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Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers Preview and Prediction

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers

The NFL’s longest running rivalry resumes tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Green Bay Packers at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Packers (5-2) are in first place in the NFC North and have won five in a row overall, while the Bears (4-3) have dropped three of their last four games after opening the season 3-0. With the Bears dealing with so many injuries on both sides of the ball, it will be up to All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman and a patchwork defense to try and slow down Aaron Rodgers and a well-balanced Packers offensive attack.

This represents the 187th meeting, including playoffs, between these historic, long-time divisional rivals. This is the NFL’s longest running rivalry and although Chicago holds a slim lead (92-88-6) in these head-to-head matchups, the Packers have won six in a row overall and the last five played at Lambeau Field. Green Bay also has won 11 straight against NFC North opponents, a big reason why the Packers have won the last two division titles.

3 Things to Watch

Will Chicago’s Offense Click Without Cutler?
Jay Cutler will miss tonight’s game because of the groin injury he sustained in the Bears’ last game, a Week 7 loss to the Redskins. With Cutler sidelined, Josh McCown will make his first start since the end of the 2011 season. An 11-year veteran with more than 30 career starts under his belt, McCown filled in quite nicely after Cutler got hurt, completing 14 of 20 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown in the 45-41 loss to Washington. McCown is a veteran who has not only faced the Packers before, he also has played at Lambeau Field. McCown’s first start in 2011 was on the road against Green Bay on Christmas Day. He threw for 242 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions that day, a 35-21 loss. McCown won’t be asked to do it all by himself, as running back Matt Forté will be heavily involved in the game plan, and he also has wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett at his disposal. Still, the Bears need McCown to execute the offense and take care of the football, because Chicago’s defense is too banged up and not playing well enough right now to expect it to be able to shut out the Packers entirely. Following Cutler’s injury, the initial time frame for his return was about four weeks. Cutler is making progress and has stated that his goal is to return sooner than expected. How well McCown fares on the road in a big divisional game could go a long ways in determining how the Bears approach Cutler’s recovery timeline.

Bear-ing Down on Defense
Chicago’s defense was one of the NFL’s best last season, ranking fifth in yards allowed and third in points allowed. This year’s unit has struggled under new coordinator Mel Tucker, ranking 27th in yards allowed (391) and 29th in points (29.4) entering Week 9. While there have been several key personnel changes, the biggest problem this season has been staying healthy. The Bears have lost both starting defensive tackles and a linebacker to season-ending injuries with Lance Briggs, the unit’s veteran leader, expected to be out more than a month. There is still talent left, but key parts like All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman are playing hurt and the Bears are relying on two rookie linebackers as starters. Chicago knows full well the task ahead of them, as Aaron Rodgers is 8-2 in his career against the Bears. One way or another, this Bears defense has to find a way to force Rodgers and company to earn their yards and points. Whether that be someone unheralded stepping up along the defensive line, the rookie linebackers flashing their talent and potential in select spots, or Tillman and fellow All-Pro corner Tim Jennings shutting down the Packers’ passing game, the 2013 version of the Monsters of the Midway need to make an appearance tonight if the Bears have any hope of winning.

Will the Packers Stick to the Script?
Green Bay has won four games in a row, although not in the fashion you may think. Aaron Rodgers is averaging less than 284 yards passing during this span with just seven touchdown passes. The Packers have been hit hard by injuries to its offensive skill players, as wide receiver Randall Cobb is out until the middle of December with a broken leg, tight end Jermichael Finley is out indefinitely with a spinal contusion and wideout James Jones has missed the last two games because of a sprained knee. Jones could possibly return tonight, but what the Packers have done during their winning streak is lean heavily on the running game. Green Bay is averaging more than 150 yards rushing per game during this streak and for the season is third in the NFL in rushing offense (141.4 ypg). The main engine has been rookie Eddie Lacy, who has 395 yards rushing over his last four games. He has gotten 22 or more carries in each of these contests and is averaging four yards per attempt. Lacy even got a helping hand from James Starks last week, who returned against Minnesota after missing the previous three games with a knee injury. Starks had seven carries for 57 yards and a touchdown, while Lacy went for 94 and a score in the 44-31 victory. The Packers have found something that works and there’s no reason to expect them to go away from that against a Bears defense that is giving up more than 117 yards rushing per game. Unlike past meetings, Rodgers doesn’t have to do it all against the Bears, which makes him and the Packers offense that much more dangerous.

Chicago Key Player: Matt Forté, RB
The Bears will miss having Jay Cutler under center tonight, but the real key to this offense is Forté. New head coach Marc Trestman keeps his No. 1 running back busy, as Forté is eight in the NFL in rushing yards (533) and entered Week 9 third at his position in receptions (35). Green Bay’s defense has done a very good job against the run thus far, ranking fourth in the league at 83.6 yards per game. However, Forté is much more than just a rusher and he needs to find a way to make plays tonight to not only help the offense move the ball down the field, but to make things easier on backup quarterback Josh McCown, who is making his first start since late in the 2011 season. Forté figures to be one busy Bear tonight, he also needs to be a productive one.

Green Bay Key Player: A.J. Hawk, LB
The Packers’ defense entered this game 11th in the NFL in yards allowed and 16th in points allowed. The unit has been very good against the run (4th, 83.6 ypg) and has been at its best during this current four-game winning streak. One of the reasons for their success has been the play of Hawk, who has stepped up his production in his eighth season in Green Bay. Hawk leads the team in tackles (59) by a wide margin and is tied for second with three sacks. He has posted double-digit stops in two of his last three games, which also is the amount of time his teammate, All-Pro Clay Matthews has missed with a broken thumb. Even though Hawk and company are facing Chicago backup quarterback Josh McCown tonight, they know that it won’t be easy, especially with the weapons the Bears have. It will be up to Hawk to take charge in stopping Matt Forté, both as a runner and a receiver, as well as protecting the middle of the field where McCown may look for one of his wide receivers or tight end Martellus Bennett. The Packers defense hasn’t missed a beat since Matthews went down and Hawk will try to maintain the status quo tonight.

Final Analysis

Even with Jay Cutler at quarterback, Chicago would have had its work cut out against a Green Bay team that is playing exceptionally well right now. Josh McCown will get some things done, but the Bears don’t have enough firepower to keep up with a balanced Packers offense that has rediscovered its running game.

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In the end, the Packers hammer the Bears on the ground, which allows Aaron Rodgers to pick and choose his shots through the air. The Bears hang in there, but fall too far behind and can’t make enough stops on defense as the Packers extend their winning streak to five with a seventh straight victory over the Bears.

Green Bay 34, Chicago 23