Longtime divisional rivals will get reacquainted when NFC North counterparts Green Bay and Chicago square off at Solider Field Sunday afternoon on FOX. The Packers (1-2) have gotten off to a slow start thanks in large part to a sluggish offense and suspect run defense. The Bears (2-1) have turned things around after losing their season opener at home in overtime, posting consecutive road wins against the 49ers and Jets.
The NFL’s longest-running rivalry, this will be the 189th overall meeting (only two of these occuring in the postseason) between these historic franchises. Chicago holds a slim 93-89-6 lead, but Green Bay has dominated during the Aaron Rodgers era. Since Rodgers became the starter in 2008, the Packers are 10-3 against the Bears, including a win at Soldier Field in the 2011 NFC Championship Game.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -1.5
Three Things to Watch
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1. Green Bay’s Offensive Woes
Raise your hand if you thought after three games this season the Packers would rank near the bottom of the NFL in total offense. Even with the season opener in Seattle, no one expected an Aaron Rodgers-led offense to be averaging fewer than 300 yards and only 18 points per game. Rodgers’ 697 yards passing in these first three games is the lowest in his career as a starting quarterback, while his 62.8 completion rate is his worst since 2009 (56.7). He does have five touchdown passes compared to just one interception, but these numbers pale in comparison to the damage he did in the first three games of 2013: 1,057 yards, eight touchdowns, three picks. Again, putting up low numbers (189-1-1) on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks is perfectly understandable, but last week’s 162-yard passing effort against Detroit represented the fewest in any start (90 career) during which Rodgers didn’t leave early due to injury. The Packers’ offensive line issues are well documented and the running game certainly hasn’t done its part (more on that later), but everyone knows that this offense begins and end with No. 12. He’s had a great deal of success against Chicago in his career (10-3 record, 21:10 TD:INT ratio), so maybe a familiar face will be just the medicine this ailing offense needs to get well.
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2. Will Cutler “Pack” it in Again?
While Aaron Rodgers has thrived against Chicago, Jay Cutler has struggled mightily against his divisional rival. In 10 career games against Green Bay, including playoffs, Cutler is 1-9 having lost six in a row dating back to the 2010 season. Of these 10 games, all but one have been with the Bears and in those contests, Cutler has completed 54.4 percent of his passes for less than 200 yards per game (193.8), 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He as thrown at least one interception in every game he has started for Chicago against the Packers, including one in a forgettable performance in the 2011 NFC title game. He left that game in the third quarter due to a knee injury, but in many ways his stat line that afternoon (6-of-14 passing, 80 yards, INT) sums up his struggles against Green Bay perfectly. Now in his second season in head coach Marc Trestman’s up-tempo offense, Cutler has looked comfortable and poised in the early going, despite the fact that the offensive line has been operating without two starters most of the way. Through three games this season, Cutler has completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 750 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’s done this despite getting little support from the running game (more on that below), getting sacked seven times and facing pressure on a fairly regular basis, especially last week against the blitz-happy Jets. There’s no dispute that this is Cutler’s offense and he certainly has a wide range of talented, explosive weapons to work with at every skill position. He also has a little bit of additional momentum in that he’s coming off of his best statistical showing yet against the hated Packers. In Week 17 last season, Cutler completed 15 of 24 passes (62.5 percent) for 226 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (good for a passer rating of 103.8), as the Bears dropped a heartbreaker on a late long touchdown pass by Rodgers. Even though it was in a losing effort, Cutler showed enough improvement that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this will be the game in which he finally breaks through against his longtime nemesis.
3. Something’s Gotta Give on the Ground
When it comes to the running game so far this season, Green Bay and Chicago have had a lot in common, but not in a good way. The Packers and the Bears both rank near the bottom of the NFL in rushing offense and have had just as much trouble stopping the run as well. In 2013, Chicago’s Matt Forté and Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy finished second and eighth in the league in rushing, respectively. This season each is averaging less than 3.3 yards per carry, as the Bears are dead last at 64 yards rushing per game and the Packers not much better (27h) at 78.7. Both teams can lay some of the blame on injuries along their offensive lines, but their Pro Bowl-caliber backs need to start producing accordingly for either team to reverse this disconcerting early trend. The good news there is that this sets up as an ideal matchup with both defenses struggling mightily to stop the run. Green Bay is giving up 156 yards rushing per game (30th in the NFL) while Chicago dropped to 144.7 after “holding” the Jets to just 114 on 26 carries (4.4 ypc) in its win on Monday night. As important as the passing game is when these two teams get together, whichever offense is able to gain the most ground as it relates to the run game, on either side of the ball, figures to have the advantage this afternoon.
It’s always must-see TV when these two historic rivals get together. Green Bay is trying to gain some footing after getting off to a slow start and can ill afford to drop to 0-2 in divisional play. Chicago is hoping to build on the momentum it’s gained from consecutive road wins while picking up a key early victory in NFC North play. Both teams have dealt with their share of injuries early on, especially along the offensive line, and have gotten next to nothing from their running games or run defenses for that matter. And at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers has been stellar against the Bears while Jay Cutler has struggled mightily against the Packers. So what’s going to give this afternoon? I’m not saying Cutler completely outshines his MVP counterpart, but I do think the Bears’ highly criticized signal-caller’s positive plays will outweigh the negative ones. However, Cutler won’t have to defeat Green Bay by himself, as a sizeable contribution on the ground from Matt Forté, some key stops from a patchwork secondary and an effective pass rush will come together to round out a balanced, team effort that puts Chicago in the driver’s seat in the division.