The 188th meeting between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers will determine which disappointing and underachieving team will be crowned champion of the volatile NFC North.
The records may not be pretty, but there's plenty on the line.
The 8-7 Bears can clinch their first division title since 2010 with a win or a tie Sunday afternoon, while the 7-6-1 Packers can claim a third straight championship by beating the Bears in Chicago for the fourth consecutive time.
The underlying storylines are pouring out of the next rendition of the game's oldest rivalry.
The Packers will return quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who fractured his collarbone against the Bears on Nov. 4 and hasn't played since. Green Bay went 2-4-1 in his absence.
According to Bovada, the Packers went from four-point underdogs to three-point favorites upon Rodgers' return.
Meanwhile, the Bears are preparing for arguably the biggest regular-season game of Jay Cutler's career. The impending free agent can sway his future one way or the other with his performance Sunday.
And of course, the winner of Sunday's de facto division title game will stamp its ticket to the playoffs, while also guaranteeing a home playoff game against the better of the two NFC Wild Cards. It's the first step in any run to the Super Bowl, no matter how unlikely such a run currently looks for either club.
By the time Sunday is over, the Packers and Bears will have combined for 10 of the first 12 NFC North titles. But will it be the Packers' seventh championship or the Bears' fourth?
Injury Report for Packers
|Injury Report for the Green Bay Packers|
|LB Brad Jones||Ankle||Probable|
|RB Eddie Lacy||Ankle||Probable|
|LB Clay Matthews||Thumb||OUT|
|LB Mike Neal||Abdomen||Probable|
|LB Nick Perry||Foot||Probable|
|DL Ryan Pickett||Knee||Probable|
|TE Andrew Quarless||Ankle||Probable|
|QB Aaron Rodgers||Collarbone||Probable|
|TE Jake Stoneburner||Illness||Probable|
|TE Ryan Taylor||Illness||Probable|
The big news here is that Rodgers will be back after seven straight missed games. But with the return of Rodgers comes the exit of Matthews, who re-broke his right thumb and won't play Sunday. The fact that Lacy is probable is good news against a bad Bears run defense, and Mike Neal and Nick Perry—both also listed as probable—will need to step up in place of Matthews.
Injury Report for Bears
|Chicago Bears Injury Report|
|WR Earl Bennett||N/A||Questionable|
|LB Lance Briggs||Shoulder||Probable|
There isn't much on the Bears injury report. Lance Briggs played over 75 percent of the snaps against the Eagles last week and will start Sunday. Earl Bennett is questionable while dealing with a family matter.
Are the Packers Prepared to Play a Top Offense?
It's a valid question regardless of Rodgers' return to the field.
The Packers' tumultuous decline on defense coincided with Rodgers' injury, and there's truth to the idea that good quarterback play can help keep a defense fresh and dictate the flow and direction of a game. However, Rodgers won't be able to mask all the concerns facing Green Bay Sunday.
Since Rodgers' injury on Nov. 4, the Packers have allowed 1,123 rushing yards, the second most in the NFL over those seven games (behind only Chicago). Overall, Green Bay gave up 407.3 total yards per game, the fifth most, and 30.7 points, the second most, without Rodgers available.
|Crumbling: Packers Defense Since Week 9|
|Points/G||Total Yards/G||Pass Yards/G||Run Yards/G|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
The struggling defense will now go on the road to face the Bears' third-ranked scoring offense (27.8 points per game), and it'll have to do it without Clay Matthews, who re-injured his right thumb in Week 16.
In the first meeting between these two clubs, Chicago scored 27 points and totaled 442 yards, including 171 rushing. Matt Forte had 179 total yards, and both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery caught touchdown passes from backup Josh McCown.
The Bears have a talented attack that leans on Forte, but Chicago can also attack both the intermediate and deep levels with Marshall and Jeffery, two 1,000-yard receivers. Tight end Martellus Bennett is approaching 700 yards receiving and is a fine in-line blocker.
Jay Cutler is still unpredictable at quarterback, but his weaponry is of an elite caliber. The Packers aren't playing well on the defensive side and will be without their top defender. This is a matchup that strongly favors the Bears.
What Will the Injury Returns Mean for the Packers Offense?
Rodgers' return should have an obvious effect.
The Packers got by at times with Matt Flynn under center, but he was also Green Bay's fourth option at quarterback and a player cut by both Oakland and Buffalo this season. Having Rodgers back should elevate the entire offense, from the running game to pass protection to the downfield passing game.
Keep in mind, the Packers were ranked in the top five in scoring, total yards, rushing offense, passing offense and third-down rate with Rodgers healthy. He gives Green Bay a chance to be that productive and efficient almost immediately against the Bears.
Getting back Randall Cobb could have an added effect.
Cobb has missed 10 games after suffering a gruesome leg injury in October, but he's now on the brink of a return. One of the game's premier slot receivers, Cobb was on pace for over 90 catches and 1,200 yards when the injury occurred.
