Though the stakes won't be quite as high, both the Chicago awaited measure of redemption when the team hosts the Green Bay Packers Sunday at Soldier Field in the first encounter between the bitter rivals since the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
Green Bay knocked off the NFC Central champion Bears by a 21-14 score in last January's conference title bout, but the lasting image of that contest was a despondent Cutler sitting on the sidelines for most of the second half with what was later revealed to be a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
His exit from the game sparked a firestorm of debate from the national media, with a flurry of critics calling both Cutler's desire and fortitude afterwards into question.
Those detractors may have softened their stance after witnessing what the highly-scrutinized Chicago signal-caller has endured during the early stages of this season. Cutler has been sacked a league-high 11 times behind a troublesome offensive line over the Bears' first two games, and had difficulty getting the words out in his weekly press conference after being kicked in the throat by a New Orleans defender in last Sunday's matchup against the Saints.
Cutler was sacked six times and knocked down on several other occasions in Chicago's 30-13 loss at the Superdome, while completing an off-target 19-of-45 passes for 244 yards with one touchdown.
As for this game, the Bears insist their motivation isn't about avenging what happened eight months ago. With last weekend's setback, Chicago presently stands a game behind the 2-0 Packers and surprising Detroit in the NFC Central race, and a loss on Sunday would put Lovie Smith's charges in a challenging spot even at this point of the schedule.
"It was a long time ago," Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said of the NFC Championship Game defeat. "We're trying to put that behind us and build off it at the same time. It was frustrating. We felt like we played good enough to win that game on defense."
Chicago's well-regarded stop unit figures to be tested once again by a Green Bay offense that's shown no drop-off in efficiency from its excellent performance during last season's championship run. The Packers have averaged 36 points and 409 total yards in victories over New Orleans and Carolina to begin the 2011 campaign, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers completing nearly 71 percent of his attempts with five touchdowns and no interceptions over the course of those games.
Green Bay's defense has yet to reach its peak, however. The Packers have been throttled for a league-worst 800 net passing yards in their two triumphs, and lost stabilizing safety Nick Collins for the remainder of the year after he sustained a serious neck injury in last week's 30-23 decision over the Panthers.
The Packers surrendered 432 yards through the air to Carolina rookie sensation Cam Newton in Week 2, but avoided the upset by intercepting the 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick three times and coming up with a key stop deep in their own territory late in the fourth quarter.
These teams split their two head-to-head battles during the 2010 regular season, with Chicago rallying for a 20-17 win at Soldier Field last September and Green Bay earning a spot in the playoffs by virtue of a 10-3 home verdict in Week 17.
Chicago and Green Bay have met 180 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 91-83-6 overall advantage. Chicago has bested the Packers at Soldier Field in regular-season play in three of the past four years, with Green Bay's lone positive result over that stretch a 21-14 decision in 2009. The Packers swept the home-and-home set from the Bears that year, with the teams splitting the 2008 series.
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 win over Curly Lambeau's Packers in a Division Playoff.
Including last season's playoff loss, Smith is 8-7 against the Packers during his reign as the Bears' head coach. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy sports a 6-5 record versus both Chicago and Smith over his five-year tenure.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay enters Sunday's tilt riding an eight-game winning streak that includes its four postseason victories from last season, and the spectacular play of Rodgers (620 passing yards, 5 TD, 0 INT) under center has been the main reason why. The Super Bowl XLV Most Valuable Player has averaged nearly 300 passing yards with a stellar 19-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that span, while making good on 68.7 percent of his throws. His success has been aided by a bevy of outstanding targets for one of the league's most prolific passing offenses, with wide receivers Greg Jennings (9 receptions, 144 yards, 2 TD) and Jordy Nelson (7 receptions, 161 yards, 2 TD) and standout tight end Jermichael Finley (8 receptions) all off to strong starts. The dangerous Jennings is a 2010 Pro Bowl honoree who burned the Bears for 130 yards on eight catches in last season's NFC Championship, while the emerging Nelson -- one of the heroes of the team's besting of Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl -- is averaging 23 yards per grab thus far and connected with Rodgers for an 84-yard touchdown last week. Second-year running back James Starks (142 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) added 85 yards on the ground on only nine carries against Carolina and has supplanted two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant (65 rushing yards, 4 receptions) as the Packers' primary ball-carrier, though both will see touches on Sunday.
