Though the Green Bay Packers fell short in their quest for ultimate immortality, the reigning world champions still have the opportunity to achieve their No. 1 objective.
For the first time in nearly a full calendar year, the Packers will attempt to bounce back from a loss when the NFC front-runners host the fading Bears in a Christmas night clash between bitter old rivals from Lambeau Field.
These two NFC North inhabitants squared off in the 2010 conference championship game back in January, but only the Packers seem to have a reasonable shot at making a repeat trip due to a crippling stretch of four consecutive defeats by the Bears that coincided with the sidelining of both starting quarterback Jay Cutler and star running back Matt Forte. The winless run has placed Chicago at 7-7 on the season and two games behind both Atlanta and Detroit for the NFC's two Wild Card berths with two to play.
For the Bears to return to this year's postseason, they'll have to prevail both this week and in the Jan. 1 finale at Minnesota, while both the Falcons and Lions must fall in their remaining contests.
Green Bay still remains in the conference's catbird seat despite last Sunday's startling 19-14 road setback to sub-.500 Kansas City, ending a sequence of 19 straight victories dating back to last season that ranks as the second-longest run in NFL history. The Packers would wrap up the NFC's top overall seed by prevailing in one of their final two bouts, or if San Francisco loses once in the final two weeks.
"I've viewed the undefeated season as gravy," Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy remarked after last week's result. "The goal is to get the home-field advantage and win the Super Bowl. We still have the primary goal in front of us."
Prior to the Chiefs' upset, the Packers had not been knocked off since a 31-27 ousting by New England on Dec. 19, 2010.
It's only seemed like a year since the Bears last tasted victory, and a lack of offensive production has been mainly to blame for the team's present rut. Chicago has averaged a paltry 11.8 points in the four tests Cutler has missed due a broken thumb, and has been held to 245 total yards or less in replacement Caleb Hanie's last three starts.
Hanie threw nine interceptions and posted a lowly 41.8 passer rating in four fill-in outings, prompting head coach Lovie Smith to turn to journeyman Josh McCown for Sunday's showdown. The 32-year-old does have experience, having started a total of 31 times for four different in a nomadic nine-year career, but hasn't made one since 2007. He spent the 2010 season in the United Football League and spent the fall coaching high school football in North Carolina prior to being signed by the Bears in late November.
"Right now, we're disappointed in our quarterback play," said Smith. It hasn't been as good as we would like it to be, but you can say that about other positions."
Forte, who was averaging 123.9 yards from scrimmage prior to spraining his knee in a 10-3 home loss to Kansas City in Week 13, will sit out a third straight game with his injury. Backup Marion Barber is also expected to be inactive with a calf strain suffered in this past Sunday's 38-14 defeat to Seattle, while leading receiver Johnny Knox sustained a serious back injury in that matchup and was placed on injured reserve on Monday.
The Bears, who haven't dropped five in a row in the same season since an eight- game skid from Sept. 22-Nov. 18, 2002, were handed a 27-17 loss by the Packers in Chicago back in Week 3 and have been bested in each of their last three trips to Lambeau Field as well.
Chicago and Green Bay have met 181 times previously during the regular-season in the NFL's most-played series, which dates all the way back to the 1921 season, with the Bears owning a 91-84-6 overall advantage. The Packers have won four of the last five meetings in the set, however, including a 10-3 home triumph in Week 17 of the 2010 campaign that vaulted the team into the postseason. Green Bay took both of its two encounters with Chicago in 2009, scoring a 21-15 verdict at Lambeau Field that year, with the Bears' last road win over the Packers coming in 2007. Chicago did top Green Bay by a 20-17 count at Soldier Field in September of the 2010 season.
Last January's NFC Championship marked only the second head-to-head meeting between the storied franchises in the postseason. The other came in 1941, when George Halas' Bears recorded a 33-14 victory over Curly Lambeau's Packers in a Division Playoff.
Including last season's playoff loss, Smith is 8-8 against the Packers during his reign as the Bears' head coach. McCarthy sports a 7-5 record versus both Chicago and Smith over his five-year tenure in Green Bay.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago will try its best to make do with a bunch of spare parts in this one. McCown hadn't thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2009 before attempting two in relief of Hanie last week, and his most recent extended action came during a nine-start stint in Oakland in 2007 in which he compiled 1,151 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and went 2-7. The well-traveled veteran does have a knowledge of coordinator Mike Martz's complex offense, however, with the two having worked together in Detroit in 2006. With Forte out and Barber doubtful, rushing duties will fall on third-year pro Kahlil Bell (162 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 TD), who did his best Forte impression by amassing 108 yards from scrimmage (65 rushing, 43 receiving) and hauling in a Hanie touchdown strike in the Seattle loss, with undrafted rookie Armando Allen just promoted from the practice squad to work in reserve. The injury to Knox, who was averaging nearly 20 yards per catch this year, robs the Bears of their best big-play threat in the passing game and places additional responsibilities on Earl Bennett (20 receptions, 1 TD), noted underachiever Roy Williams (27 receptions, 1 TD) and rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (21 receptions, 3 TD), the trio that will serve as McCown's main targets.
