It’s already the NFL’s week 15 and let’s cut to the chase in the NFC North. This is a week that most Packers fans had circled on the schedule as soon as it came out. Is there a more intense week in the Packers universe than “Bears week”?
The Green Bay Packers travel to Chicago to take on the Bears in this highly-anticipated game that will be the marquis matchup not just in the NFC North, but in the NFL.
The Packers can clinch their second straight North division title with a win. The Bears would re-enter the divisional race as a strong contender should they emerge victorious. The early line this week favors Green Bay by three.
The Minnesota Vikings will travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams. This ends up being an interesting game because neither of these teams wants to go away quietly this year.
The week is rounded off by the Detroit Lions visiting the Arizona Cardinals in the “futility bowl”. Nothing more than pride is on the line in that contest.
Let’s dive into the matchups and the storylines alike.
Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Chicago Bears (8-5)
Because of the major playoff implications, I’m leading off with this matchup and will go more in depth with this game.
This game has changed shape immensely in the past month. What was being billed as possibly one of the biggest game on the NFL schedule this season has turned into somewhat of a last stand for the Bears.
After starting the season 7-1, the Bears have lost four of their last five games including two in a row since the return of quarterback Jay Cutler. After suffering a concussion during a loss to the Houtson Texans, Cutler was forced to miss a key game against the San Francisco 49ers. The 9ers beat the Bears handily for a second straight loss. They beat the Vikings but then suffered a tough overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks and followed that up with this past week’s loss in the rematch with Minnesota on the road.
Chicago will be without defensive playmakers Brian Urlacher who may end up on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, and cornerback Tim Jennings who leads the NFL in interceptions with eight. Jennings dislocated his shoulder late in the loss to the Seattle and is currently doubtful for this week’s game.
The Packers should be getting at least one key piece back this week. Linebacker Clay Matthews will be given every opportunity to play for the first time in six weeks. Matthews has missed the last five games and the Green Bay pass rush and run defense has sorely missed him.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has already ruled safety Charles Woodson out and indicated that wide receiver Jordy Nelson would be challenged to play on Sunday.
The Packers’ secondary has fared OK without Woodson, having gotten solid production from Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings as well as cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Davon House.
Not having Nelson against Chicago’s strong secondary could prove a very tough challenge for the remaining receiving corps. The Packers will need a big day from tight end Jermichael Finley to open things up for the others on the outside.
As for the game itself, one of Chicago’s strengths is their defensive line which will look to bring as much pressure as they can against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. That is likely the best way for Chicago to contain the Green Bay offense and get the win. With the Green Bay offensive line having had their struggles in pass protection this season, the Bears will likely do everything they can to exploit this matchup.
The Packers’ offensive line just came off a tough test in that of Detroit’s tough defensive front four. While Rodgers did take a few too many shots in last week’s win over the Lions, he showed how valuable he can be with his feet and was able to score on a 27 yard touchdown run after escaping pressure. His mobility will likely once again be called upon in this game.
The Packers also established a more-effective run game that kept that Lions front on its heels at times. If Green Bay can do the same this week, they will surely have the same opportunities for offensive success. The offensive line will have the tough task of neutralizing Bears defensive end Julius Peppers and tackle Henry Melton. Hopefully new tackle Don Barclay can hold his own on the right side after allowing more than half of the pressures on Rodgers last week.
It sounds strange for me to be talking about Rodgers’ need to take care of the football, as this has been his strong suit for most of his career. But against an opportunistic Bears’ secondary, ball placement will be key. On a few occasions this season, Rodgers has made some throws into coverage after not seeing a defender who came away with an interception.
No team in the NFL has more takeaways than Chicago (35). Avoiding turnovers is always key for any team but the Bears thrive on them and will be looking to reverse the tide on Sunday. Another area of concern is ball security as Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman has made a name for himself in forcing many a fumble.
