After seeing their chances for a perfect season go awry in Kansas City, the 13-1 Green Bay Packers still have a big goal ahead of them before they end the 2011 NFL regular season. That is...clinching the No. 1 seed in the NFC and getting home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Trying to achieve that goal starts on Christmas night, when the Packers will host the 7-7 Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Both teams will limp into that game with a number of key players missing due to injuries. Compared to the 2010 season, the Packers have had much better luck in 2011, at least until recently.
In 2010, the Packers had 15 players on injured reserve at season's end. This season started ominously as Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was lost for the year with a neck injury in Week 2. The Packers have also had to place rookie RB Alex Green (knee), TE Andrew Quarless (knee) and OT Derek Sherrod (broken leg) on IR as well.
The Packers have also battled other injury issues too. RT Bryan Bulaga sprained his knee against the Bears in Chicago in Week 3 and missed a couple of weeks. Bulaga sprained his knee again last week against Kansas City and he is very unlikely to play against the Bears on Saturday. Sherrod broke his leg filling in for Bulaga in the Kansas City game.
LT Chad Clifton has been out since Week 5 when he suffered a severe hamstring injury against the Atlanta Falcons. Clifton has had up and down progress trying to rehab from that injury,but he also has back issues now too. Clifton is supposed to test his progress today at practice.
Because of the injuries on the offensive line, the Packers will line up against the Bears with the same line that finished the game against the Chiefs. That is Marshall Newhouse at LT, Evan Dietrich-Smith at LG, Scott Wells at C, Josh Sitton at RG and T.J. Lang at RT. That line will be facing one of the premier defensive linemen in the NFL in Julius Peppers. The biggest priority for the line will be protecting QB Aaron Rodgers, who has been hit hard the past few weeks. The Packers also signed street free-agent OT Herb Taylor to replace Sherrod on the roster.
Besides of the offensive line injury issues, the Packers also lost WR Greg Jennings to a knee sprain against the Oakland Raiders and Jennings won't be back until the playoffs. Add to all of that, that the Packers played last week against the Chiefs with only two running backs suited up, as James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) were inactive. DL Ryan Pickett (concussion) was also inactive. Saine and Pickett are expected back this week, but the status of Starks is still questionable.
The Bears will not have any sympathy for the Packers however. The Bears will be missing QB Jay Cutler (broken finger), RB Matt Forte (knee) and WR Johnny Knox (back) among others on Christmas Eve as they line up to play the Packers.
So what does all this mean for the Packers as they wind down the 2011 season and get ready for the playoffs? It means playing your best players (if healthy) against the Bears to try and clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage though the NFC playoffs. That is priority No. 1.
The team also can't afford anymore injuries. Again, the No. 1 guy that the Packers cannot afford to lose is Rodgers. Like almost all games against the Bears, the Packers must be ready to play from snap one. Even with all of their injuries, the Bears can still be dangerous, especially on defense and special teams.
If the Packers DO clinch home-field advantage with a win against the Bears, then I think Mike McCarthy will do basically the same thing he did in 2007 in the last game of the season, which also was ironically against the Lions.
That is...play the regulars like he would in a preseason game, and let them rest after the first half against Detroit. Now that the perfect season scenario is gone, it doesn't make sense to risk injuries to key players if a team has already clinched the No. 1 seed, especially against a team like the Lions who are known to play well after the whistle and will administer cheap shots. (Case in point...the Ndamukong Suh stomping incident against Dietrich-Smith in the Thanksgiving game against the Packers.)
Yes, the Packers want to win every game, but it also makes sense that the backup players for the Packers get a lot of snaps in the Detroit game, so they will be more ready to play if an injury situation occurs in the playoffs to a key player.
The Packers have a "next man up" attitude on their team. This is where the depth accumulated by Ted Thompson helps the team when there are injuries to key players. One of the biggest examples is Super Bowl XLV, when CB Charles Woodson (broken collarbone) and WR Donald Driver (leg) were forced to leave the game due to injuries.
In addition, CB Sam Shields was limited due to a shoulder injury. Guys like Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush stepped up after the injuries to Woodson and Shields and held down the fort in the secondary in the second half as the Packers won 31-25.
Jordy Nelson stepped up for Driver and had his biggest game of the season in the Super Bowl, catching nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Bottom line, the Packers need to be smart in the next couple of weeks. They have to obviously win at least one game to clinch home-field advantage, unless the 49ers lose one of their two remaining games. The best case scenario is beating the Bears on Christmas. Then the team can rest key players in the Detroit game, plus get the backups some quality snaps as well.
The Packers should also not rush anyone back that is currently rehabbing from an injury. That includes Clifton and Starks. Both of those players can be key components for the Packers in the playoffs, just like they were in 2010 when the Packers went 4-0 in the postseason and won Super Bowl XLV.