The National Football League kicking off the season on Thursday nights has become so commonplace that non-football fans have gotten used to it. Normally, the Super Bowl champion from the previous season headlines the Thursday night opener (in some cases it's a Super Bowl rematch). But this year the league decided to change things up. In celebration of the NFL's 100th anniversary season, the league has decided to showcase its oldest rivalry instead. The Chicago Bears will host the Green Bay Packers as the NFL's "Black and Blue" division will be on display.
The Bears are coming off a 12-4 campaign in 2018. They won their first NFC North title and made their first playoff appearance since 2010. Although they lost in the Wild Card Round to the Philadelphia Eagles, they showed the football world that Chicago is a force to be reckoned with again. The Packers posted a 6-9-1 record last season and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. The team did deal with some injuries, but ultimately it was a 1-5 stretch during November and early December that caused the front office to remove Mike McCarthy as head coach with four weeks left in the season.
Interim head coach Joe Philbin was not retained either. The Packers are looking for a fresh start under new head coach Matt LaFleur, who spent the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator for both the Los Angeles Rams (2017) and the Tennessee Titans (2018). The matchup between LaFleur and Bears head coach Matt Nagy should be quite the chess match, especially since both teams evenly split last year's meetings.
Green Bay at Chicago
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 5 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Defenses could take center stage
Many fans are hoping for a shootout between Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (62.3 completion percentage, 4,442 passing yards, 25 TDs in 2018) and Bears counterpart Mitchell Trubisky (66.6 percent, 3,223 yards, 24 TDs). But I don't expect that to be the case. The Bears return just about all of their talent (with some nice additions) from last year's dominant defense (league-leading 17.7 ppg allowed) which finished as the NFL's best unit. Khalil Mack (12.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for a loss last year), Akiem Hicks (14.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks), Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan (combined for 224 tackles), Eddie Jackson, and Kyle Fuller (combined for 13 interceptions and 36 pass deflections) and company are back to prove that last year was no fluke.
New additions to this defense include former Packer and Redskins safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (14 career INT's) and cornerback Buster Skrine (9 career picks), along with rookie cornerback Duke Shelley (12 tackles in the preseason), and rookie linebacker Josh Woods (23 tackles, 3 TFLs, sack in preseason). The only major change is that former Indianapolis head coach (2012-17) Chuck Pagano replaces Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. Pagano's version of the 3-4 is similar to Fangio's so there shouldn't be too many changes.
The Packers (allowed 25.0 ppg in 2018) hope to improve on defense after heavily investing in the linebacker position and the secondary this offseason. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was retained by LaFleur so his 4-3, 3-4 hybrid scheme is still in place. Pettine has several fresh faces at linebacker this year, including first-round pick (12th overall) Rashan Gary and seventh-round selection Ty Summers, along with free-agent signings Za'Darius Smith (18.5 career sacks with the Baltimore Ravens from 2015-18) and Preston Smith – no relation – (167 career tackles, 24.5 career sacks). They join Blake Martinez, the anchor in the middle who led the team with 144 tackles in 2018. The big addition in the secondary is safety Adrian Amos, a former Bear (2015-18) who signed a four-year, $37 million contract in free agency.
2. Coaches and quarterbacks
This storyline will get the most attention albeit for different reasons. Trubisky and Nagy are entering their second season together. Trubisky flourished under Nagy's guidance last year, and now Bears fans are hoping that the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft can take it to the next level. Rodgers had been paired with Mike McCarthy for his entire career. But entering his 15th season, all eyes will be watching to see how the veteran and rookie head coach work together.
LaFleur has 10 years of NFL coaching experience but this is his first shot at being a head coach on any level. LaFleur's arrival also means a new offense for Rodgers and the Packers as a whole. Under McCarthy, the Packers essentially ran the NFL's version of the no-huddle/shotgun/spread offense that we see dominating college football. This offense gave Rodgers plenty of control at the line of scrimmage, especially when it came to audibles and calling his own plays. LeFleur's playbook has elements of the West Coast offense that's seen success at both the pro and college levels, and he's promised that the Packers will run the ball more often in 2019 after finishing 22nd in that department (104.2 ypg) last season.
We all know that Rodgers loves to throw the ball early and often, but it's also been documented that the previous offense left Rodgers open to unnecessary hits at times. LaFleur's system should help prevent some of the injuries that Rodgers has endured in recent seasons, but the more important aspect moving forward will be the relationship between quarterback and head coach.
3. The nationally televised spotlight
This will be the first of several national billings for these teams this year. After the opener the Bears will be on "Monday Night Football" in Week 3 (Sept. 23 at Washington), "Sunday Night Football" in Week 11 (Nov. 17 at Los Angeles Rams), they open up the Thanksgiving Day schedule in Week 13 (Nov. 28 at Detroit), return to Thursday night the following week (Dec. 5 vs. Dallas), and have one more Sunday night matchup in Week 16 (Dec. 22 vs. Kansas City).
The Packers will be back under the Thursday night lights in Week 4 (Sept. 26 vs. Philadelphia), they'll be on MNF two weeks later (Oct. 14 vs. Detroit), they hit the road for an intriguing Week 8 Sunday night matchup with Kansas City (Oct. 27), and return to the Monday night spotlight in Week 16 right before Christmas (Dec. 23 at Minnesota). The NFL is doing things right by featuring these teams prominently during its 100th season.
These teams split their two meetings last season with both winning on their home fields. Green Bay has a commanding 15-4 edge in this rivalry since 2010. But Chicago is 9-5 in its last 14 games at Soldier Field, outscoring opponents 331-227 in those contests. With a sellout crowd expected as the NFL kicks off its 100th season and with franchise legends Walter Payton and George Halas being honored with statues before the game, the Bears will have plenty of motivation. This will be a defensive battle, but the defending NFC North champions find a way to pull out a slim victory on their home field.
Prediction: Bears 17, Packers 14
— 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.