, consider this: After starting the season like gangbusters against the run, ranking as high as third in the NFL, they now rank 26 th. And over the last eight games, starting with that Nov. 4 loss to the Bears, the Packers have given up an average of 161.8 yards a game – or 0.3 yards per game more than the 32nd-ranked Bears have given up per week on the full season.
That means Forte or Lacy could decide the game. And given that Rodgers is coming back from injury – Cutler returned to the lineup two games ago against Cleveland – the Packers' ability to get Lacy going despite a right ankle injury that has nagged him all month will be key, despite McCarthy's protestations that he will let Rodgers be Rodgers.
"Eddie doesn't give you a lot on the exterior, he's an even-keeled, quiet guy, but there's a fire that burns in him. You can see it. He's going to be ready," Van Pelt said. "If we told him, ‘You're going to carry it 30 times Sunday with a bad ankle,' he'd be fine with that."
Somewhere, you can hear Brent Musburger saying, "You are looking live …" Then, you can hear him saying, "This is for all the Tostitos." OK, so this game doesn't have a snack-company sponsor or an official title, but it is the NFC North Division Championship Game, and it makes for a heck of a story. For the second straight week, all the Bears have to do is win. What a disappointment it would be for them – and a blow to the long-term future of Cutler in Chicago – if they lost again. Meanwhile, you don't get the sense that the Packers feel like they're playing with house money given how much went wrong this season and how many injuries – Rodgers' chief among them – they endured. With Rodgers and Cobb back on the field, Lacy producing and an injury-hampered defense that's finally starting to make some plays, they seem to think they are a legit contender if they can get into the tournament. The guess here is that they do. What they do after this, well, one thing at a time. Packers 31, Bears 27. (Season record: 11-3-1)
– Jason Wilde
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