NFL: Packers-Bears—Previewing the Rematch

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NFL: Packers-Bears—Previewing the Rematch
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The Green Bay Packers travel 180 miles down the shores of Lake Michigan Sunday for a 10 AM PST tilt against the only team in NFL history that has been in its home longer. But the two most storied franchises in the league have completely different goals...

With a win Sunday, the Green Bay Packers can ensure a winning record and at least second place in the NFC North. We cannot, no matter how things go in other games, lock up a playoff berth, but we can move into the top wild card seed for the time being.

The Bears, with their season all but over, will still be able to keep their extremely slim second place and even slimmer playoff hopes alive. For one week, Jay Cutler could make fans stop longing for Kyle Orton (much less all the additional value given up in the trade), and Lovie Smith could put off sending out that resume.

What a difference a month makes. At the start of November, these two teams were tied at 4-4, but the Packers have rattled off four straight wins for the fourth time in Mike McCarthy's four years coaching this team. The Bears lost four in a row before getting an unimpressive home victory over the one-win St. Louis Rams.

All the intangibles except desperation point toward the Packers, and with the lack of hope for the Bears, even urgency might not favour them over a team fighting to secure a playoff birth. The most significant mitigating factor becomes the trend that rivalry games favour the underdog in that games that do not look close usually still are, but the result is still a big advantage to the Packers for intangibles.

The Packers are beat up on the defensive line, with all four players in the rotation listed on the report. The team's best run-stuffer, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, is doubtful with a hamstring injury. Versatile back-up DT/DE B.J. Raji and end Cullen Jenkins are listed as probable and likely to be a little less than 100 percent. However, defensive end Johnny Jolly is questionable—my guess is he will suit up but see limited action, and that the team will promote practice squad NT Anthony Toribio as well as lean on DEs Michael Montgomery and/or Jarius Wynn.

Green Bay is also without linebackers Aaron Kampman and Jeremy Thompson as well as defensive backs Al Harris and Will Blackmon. Other players listed as probable on the injury report, all of whom should not only play but be close to 100 percent, are tackle Chad Clifton, tight end Jermichael Finley, cornerback Charles Woodson, and linebacker Nick Barnett.

As one would expect at this time of the year, Chicago has injuries, as well. They have been playing without linebacker Brian Urlacher since he was injured in the opening week against the Packers, and list both of their remaining outstanding linebackers (Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer) as probable—expect them to play at a high level, just as their defensive tackle teammates Tommie Harris and Israel Idonije.

However, converted wide receiver Devin Hester and tackle Orlando Pace are questionable. While both will probably play, they will not likely be at their best. Nevertheless, it is obvious that injuries are a big advantage for the Bears.

The Packers passing game is in the top quarter of the league in total yards and fourth in yards per pass play for two reasons:

  1. Aaron Rodgers has inserted himself into the MVP debate (even though he will not and should not contend for it unless he has the best four-game stretch of his career) by ranking fourth in the league in passer rating, third in the league in total yards (passing plus rushing) and second in total touchdowns.
  2. Packers receivers are once again in the top four in the league in yards after the catch. They are one of six corps in the NFL to have two players on pace for 1000-yard receiving seasons (incidentally, New England already has two there!), and are one of four teams with four receivers in the top-50 of the NFC for receiving yards.

However, the Bears are a stout ninth in both total passing yards and yards per play. The Packers seem to have improved their weakness of yielding sacks, giving up just four in the last three games, but they did face some pretty weak pass rushes (the week before that, they gave up four against a stout Cowboys' pass rush). With the Bears being about the middle of the pack in this category, this works out to be only a slight advantage for Green Bay passing against the Bears defense.

Ryan Grant has struggled in the last two weeks, but last week he was against a Ravens defense that ranks first in the NFL in yards per carry allowed and knew the Packers would be running the ball most of the second half. Grant is still on pace for another 1200-yard season, and Rodgers leads the league in quarterback rush yards.

Overall, Green Bay is ranked 11th in yards per carry and 13th in total yards rushing. The Bears are ranked 25th in both total yards allowed and yards per carry. Thus, the Packers have a big edge running against the Bears defense.

On the other side of the ball, Green Bay's defense is third against the pass in total yards and fourth in yards per play. This is thanks in large part to the best secondary in the league, even after the loss of Al Harris, led by the current front-runner for defensive player of the year, Charles Woodson. The team has even moved up to the middle of the pack in sacks, being tied for 15th.

Chicago ranks 16th in passing yards per game and just 19th in yards per play and their best receiver is hobbled. They are 16th in sacks allowed and their second best lineman is hobbled. This adds up to a big advantage for Green Bay's defense against the Bears passing attack.

The Packers rush defense ranks fourth in both yards per game and per play thanks to a stout line, deep linebacking corps, and great tacklers in the secondary. However, the line deserves the plurality of credit for this, and they are banged up.

The Bears rushing attack has fallen off for two reasons: Matt Forte's production is suffering from the sophomore jinx and the coaches have fallen in love with Jay Cutler's arm, convinced their play-calling has been better when statistically this offense is worse than last year's. Thus, the Bears are ranked 31st in rushing and 24th in yards per carry, leading to an huge advantage for the Packers when the Bears are running the ball.

On special teams, I have repeatedly documented the Packers being among the bottom third (and often bottom quarter) of the league in every statistical category (punt net average, punt return average, kick return average, kick coverage, and field goal percentage). I am certain enough that this remains true that I will not subject myself to the depression of verifying it.

Meanwhile the Bears have two potential Pro Bowl kickers and good punt and kick return statistics. Their coverage is not very good, especially on punts, but this still adds up to a big advantage for Chicago on special teams.

Overall, the Packers are first in the league in turnover ratio (plus-18), seventh in points scored (26.9) and ninth in points against (19.1). Green Bay is also second in time of possession (33:36) thanks in large part to a fifth-place ranking in third down percentage (45.7) on offense and sixth place defense(34.4).

Meanwhile, Cutler leads the league in interceptions and is horrible in the red zone, meaning a lot of those yards the team gets through the air are for naught; they are minus-four in turnover ratio for the season. In addition, 24th in time of possession (28:34) because they are only 20th in third-down percentage on offense (36.9) and 29th on defense (42.9).

Adding this statistical domination to the Packers' one slight and four big advantages I listed above, and the Bears' two big advantages are dwarfed. My prediction: Packers 34, Bears 13.

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