The Bears may have to take on Green Bay's potent passing game without the services of their two starting safeties, with second-year pro Major Wright (9 tackles) looking unlikely to play after hurting his neck against the Saints and veteran Chris Harris (3 tackles) questionable to return this week from a strained hamstring that kept him out of last Sunday's loss. Chicago does have good depth at the position, however, after signing two-time Pro Bowl selection Brandon Meriweather (6 tackles) following final cuts, but the back end was still toasted for a 79-yard touchdown by New Orleans' Devery Henderson in Week 2. With the secondary banged up, the Bears are going to have to rely on a usually-strong pass rush that produced five sacks in their season-opening win over Atlanta but wasn't as effective last week, though perennial All-Pro end Julius Peppers (3 tackles, 1 sack) and promising young tackle Henry Melton (5 tackles, 2 sacks) have each been consistent forces. Chicago has allowed an average of 270 yards per game through the air (22nd overall) to date and also hasn't particularly stout against the run, having permitted a substandard average of 5.3 yards per rush over the first two games. That's normally an area of strength for the unit, with the experienced linebacker tandem of Urlacher (13 tackles, 1 INT), who had an interception and scored on a fumble recovery in the Atlanta game, in the middle and the decorated Lance Briggs (14 tackles) manning the weak side.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Smith implored offensive coordinator Mike Martz to establish greater balance after the Bears called 52 passing plays and only 11 runs in the New Orleans loss, an idea Cutler (556 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) would seem to endorse after taking a beating from an aggressive Saints defense. Chicago does possess a quality running back in the versatile Matt Forte (117 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 1 TD), a 1,000-yard rusher in two of his first three NFL seasons, and proven backup Marion Barber could be ready to contribute this week after missing the first two games with a strained calf. Forte's greatest impact this year has been as a pass-catcher -- a telling indicator on how little time Cutler's had to throw -- as the valued 25-year-old leads all NFL backs in receiving yards (207) and came through with 117 yards on 10 grabs in last week's defeat. A somewhat suspect wide receiver corps should get offseason addition Roy Williams (4 receptions) back from a one-game absence due to a groin problem, though slot man Earl Bennett (3 receptions) is expected to miss Sunday's test with a chest injury. He'll be replaced by undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (4 receptions), who had three catches and scored his first career touchdown versus New Orleans. The front line's lingering problems may be compounded with heralded rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi now sidelined indefinitely with a knee subluxation.
The Packers placed first in the NFL in pass efficiency defense last season, but have so far been uncharacteristically shredded in consecutive weeks by Drew Brees and Newton. While the loss of Collins, a Pro Bowl citation in each of the last three years, is definitely a blow to the secondary, fill-in Charlie Peprah was an 11-game starter at strong safety in 2010 and playmaking cornerback Tramon Williams (3 tackles, 1 PD) appears on track to return from a bruised shoulder that kept him out of the Carolina game. He'll line up at his customary spot opposite the venerable Charles Woodson (7 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PD), who continues to play at a high level despite turning 35 next month and delivered a game-changing performance last Sunday, intercepting Newton twice while also recovering a fumble. Green Bay's main objective will be to stuff the Bears' ground attack with a concerted effort led by active inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (22 tackles) and get its opponent into obvious passing situations, where it can unleash a furious pass rush headed up by star outside linebacker Clay Matthews (9 tackles, 1 sack) and interior force B.J. Raji (7 tackles, 1 sack). The Packers sacked Newton four times a week ago and ranked second in that category (47) in 2010, while Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart mustered a paltry 18 yards on 11 attempts.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Clearly, Chicago's offensive line needs to protect Cutler better than it has over the first two weeks to not only have a chance of success on Sunday, but for the season as well. The process should start with running the ball more frequently and proficiently, as Martz's skewing towards the pass has enabled opponents to tee off at will. Conversely, if the Packers can continue to play tight run defense and make the Bears one-dimensional, that will work greatly in the reigning world champs' favor.
Turnovers. Since 2002, the team that has won the turnover battle has come out on top each time in this series. The Bears prevailed over Atlanta in Week 1 largely on the strength of three takeaways, while Green Bay forced four against the Panthers last Sunday and went 10-0 (including the postseason) when giving the ball away less times than its opponent in 2010.
Both teams come in with injury issues at safety and figure to try to take advantage of the other's uncertainty on the back line. That's especially important in Chicago's case, as outscoring the more explosive Packers will be a tough task if its not able to shore up the last line of defense.
Chicago's hopes of ending Green Bay's impressive string of victories rest on a productive day out of Cutler and making less critical errors than its chief rival. Problem is, the Packers very rarely have a tendency to beat themselves with mistakes, especially with Rodgers continuing right where he left off in the 2010 postseason. The Bears will get a few big plays on a Green Bay defense that's still attempting to right itself, but the healthier and more efficient team generally wins in this series. If that's the case again on Sunday, the Packers are the better bet to do so.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 30, Bears 23