Wide receiver Brandon Marshall started it off by bringing in a Charlie Brown Christmas tree to his press conference:
“Right now, metaphorically, our season looks like this tree right now where we’re standing. Barren. Ugly. But there’s still hope. As a kid, it doesn’t matter how your Christmas tree looks. You’re still waiting for Christmas Day. You have hopes and dreams that Santa’s going to bring you those things you ask for. It’s always a possibility. Where we stand today, our goal is to win the NFC championship, beat the Green Bay Packers, win the Super Bowl. All of that still can be under this Christmas tree. Whenever you’re down, you’ve got to try to create some type of balance, so this is a perfect little thing for me to keep me going.”
While all of that still could have been under the Christmas tree, the Packers entered the game at 10-4 only needing a win against the Bears to clinch the NFC North and an obvious ticket to the playoffs. On the other hand, the Bears were reeling after losing 4 games out of their last 5 after starting red hot by winning by 7 of their first 8 games.
James Jones had the game of his career with 3 touchdown catches while Alshon Jeffery had a game to forget after getting called for 3 offensive pass interference calls while Brandon Marshall showed just how physical a wide receiver can be by bulldozing his way 15 yards for the touchdown. On defense, both teams got pressure on the quarterback, with Rodgers being sacked 3 times while Cutler was sacked 4 times, but perhaps most importantly the Packers offense had zero turnovers while Jay Cutler gift wrapped an interception to Casey Hayward, which lead directly to a James Jones touchdown. The Packers ultimately prevailed 21-13, clinching the NFC North while the Chicago Bears lost ground on the NFC Wildcard race, which Minnesota eventually won (after beating the Packers in the regular season closer).
The theme of the game will be overcoming injuries; the Packers have basically shown over the last couple weeks that as long as the next man up isn’t Seneca Wallace, they have a shot at winning any game. Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have all missed time over the last couple weeks, but the Packers have only paradoxically become more consistent and dangerous without them. A bigger question comes from Chicago: can they survive without Lance Briggs, the successor to Brian Urlacher as the leader of the defense and more importantly Jay Cutler their starting quarterback? Career backup Josh McCown takes over for Cutler, who left their week 7 game against the Redskins with a groin injury, and actually played better than Cutler; according to Football Outsiders, Cutler recorded a -83 Total DYAR while McCown recorded a 133 Total DYAR (For those who don’t follow Football Outsiders, Josh Freeman had a total DYAR of -136 while Aaron Rodgers had a total DYAR of 176 in week 7 for comparison). The Bears have significantly improved their offensive line with 1st round pick Kyle Long and surprise right tackle Jordan Mills (who happens to be the cousin of Tramon Williams) and have only given up 11 sacks. However their defense has regressed somewhat, their turnovers have naturally declined from the last year’s aberration and they are having problems sacking the quarterback, in particular Julius Peppers has only recorded 1 sack this entire season. It will become very important that rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene play well in replacement of DJ Williams and Lance Briggs but expect Aaron Rodgers to pick on the linebackers in a way that he never could when Brian Urlacher was with the Bears.
This is probably as close to a must-win game for the Bears as they’ll see this season; they desperately need to keep pace with the Packers and the Lions, who are only a half game off from first place and they’ll see both teams in the next two weeks. Further playoff implications come from the fact that it looks likely that one of the NFC Wildcard teams will come from the NFC North, so head to head standings will play a huge part in getting into the playoffs if a team doesn’t secure the NFC North crown. Also important is how Cutler’s injury affects the season; Cutler will be a free agent next year and GM Phil Emery and HC Marc Trestman have a big decision coming up; do you resign a established starting quarterback somewhere in the range of $18-20 million a year who you didn’t trade for or do you let him walk in free agency and hope to land the star of the future in the draft? Certainly Cutler was playing a lot better under offense minded Trestman than defense minded Lovie Smith, but losing Cutler for 4+ weeks certainly won’t help in their assessment of Cutler. Their decision could be made a lot easier if Josh McCown plays well and even wins a couple games in replacement of Cutler, then management might feel secure in developing a later round quarterback and calling the 2015 a mini-rebuilding season.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.