Offensively, Chicago will look to establish the tempo by establishing their run game and trying to control the clock. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Green Bay has been trying to do in recent weeks. Chicago will look to get a lot more out of top wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was held without a catch until the fourth quarter in the first matchup. The Packers will have to employ some crafty tactics to get a repeat performance, but will nonetheless need to do so to keep Marshall from taking over this game.
This one will likely be quite the chess match. It’s games like this where head coaches make or break their names in their team’s history books.
Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy seemed to shake out some of the proverbial cobwebs this past week and called a solid game. No offensive game plan is perfect and let’s not forget that whole execution part by the players, but there was evidence of balance. If Chicago has to account for both the run and pass, they may have to adjust out of sitting in their usual Tampa two defensive look. All it takes is one big play to be the difference on Sunday.
Lovie Smith has been head coach in Chicago two seasons longer than McCarthy has been in Green Bay and the natives are starting to get restless. Bears fans and media are starting to wonder if the window of opportunity to get back to a Super Bowl are starting to vanish before their eyes. While the injury situation hasn’t helped and is a factor that Smith can’t control, he may find himself under a lot of scrutiny should this season not turn into a deep playoff run.
The vibe at Soldier Field will be electric, at least at the outset. Packers fans can only hope that the life is sucked out of the building sooner than later and the Packers are once again celebrating a milestone win on the Bears’ turf.
Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)
Both of these teams are still in the hunt for both their divisions and the wild card. The Rams have won three straight after knocking off the Buffalo Bills. The Vikings bounced back after their loss to the Packers in week 14 with a win over the Bears.
Neither team seems to want to throw in the towel on the 2012 season just yet. The Rams are surging after having hit a slump. In week 13, they defeated the San Francisco 49ers after having tied them in the first meeting. It would be a tough road into the postseason and they will likely need some help, but the Rams could find themselves in contention for some games in January.
The Vikings played a sound game on Sunday and capitalized on some Chicago mistakes to get the win and keep their playoff hopes alive. While it’s not impossible that Minnesota can win the North, they are most realistically fighting for one of the two wild card spots. Should the Vikes win and the Bears lose on Sunday, it would create all sorts of opportunities for Minnesota to get themselves into the playoffs.
This will be a tough road test for the Vikes, where they have won only once this season. The Rams have the better quarterback in Sam Bradford and that is a big key in any game. The Vikings, however, have the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson and he will have to carry the team on his back if they want to stay in contention. With Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder struggling, they have to hope that they don’t have to put the fate of the game into his hands at the end.
Each team has had some success with their pass rush and this will be the key in this one. Pressure on the quarterback and the turnover battle will determine the fate in this contest. I lean towards the home team but this year, anything goes and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota get a road win either.
Detroit Lions (4-9) at Arizona Cardinals (4-9)
There isn’t much to say about this matchup. This game is for nothing more than pride. At least it’s a home game for Arizona.
Detroit has had some chances late in games that they were not able to seize and as a result, they will be adding another losing season to their long history. Their most recent loss was their 22nd straight to Packers in the state of Wisconsin. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the Lions promptly gave up nearly 150 yards rushing to a Packers team who had struggled to run all season long. Add in that it was a snowy night on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and it all added up to the status quo: another Lions loss.
As rough as it has been for the Lions, it’s been worse for the Cardinals. These are the same Cardinals who started this season 4-0 and beat the New England Patriots in New England. Since that start they have rattled off nine straight losses and some close to the team, most namely the father of standout Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, have claimed that the team has quit on this season.
Both head coaches, Jim Schwartz and Ken Whisenhunt, desperately need a win to get some of the heat off of them. While no mention has been made that this is a “must win” for either to keep their job, a loss will only pour more salt into a wound that is deep with disappointment.
After making the postseason for the first time in over a decade last season, the Lions will miss the playoffs this time around. It’s safe to say, as it stands (and to borrow the words of former Cardinals coach Dennis Green), that they are who we thought they were. The Cardinals are even less than that.
Enjoy the games!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: