The Packers can still make the playoffs with a Giants loss to the Redskins and a Buccaneers loss to the Saints if they lose to the Bears, but the Packers and their fans know the best way for them to take care of business is do beat their arch rivals and not rely on other teams for help.
The Bears, meanwhile, have wrapped up at least the No. 2 seed and in theory could get home field advantage should the Saints and Falcons both lose and they beat the Packers. Atlanta plays the Panthers, so that scenario is incredibly unlikely but again “any given Sunday.” You never know.
Breaking down Da Bears
The big, no HUGE, question is how long Bears coach Lovie Smith will play his starters. If he is anything like mentor Tony Dungy, the odds are they will play very little in a meaningless game. That said, when Smith took the Bears job he swore that beating the Packers would be his number one priority so the Packers could see the Bears first unit for a good chunk of if not the entire game.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has never played in a playoff game, so perhaps offensive coordinator Mike Martz will want to keep his arm fresh and have him sit most of the game. Or, on the flip side, Martz wants Cutler to remain hot and will keep him in the game for the majority of it.
Cutler has been playing very smart football as of late and his trademark interceptions have been on the decline. Still, it seems like everyone is waiting for one of those boneheaded Cutler throws that tips the outcome of a game in favor of the opponent. If one defense will do that, it’s the Packers who lead the NFL in scoring defense.
The Bears defense has played lights out all year and it’s highly unlikely Smith would want to subject any of his players to injury. If the starters do end up playing a majority of the game, that’s bad news for the Packers. Defensive end Julius Peppers leads a superb pass rush and linebacker Brian Urlacher is returning to the Pro Bowl after missing all of last season with a wrist injury. The Packers offensive line will have their hands full again. They handled the Giants so they should be able to handle the Bears.
The Bears secondary has given teams fits all season and is much improved from 2009. Led by Daneal Manning and Charles Tillman, the last line of defense for the Bears could provide headaches for the Packers all day.
Then there is Devin Hester.
The Packers’ game plan for number 23 should be simple: Do. No. Kick. The. Ball. To. Him. PERIOD. Of course, we all have seen how easily special teams coach Shawn Slocum can goof up a relatively easy deal. One punt return can alter the outcome of a game. Just ask Giants punter Matt Dodge about DeSean Jackson.
When the Packers have the ball….
The Packers have rediscovered a balanced offensive attack and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Doses of running back Brandon Jackson and then fullback John Kuhn in short yardage and goal to go situations seems to have jolted the previously dormant Packers rushing game to life. They won’t be breaking any 50 or 60 yard runs like Adrian Peterson, but they are effective enough to keep opposing defenses on their toes.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers bounced back beautifully from his concussion with a 404 yard, 4 TD pass performance against one of the better defenses in the NFL. By spreading the ball around to different receivers, Rodgers put on display the many weapons of the Packers arsenal that teams will have to account for should the Packers reach the playoffs.
If Smith goes into the game with intentions playing his starters the full 60 minutes, it is vital the Packers jump out to an early lead. If they can get up 14-0 or even 21-0, it might be enough to force Smith into pulling his starters earlier than anticipated.
The Bears will have to try and get to Rodgers to have any hope of stopping the Packers. Look for them to attack rookie Bryan Bulaga often. They have to contain the pocket to keep Rodgers from using his legs to avoid trouble and make plays.
When the Bears have the ball….
For a Mike Martz-run offense, the Bears run the ball a lot more than you would think.
Running back Matt Forte has bounced back nicely after a subpar 2009 campaign. Forte’s power and tackle breaking abilities give the Bears a powerful weapon to counter Cutler’s strong right arm. How much playing time Forte gets is up in the air as it is still unknown how long Smith intends on playing his starting units.
In the passing game, the Packers must take wide receiver Johnny Knox out of the game. I’m not saying injure the guy, but he is definitely Cutler’s favorite target. If the Packers can force Cutler to spread the ball around, they should have plenty of opportunities to create turnovers. Take away Cutler’s favorite receiver and a tight end, and then suddenly he becomes a very ordinary quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be going all in on this game. It’s do or die. Look for linebacker Clay Matthews to be unleashed as the Packers attack a very poor Chicago offensive line. While the unit has improved as the season went on, it still remains the weak link on the team and has held back the offense from scoring more.
Three Keys to the game:
1. How long with the Bears starters play?
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said it doesn’t matter whether or not the Bears play their starters and that team will leave that “pollution” outside the locker room. While that’s a good mindset to have, the Packers must game plan for the Bears second unit as the Packers were not prepared for Michael Vick in Week 1 although they must have known he would be in the game in some role at some point had Kevin Kolb not gone down to injury.
2. The Hester Factor
If Slocum kicks to Hester, he not only should be fire right on the field but also tarred and feathered at the 50 yard line at the conclusion of the game should the Packers lose. Just keep the ball away from Hester. End of discussion.
3. The G Force
With so much on the line against their hated rivals, Lambeau Field will be rocking as hard as it has since the NFC Championship game almost three years ago. The Packers and their fans know that it is all right there for the taking should the team make the postseason.
Cutler is a quarterback that is easily frustrated and crowd noise drowning out his signals can rattle him. Get Cutler frustrated and he makes mistakes and dumb throws. Those dumb throws often lead to interceptions and short fields for the Packers’ potent offense.
Packers 27, Bears 14
I’m going to go ahead here and say the Packers jump out to an early enough lead that Smith pulls his starters in the second quarter. The Packers go up 27-7 in the fourth quarter and the Bears score another touchdown in garbage time.
With any luck, see you in the playoffs Packer Nation!——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke