The first Sunday of the 2018 NFL regular season concludes on Sunday night with the latest edition of the longstanding rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Both teams were active in the offseason, a process that continued into training camp and saw Chicago trade for All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack over Labor Day weekend.
With the Bears undergoing a significant roster overhaul through free agency, the draft and then the trade for Mack while the Packers made a change at defensive coordinator and philosophy as well as making Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history, this is one of the more anticipated matchups between the two teams in some time. On paper, the NFC North is one of the more intriguing divisions to size up because of the changes each team made, so this game offers an opportunity for either team to take an early lead in the division race.
The Bears have gone 2-3 at Lambeau Field since the end of the Lovie Smith era and have a 2-8 record against the Packers overall since the start of the 2013 season. Green Bay hasn't been swept by Chicago in a single season since 2007 but has taken both games from their longtime division rivals six times over the past decade. The Packers enter this game having won four in a row and eight of their last 10 games against the Bears.
Even with Green Bay's recent dominance, the all-time series remains tight (96-94-6), which is fitting for the NFL's oldest rivalry.
Chicago at Green Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -8
Three Things to Watch
1. New-look Bears offense vs Packers' new defensive scheme
Well finally get to see what the Bears' new offense will look like under head coach and play-caller Matt Nagy. While we did get to see bits and pieces of his playbook during the preseason, it was mostly with bench players and guys who didn’t make the 53-man roster. Mitchell Trubisky is heading into his first full season as the starter with some new weapons at wide receiver (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller), a strong stable of running backs (Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham), un upgrade at tight end (Trey Burton), and an offensive line that’s finally completely healthy. But considering that the starters saw very limited snaps in August, it’ll take a series or two to develop a rhythm in a full game.
The Packers are also looking different on defense as they fired coordinator Dom Capers and replaced him with Mike Pettine. Out is Capers' preferred 3-4 alignment and in is the combination of both the 3-4 and 4-3 that Pettine will present. At Pettine’s disposal is a linebacking corps led by Clay Matthews, Blake Martinez and Nick Perry, foundational pieces in the secondary in safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerback Tramon Williams; and a defensive line that added 2011 first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency. Both units will be tested early and often on Sunday.
2. Packers' offense vs. Bears' defense
Just as the preseason was coming to an end, the Packers gave Aaron Rodgers a $134 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid player ever. Rodgers can thank the Bears for his record payday, as he's a sparkling 17-4 in his career against them. While I still question letting go of veteran Jordy Nelson, bringing in Jimmy Graham to solidify what had been a revolving door at the tight end position was an excellent signing. Ty Montgomery makes plays when needed at running back, while Jamaal Williams could see the majority of the carries during Aaron Jones' two-game suspension. Nelson may be gone but Davante Adams has replaced him as Rodgers' No. 1 target and Randall Cobb is looking to put a disappointing 2017 behind him. The offensive line will be key and when healthy it has done a solid job of keeping Rodgers upright.
The main reason why Bears fans are optimistic about this season is the defense more so than their offense, especially after trading for Kahlil Mack. While Mack will be the focus, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has plenty of other talented pieces to work with, including defensive end Akiem Hicks, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, cornerback Kyle Fuller, and safety Adrian Amos. But there are some concerns, especially at linebacker. Leonard Floyd (broken hand) and Aaron Lynch (hamstring) may not be 100 percent on Sunday (or play at all), while first-round pick Roquan Smith missed most of training camp because of a contract holdout and didn't play in a preseason game after signing because of a hamstring injury. Mack also missed all of the preseason because of his holdout and has had a little more than a week's worth of practice time with his new team. As good as this defense looks like on paper, there's no telling how it will perform on Sunday and you know that Rodgers will be ready to exploit any hole he finds in pass coverage.
3. Kahlil Mack
Mack could be the difference-maker when all is said and done. The last time he went against the Packers was in 2015 as a member of the Raiders. In that game he sacked Rodgers once, hit him once and registered a couple of tackles, including one for a loss. The two-time All-Pro will be the focus of Green Bay’s blocking scheme and how that plays out could open up chances for the Bears' other pass rushers. If the Packers are able to negate Mack's impact and give Rodgers plenty of time to throw that will certainly work in their favor. But given the timing of Mack's arrival and how he impacts both Chicago's defensive approach and Green Bay's offensive game plan, it's pretty clear that he could be the wild card on Sunday night.
This game will be fast-paced, hard-hitting and very physical. The Bears will surprise at times but the Packers will be eager to counter. Kahlil Mack will impress in his Bears debut and this team will gradually show improvement. This game should be fairly close throughout, but in the end the Packers' home-field advantage at Lambeau Field holds strong.
Prediction: Packers 27, Bears 24
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.