Defense hasn't been the Packers' strong suit this season, as the defending champs have surrendered the second-most total yards (397.8 ypg) and passing yards (289.4 ypg) in the NFL and were gashed for 438 total yards last week by a Kansas City offense that had been struggling. The unit is highly adept at creating turnovers, however, with Green Bay's 27 interceptions the most in the league and its 32 overall takeaways second only to San Francisco for top honors. The Packers are well-stocked in the secondary with the cornerback trio of perennial All-Pro Charles Woodson (72 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 INT), Tramon Williams (53 tackles, 4 INT, 16 PD) and nickel specialist Sam Shields (38 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD), while ferocious outside linebacker Clay Matthews (44 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) rates as one of the game's premier pass rushers and is a player who's given Chicago's suspect group of protectors plenty of trouble in the past. The Packers have been generally solid against the run and outstanding in that department in their earlier meeting with the Bears, limiting Forte to a minuscule two yards on two attempts in that game, and are expected to have inside linebacker and leading tackler Desmond Bishop (97 tackles, 5 sacks) back from a three-week absence caused by a calf injury for Sunday's test. Veteran end Ryan Pickett (32 tackles) has been ruled out, however, after incurring a concussion against the Chiefs.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
A usually-deadly Green Bay offense that helped the club lead the NFL in points (34.3 ypg) and ranks fourth overall in both total yards (397.8 ypg) and passing yards (298.1 ypg) will try to rebound from an uncharacteristically ho-hum showing against Kansas City. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (4360 passing yards, 40 TD, 6 INT) finished an off-target 17-of-35 for 235 yards in the loss while under constant duress from a persistent Chiefs pass rush, and a couple of key injuries along the front line have turned a constant strength into an area of concern for Sunday. Stalwart right tackle Bryan Bulaga will miss the game with a knee sprain, with regular left guard T.J. Lang sliding into that post, while veteran left tackle Chad Clifton still hasn't fully recovered from a hamstring tear suffered in October. The Packers will also be without Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings for a second straight week due to a sprained knee, but there's still plenty of weapons in reserve for Rodgers. Fellow wideout Jordy Nelson (53 receptions, 10 TD) is averaging 18.6 yards per catch in a breakout 2011 season, while tight end Jermichael Finley (45 receptions, 6 TD) is a dangerous field stretcher who burned the Bears for three touchdown catches back in September. And the receiving corps still has the ever-reliable Donald Driver (33 receptions, 5 TD), the owner of 731 career receptions over a distinguished 13-year tenure. Green Bay did get good news on the injury front at the running back position this week, with leading rusher James Starks (565 rushing yards, 1 TD, 28 receptions) due back from a two-game sit-out from an ankle sprain to split ball-carrying duties with steady vet Ryan Grant (467 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions).
Chicago's damaging slide has been in no part due to the work of the defense, as the seasoned has continued to play at a high level in spite of the team's overall woes. The Bears held Seattle to just 286 total yards last week and successfully kept red-hot running back Marshawn Lynch in check, with the Seahawks' offensive centerpiece managing a harmless 42 yards on 20 carries. Chicago is allowing a noteworthy 78.2 rushing yards over its last nine games, with the decorated linebacker duo of seven-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher (89 tackles, 3 INT) and six-time honoree Lance Briggs (97 tackles, 1 INT) once again leading the charge. The team could be minus a couple of key contributors in a game where it'll need all hands on deck, however, with rookie free safety Chris Conte placed on injured reserve Monday after spraining his foot in the Seattle game and pass-rushing tackle Henry Melton (19 tackles, 7 sacks) questionable with a bruised shin. Starting safety Major Wright (41 tackles, 3 INT) is expected back after missing the last two weeks with a sprained shoulder, however, and standout end Julius Peppers (36 tackles, 10 sacks) will be on the field to potentially create problems for Rogers. The accomplished veteran has racked up six sacks and forced three fumbles over his last seven assignments.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Since there's little chance of Chicago's offense matching the Packers score- for-score, the Bears are going to have to explore alternative avenues to come up with ways to create scoring opportunities. Peppers is going to have to be at his havoc-wreaking best to disrupt Rodgers and neutralize Green Bay's power- packed passing attack like the Chiefs were able to do last week, and the defense must stand its ground in the red zone and force turnovers. It'll be a task easier said than done, however, as the Packers' 12 giveaways are the second-fewest in the league and they're third in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage (62.7 percent).
McCown. Chicago's dependable defense is capable of preventing the Packers, who are dealing with a few big injuries on the offensive side, from lighting up the scoreboard at will. It still won't matter, however, unless the Bears receive the competent play under center that Hanie wasn't equipped to provide from their new substitute quarterback. With such a long layoff between NFL starts, he's really an unknown quantity at this point, but does have the luxury of facing a defense that's had its issues in stopping the pass.
How much will the Packers' starters play? The only real drama concerning this contest is whether Green Bay will be able to cover the double-digit spread. If the Packers do get out to a comfortable lead, it wouldn't be surprising to see McCarthy pull Rodgers and some other regulars for much of the second half and make the final outcome appear a little closer than it actually was.
With virtually all of its best skill players hurt and forced to start a stopgap quarterback who's barely taken a snap in four years, not to mention having to take on the league's most successful team on the road with it stewing over a loss, it's hard to imagine Chicago being in a worse scenario. While the Bears may be able to take a page out of Kansas City's blueprint for slowing down Rodgers and his cast of playmakers, the McCown-led offense still isn't going to be able to keep up. Look for the Packers to set the tone and build a sizeable advantage on their beaten and battered rivals before playing it safe the rest of the way.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Bears 10