The cumulative effect of both returning could mean big things for Green Bay.
Rodgers would return to captain an offense featuring a potential 1,200-yard rusher in Eddie Lacy, a healthy trio of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Cobb, and emerging threats in Jarrett Boykin and Andrew Quarless. That's a talented and diverse mix of players that should give Chicago's slumping defense a fair amount of trouble Sunday.
Can the Bears Compete Against the Run?
On Friday, we took a deep dive into how poorly the Bears have played the run this season, especially of late. This has been a historically bad run defense, both in terms of the franchise and league record books.
We won't re-hash everything here, but a few numbers do stand out and bear (no pun intended) repeating.
Over the last nine games, the Bears have allowed 1,811 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry. All three figures rank dead last in the NFL. Overall, the Bears are giving up 5.4 yards per carry, which would be the highest single-season total allowed since 1961.
|Bears Run Defense, Last Nine Games|
|Yards per Carry||6.3||32nd|
|*Bears also rank 32nd overall in yards and yards per carry|
Expecting this run defense to suddenly figure out all the problems present is unrealistic. But to outlast the Packers Sunday, the Bears will at least have to compete against the run.
Green Bay ran for 199 yards without Rodgers for all but one series in the first meeting. It was Green Bay's highest rushing total of the season, but keep in mind that the Packers averaged 141.5 rushing yards with Rodgers healthy and only 112.4 in the last seven without him. This is a better rushing team when Rodgers is under center and constantly threatening play action and the deep safeties in the vertical passing game.
The Packers are unlikely to threaten the 289 rushing yards compiled by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, but another 199-yard output would give Green Bay a great chance to score points and control the contest. The Bears may need to keep the Packers closer to 100 rushing yards to win the game.
Will Marc Trestman Change Cutler's Fortune?
By the time Sunday is over, you will have heard about Cutler's career record against the Packers plenty.
Quick rundown for those living under a rock: He is 1-8 over nine career games against Green Bay, with 17 interceptions and a passer rating south of 55.0. Overall, the Bears have averaged fewer than 14 points in the nine games. The numbers aren't pretty.
However, the numbers don't mean much of anything with Marc Trestman now calling the shots in Chicago. A bright offensive mind with an intimate knowledge of the quarterback position, Trestman has elevated the Bears passing game to fifth in the NFL in yards and touchdowns, with an impressive cumulative passer rating of 96.6.
That said, most of Trestman's impact has appeared to rub off on Josh McCown, not Cutler. While Cutler got off to a strong start, his 2013 numbers don't look much different than his career averages.
Cutler's current passer rating of 88.1 is less than four points above his career mark of 84.4 and only one point over his three years in Denver (87.1). His completion percentage has gone up two points, but his yards per attempt is exactly at his career average. And maybe most importantly, Cutler's interception percentage is down only 0.1, from 3.4 over his career to 3.3 this season. The 3.3 percent is actually higher now than in each of his last two seasons.
Trestman has Cutler playing better football, but the impact has been only marginal statistically. He'll need to be considerably better Sunday against the Packers, who have historically had their way with Cutler and the Bears offense.
Tale of the Tape
|Tale of the Tape|
|Packers 6, Bears 4|
Bringing back Rodgers gives the Packers a clear advantage at quarterback, although the depth with Josh McCown makes it much closer. Matt Forte's ability as a receiver pushes running back to Chicago, despite Lacy and James Starks representing a better overall tandem than Forte and Michael Bush.
Receiver was the toughest of all the picks. The Bears have two Pro Bowl-caliber stars in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, but the Packers run four-deep with Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin. Green Bay gets the slightest of advantages because of versatility and depth.
The Bears have fewer holes along the offensive line but can't match Green Bay's beef on the defensive line. Picking linebackers was a choice between two bad units, especially with Briggs knocking off rust and Matthews out. And Chicago not having Charles Tillman means Green Bay has more playmakers in the secondary.
Special teams goes to the Bears because of Devin Hester's ability to change field position. Finally, Mike McCarthy gets the edge over up-and-coming Marc Trestman thanks to track record, experience in the NFL game and a Super Bowl title in 2010.
Prediction: Packers 34, Bears 27
A division that has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride figures to provide a title game that is just as unpredictable and compelling as the previous 16 weeks.
Both defenses have proved to be liabilities, and with Rodgers back in the lineup, both offenses have the capability to take full advantage of the opposing defense. This game has shootout written all over it, and 60 or more combined points is certainly in the cards Sunday.
The ultimate difference in so many of these close, divisional games comes down to turnovers, and it's certainly easier to envision Cutler throwing the one mistake that turns the game than Rodgers, even if he's a little rusty out of the gate.
Expect a back-and-forth game with both defenses bending plenty and breaking just as often. In the end, the Packers turn the one Chicago mistake into the game-deciding points and win the NFC North with a 8-7-1 record.