The Green Bay Packers can claim the NFC North division crown in Week 15 on Sunday against their long-time rival Chicago Bears, who are just trying to stop their recent slide and stay in the conference playoff picture.
Chicago has dropped four of their last five contests and at 8-5 overall stand just a game above the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC standings. Meanwhile, the Packers have for the most part ground out seven victories over their last eight games, getting wins while not as many style points as they did during their 15-1 regular season run of a year ago.
Meet the Chicago Bears
The Bears have fallen back to the Pack (pun intended) in large part due to a sputtering offense. In their previous four losses, Chicago hasn't scored more than 17 points. In their win over the Vikings in Week 12, they did put up 28 points as Jay Cutler returned from a concussion.
Defensively, the Bears have thrived off of forcing turnovers. Their plus-13 turnover differential is the second best ratio in the NFC behind the New York Giants, and Chicago's 21 interceptions are the most in the conference. Additionally, their 33.0 sacks total ranks ninth in the league.
Meet the Green Bay Packers
While Charles Woodson has already been ruled out for Sunday's showdown and wide receiver Jordy Nelson appears unlikely to return from a nagging hamstring injury, the anticipated return of Matthews and his nine sacks this season will be a welcome sight for Green Bay's defense, which has improved with young players on the field throughout the season and certainly in comparison to last season's monstrosity.
Even without Nelson for another week, quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn't have a shortage of receiving threats, as Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley all present problems for a defense. The big change, however, to the Packers' offense lately has been the consistent presence of a running game. Alex Green, James Starks (now injured), and last week's newcomer DuJuan Harris have provided steady balance of late and could be a major key down the stretch for Green Bay.
Local Takes: Bears
Dave Gilbert from Windy City Gridiron says the Bears can still make the postseason, even if he doesn't like their chances against the Packers:
"Do I think the Bears can still make the playoffs? Yes I do. And that includes losing to the Packers which at this stage looks likely, especially if the team plays like they did against the Vikings. But what sort of chance do they have if they make it into the post season?"
Local Takes: Packers
"No matter how much help that the Bears give, it's still up to Webb do his job and stop Clay. So far he has struggled to that in the match ups he and Matthews have had in the recent past. So Webb had better "rock the left side" this weekend, because if he can't then the Bears are in trouble."
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Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Things are looking good for Neal & Lang returning Sunday. This and more good news in Thursday's injury update. sbn.to/Tf9B1X— Acme Packing Company (@acmepackingco) December 14, 2012
@TomSilverstein - Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Packers reporter.
@ESPNChiBears - Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears writer for ESPN.
Bears blog:Four Downs: Can Marshall back it up? es.pn/VDI7BL— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) December 13, 2012
The Bears' playoff hopes may rest on this game. Chicago sits one game back from Green Bay, so this is essentially a must-win if the Bears plan to win the NFC North. Unfortunately for them, each team is headed in opposite directions. The Bears are breaking down, losers of four of their last five. The Packers are heating up, winning seven of their last eight.
The pick: 24-20, Packers.
Green Bay began the week as 2½-point favorites on the road, according to OddsShark, and the line has shifted even further their way, currently favoring the Packers by three points now. The over/under point total started at 42 earlier this week and has since bumped up a full point to 43.
The Bears hit the road for the final two weeks of the season, beginning first in Arizona to face the Cardinals in Week 16. Green Bay, on the other hand, plays their final regular season contest in Lambeau Field against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon.