The Chicago Bears were all set to clinch the NFC North last Sunday night. With the Green Bay Packers losing earlier that day, all they had to do was get by the Philadelphia Eagles and a playoff berth was theirs. Instead, they were blown out 54-11 and will now have to play the Packers in a win-or-go-home showdown in the Windy City.
Making things even worse for the Bears, they'll have to face Aaron Rodgers instead of Matt Flynn. Mike McCarthy announced Thursday that the All-Pro quarterback has been cleared to return after missing eight weeks with a broken collarbone. He'll surely remember the Bears were the ones that broke that collarbone back in Week 9.
The Bears' Week 16 loss gave Green Bay new life -- something they've gotten a lot of in recent weeks -- after they fell 38-31 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers trailed by ten points in the fourth quarter but rallied to tie the game, only to lose after a costly Flynn fumble set up Pittsburgh's game-winning score.
Chicago won the last meeting between these teams, 27-20, but did so without Rodgers on the field for the final three quarters.
Meet the Bears
A week after throwing three touchdowns in a win over Cleveland, Jay Cutler regressed against the Eagles in his second game back from injury, leading a languid offense to their lowest point total of the season. Coach Marc Trestman remains staunchly in his corner, however, and Cutler will start over Josh McCown in the season finale.
Outside of Week 16, the Bears offense has had little problem scoring in 2013, ranking third in the NFL in that category. Everything starts with the revamped offensive line, which has paved the way for Matt Forte and a running game that averages 4.5 yards per attempt. The unit has also given up the fourth-fewest sacks in the league, giving Cutler and McCown plenty of time to find their massive receiving corps downfield. The line did have a particularly bad game last week (more on that below), so we'll see if they can bounce back.
The Bears defense, meanwhile, has been awful. They rank 29th in yardage allowed and 30th in scoring defense. The unit is particularly weak against the run, giving up a league-worst 162 rushing yards per game. They gave up 289 yards on the ground last Sunday against the Eagles.
Meet the Packers
How much of a difference will Rodgers make to this offense? Well, the stats say 10 points worth of difference. The Packers averaged 30.3 points per game with Rodgers as the starter; they've averaged 20.3 with anyone else. The big question, of course, is how ready is he? It's been eight weeks since he played in a game, and even Hall of Famers get rusty.
The silver lining in Rodgers's absence has been the development of rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who has seen an increased workload as the team has been forced to lean on the ground game. The result is the most reliable runner Green Bay has had since perhaps Ahman Green. If they manage to scrape their way into the playoffs, one could almost argue the Rodgers's injury was a net positive for the Pack.
The Packers' biggest defensive concern against the Bears will be getting pressure on the quarterback, something they failed to do against Pittsburgh. Not only did the defensive line not have a sack against Ben Rothlisberger, no member of that unit recorded a single tackle during the game. Injuries have compounded the problem. Big defensive tackle Johnny Jolly was lost for the season two weeks ago, and Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews has been ruled out after aggravating a thumb injury against the Steelers.
Local Takes: Bears
The Bears were awful in just about every aspect last Sunday against the Eagles, and as Sam Householder of Windy City Gridiron explains, the usually reliable offensive line was no exception.
This was by far the worst game the offensive line has had all year. They gave up five QB hits, and by my count at least two of the five sacks were on them. They did not open up running lanes, were missing assignments on blitzes, and just looked overmatched overall. Jordan Mills struggled and gave up the strip/sack and was lucky he fell on the ball. Jermon Bushrod struggled at times, and Roberto Garza had a bad snap and gave up a sack. Bad, bad game for them.
Local Takes: Packers
While Rodgers's absence has made this season less than ideal for Packers fans, Brendan Kennedy at Acme Packing Company says it's certainly made it memorable.
Again, if given the choice between 15-1 with your starting quarterback eviscerating the league on his way to an MVP award and a muffed, injury-riddled 7-7-1 with that same quarterback standing on the sidelines, I'll take the former. Still, there's something to be said for seasons like this one - the adversity, the frustration, even the heartbreak. In a vacuum, these are things that are as welcome to us sports fans as a Santa Claus with no pants on. But as we often forget, letdown plays an important role in our fandom. Without it, the joys of winning are less euphoric. Comebacks are less unexpected. It's these imperfections and flaws that give us the perspective to appreciate the victories, no matter how small they may be.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
People saying that next week will show #Bears fortitude... Pretty sure tonight would have been considered biggest opportunity.— Dane Noble (@WindyCGridiron) December 23, 2013
Cutler had his issues last week, but don't expect this offense to stay quiet for very long. His offensive line should have an easier time protecting him on Sunday, and he'll find a way to get the ball downfield to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. While Rodgers provides a major upgrade under center, I'm not sure he'll be 100 percent. Green Bay will keep leaning on Lacy, who should have a big day against Chicago's awful run defense. In Rodgers' return, it's Lacy that steals the show and powers the Pack into the postseason.
The pick: Packers, 34-28
With their star quarterback back in the fold, the Packers are 2½-point favorites on the road, according to Oddsshark.com.