After a second week in the NFL that had many experts, fans, and commentators scratching their heads, the NFC North has two teams at 2-0. One was expected, the other was not.
The Pack have taken care of business in two largely uninspiring victories against Buffalo and Philadelphia. The Bears meanwhile, have scraped past the Lions thanks to a hugely controversial call on a Calvin Johnson TD that wasn't, and then proceeded to pick the Dallas Cowboys apart in a thoroughly impressive performance from the new Mike Martz-Jay Cutler alliance.
What was, at the start of the season, marked as a must-watch game simply down to the fact that it's the latest installment in the NFL's oldest and most storied rivalry, now suddenly has implications to gain early ground in the race for the NFC North title.
Here are the five most important matchups in the upcoming Monday Night Football clash.
1. Mike Martz vs. Dom Capers
These are two of the most creative minds in their respective fields. Martz was the man behind "The Greatest Show on Turf" and Capers is a renowned blitz-happy coordinator who brings a lot of unexpected looks.
Martz seems to have found a way to at least partially create a level of protection for Jay Cutler by moving him around in the pocket. He also seems to have a point to prove to many experts by utilizing Greg Olsen as a receiving threat at tight end.
Matt Forte seems to be doing his best to impersonate Marshall Faulk as a dual rushing-receiving threat. In other words, he's doing a good job of covering up his main offensive weaknesses at receiver at tackle and finding ways to score points.
Capers is running the 3-4 defense in Green Bay for the second year and the players look to be much more comfortable with the scheme this year. If Capers can find a way to bring pressure outside of Clay Matthews with the likes of Nick Barnett, Cullen Jenkins, and BJ Raji then the Bears O-line could well be in trouble.
On the flipside, Capers seems to have been curiously unable to stop elite quarterbacks and Packers fans will have painful memories of the likes of Warner, Roethlisberger, and Favre (twice) torching the secondary for seemingly infinite yards.
To me this comes down to the question as to which coordinator can protect his weaknesses better. At this point I'll give the edge to Martz as Capers has less scope to hide his rookies Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields—but it's close.
2. Julius Peppers vs. Bryan Bulaga
Let me put it this way. And Pack fans won't necessarily agree with me here, but Chad Clifton is done in this league. Ever since he was hit by Warren Sapp he hasn't been the same and getting benched against the Bills is a sad indictment of where his career is.
Sooner or later Bulaga was going to have to start anyway and now looks like the best option. He's not as agile as Clifton was in his prime but he's technically sound and a better run-blocker than Clifton ever was.
If I'm honest here, Brandon Jackson could be Bulaga's biggest ally—he's an excellent protector who will hopefully slow Peppers down enough to allow Rodgers to find his targets.
As to the Pro Bowl rusher, many experts mocked the Bears for spending $91 million to bring in Peppers from the Panthers, but after harassing Tony Romo last week, and putting Matt Stafford on the treatment table for six weeks it's looking like a sound investment.
Again I'm giving the edge to the Bears here. Peppers is not a one-trick pony. I'd be stunned if he didn't have a significant impact here, but Rodgers is very good on his feet and so although pressure is a near certainty—a sack is not.
3. Brian Urlacher vs. Jermichael Finley
As I've written elsewhere Finley is a problem for so many defensive coordinators because his ability to cause a mismatch is so large. What makes this interesting is that in multi-receiver sets where Finley may normally wreak havoc, Urlacher may be the one linebacker who can keep up with Finley enough to make his numbers unspectacular. The only problem with that is that he's getting older and the difference in pace may be the deciding factor here.
If Urlacher can't do a sufficient job on Finley then the Bears defense has a problem in that they have to match him against a cornerback and with the Packers' plethora of other weapons in Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and a seemingly improved James Jones, that could be a game-changer.
The edge goes to the Pack here. I wonder if Urlacher can do all the things that made him so great as a defensive MVP without help. I'm sure that Aaron Rodgers will be aware that teams are going to look to do a job on Finley to stop his safety net. After the Eagles game where he looked for him too often, I'm sure he'll do his best to rectify that flaw in his game.
4. Johnny Knox vs. Sam Shields
This is a matchup that may or may not happen. But this is worth watching simply due to Knox's speed. I suspect that starting up they'll have memories of Knox torching Charles Woodson in Week 1 of last year and therefore will put Tramon Williams on him.
If Williams can't keep stride and it becomes painful then putting Shields, who's the fastest guy on the squad, may be the only option left. Initially that looks like a total mismatch, but I really don't rate Knox as a route-runner and he has a tendency to stop on routes.
For all his flaws, Shields has a ball-hawking nature that could mean he either bites on a play for a big mistake or comes up with a catch for a pick-six.
This matchup may not be a central theme to the game - but I'd be unsurprised if a play from either of these two, came out as the central play.
5. Tommie Harris vs. Josh Sitton
This is a story of two guys. One who is living off a past reputation, and one whose consistently good play is lost due to the situation around him.
Sitton is the Pack's best lineman by a distance and solid, if somewhat unspectacular. If Sitton in particular can do a job on Harris who, on his day, is still a dominating interior presence, then not only does it make the run-game easier, but it means that by default Julius Peppers becomes less effective as an outside rusher.
Many people think that without Ryan Grant the Packers are now maybe the worst rushing side in the league. If however Sitton can open up the holes of which he's capable then Brandon Jackson could well be effective on Monday.
This is the best that both teams have been at the same time for quite a while, these are not necessarily the most obvious battles—but they're ones that are crucial to how the game pans out.
Roll on Monday.
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