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.