The oldest rivalry in the NFL will definitely have something on the line when the 7-7-1 Green Bay Packers take on the 8-7 Chicago Bears at Soldier Field this Sunday. The victor will win the NFC North and host a Wild Card playoff game at home. The loser will see its postseason aspirations die and will have to look forward to 2014.
The Packers have this opportunity because the Bears squandered a chance to clinch the division on Sunday night, when Chicago was embarrassed by the Eagles, 54-11, in Philadelphia.
The game on Sunday will be the biggest game these two storied franchises have played since the 2010 NFC Championship Game, also played at Soldier Field. The Packers beat the Bears 21-14 in that contest and went on to win Super Bowl XLV by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25.
The rivalry between Green Bay and Chicago dates back to 1921, with the Bears holding a 92-87-6 edge in the regular season, while both teams have each won a postseason game versus the other.
The Packers have recently played very well at Soldier Field, as they are 15-5 since 1992 at the field the Bears have called home since 1971.
Soldier Field was originally built in 1924, but the Bears called Wrigley Field home from 1921 through 1970.
In the winner-take-all battle on Sunday, there will be many factors as to who will win the game, but the play at the quarterback position will be very important.
Here is where there is quite an ironic twist to this game. Aaron Rodgers has not played since the November 4 game versus the Bears at Lambeau Field, when he fractured his clavicle while being tackled by defensive end Shea McClellin.
Rodgers has practiced with the Packers for a couple of weeks now but still has not been cleared to play medically as of yet. The decision on whether he will be cleared to play against the Bears this week should come soon, according to head coach Mike McCarthy, as he talked to the media on Monday via Packers.com:
This is something I think clearly after seeing Aaron practice for two weeks, this is something Ted Thompson and I need to sit down and we need to assess all the information and to decide if it’s time for him to play.
Aaron wants to play, has wanted to play for the last couple of weeks. He fully accepts, understands everything going on with his injury. So this is really a decision for Ted Thompson and I representing the organization. That’s how it works.
Having Rodgers available against the Bears would be a huge boost for the Packers. The team has gone 2-5-1 since he was injured.
Rodgers also has a great history against the Bears. Rodgers is 8-3 versus da Bears in the regular season. No. 12 has thrown for 2,513 yards and 19 touchdown passes compared to just six picks. That adds up to a career 102.7 quarterback rating.
Head coach Marc Trestman of the Bears said Sunday night that Jay Cutler would continue to start at quarterback. That is welcome news for Green Bay, at least based on his history against the Pack—not to mention how well his backup Josh McCown played against the Packers on November 4.
Cutler has a career regular-season mark of 1-7 against the Pack. In those games, Cutler has thrown for 1,702 yards and nine touchdowns versus 16 interceptions. That gives him a very mediocre quarterback rating of 61.5 when he is behind center against the Packers.
McCown, on the other hand, was very good against the Packers when the two teams met earlier this year. McCown threw two touchdown passes without a pick for 272 yards on that Monday night in Green Bay.
For the season, McCown has thrown for 1,829 yards and 13 touchdown passes versus just one pick while Cutler has been hampered by an assortment of injuries. Those stats add up to a sparkling 109.0 quarterback rating.
In another ironic twist, McCown helped the Packers win the 2003 NFC North title when, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, he threw a last-second touchdown pass to beat the Minnesota Vikings 18-17 in the last game of the season.
If Rodgers is held out again for the eighth consecutive week, Matt Flynn will get his fifth straight start. Flynn doesn't have a history against the Bears, but he is 2-2 as a starter this season, as he has thrown seven touchdown passes versus four picks while compiling 1,146 yards.
The play at quarterback will certainly be a determining factor as to who wins the game, but so will a lot of other elements.
For one thing, unlike many memorable contests in the past between the two teams, the offenses of both teams are very good, while the defenses are very bad.
The Packers do have have an advantage running the football, as Green Bay is ranked seventh in the league in toting the rock, while the Bears are ranked 18th.
The running game of the Packers has been led by rookie Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns. Lacy, however, tweaked his ankle again in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is questionable for the game.
In the last contest between the teams earlier this season, Lacy rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown.
Green Bay has a nice one-two combination with Lacy and James Starks. Starks has rushed for 405 yards and three touchdowns this season and has a very nice 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
The Packers have to be licking their chops about running the football against the Bears, as Chicago is dead last in the NFL in stopping the run. The Bears have given up an average of 161.5 yards per game versus the run so far this season.
But Chicago, likewise, should be excited to see the Green Bay run defense. When the two teams met in early November, the Packers had the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. That has plummeted to 26th in the league currently.
The fall started that night, as Matt Forte rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown.
There should also be a lot of passing in this game. The Bears are ranked fifth in total passing in the league, while the Packers are ranked eighth.
The Bears have three big receiving weapons in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. The three have combined for 244 receptions for 3,306 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Bears also like to utilize Forte in the passing game, too, as he has 70 receptions for 547 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers are ranked 21st in the league in pass defense and will have a major test in trying to stop the very potent passing game of the Bears. The Packers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to have a 95.5 quarterback rating so far this season.
The Packers passing game has obviously dropped off since the injury to Rodgers, but the team has some receiving weapons of its own, led by Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin. The three have combined for 175 receptions for 2,602 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Packers would love to have wide receiver Randall Cobb back for this game, but he is a long shot at this point. Still, Cobb has been practicing the past couple of weeks after being placed on the injured reserve designated to return list after breaking his tibia against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6.
The Packers also like to utilize their backs in the passing game, as Lacy and Starks have a combined 42 catches and one touchdown.
Great special teams play has always been a trademark of the Bears. Chicago still has the dangerous Devin Hester returning kickoffs and punts, and Hester does a have one punt return for a touchdown.
In the kicking game, Robbie Gould is having another solid season, as he is 26-of-29 on field goals. Adam Podlesh has averaged 41 yards a punt.
The return game of the Packers has gotten a boost this season thanks to rookie Micah Hyde, who, like Hester, has returned a punt for a touchdown this season. Hyde also returned a kickoff for 70 yards against the Steelers last Sunday.
Kicker Mason Crosby is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season for the Packers, as he is 31-of-35 on field goals—plus he has made five of seven field goals from 50 yards or better, including a 57-yard kick.
Tim Masthay has been very solid for the Packers as a punter, as he has averaged 44.7 yards a punt and has put 22 of his punts inside the 20.
Who will win the game on Sunday and become the NFC North champion in 2013?
The big game on Sunday might also come down to a war of attrition, as both teams have seen a number of players lost to injury, especially the Packers.
The Packers have placed 15 players on injured reserve so far in 2013, while the Bears have placed five on the list.
The Packers might be adding outside linebacker Clay Matthews to the list, as it appears that Matthews broke his thumb again on Sunday when he sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers.
The bottom line is this game will most likely come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes and which team wins the turnover battle.
The Bears have created 26 turnovers and have six defensive touchdowns, while the Packers have created 20 turnovers and have two defensive scores.
This will be the 186th game between these two historic teams, and never has a regular-season game been this important.
The NFC North title awaits the victor.