Grin and Bear It - Week 15 Preview

Clay Matthews did a lot of this the last time the Bears and Packers played...and guess who's back in the lineup this week. Remember the Bears? That other NFC North team the Packers haven't encountered since Week 2? You'd be forgiven for not remembering that they even exist. Almost three quarters of a season (11 games) has passed since the Packers last renewed acquaintances with their oldest rival, and their seasons couldn't have gone more differently in the time they've been apart.

The Packers' season narrative is well known. A tough loss to an excellent San Francisco team, a whitewashing of Chicago, and then several bizarre stumbles including the Fail Mary and a second half collapse in Indianapolis led to a 2-3 start. Since then, the Packers have been on a roll, other than getting pasted on national television in New York.

Chicago, though, has seemingly gone in the opposite direction. After sitting in the NFC North driver's seat for the majority of the season, the Bears have been on a bit of a slide recently, losing four of their last five after a 7-1 start. Facing a growing list of injuries, an increasingly hot Green Bay team, and a Minnesota squad that just won't quite go away, Chicago could be in danger of sliding out of the playoffs completely, setting up a momentous confrontation this Sunday.

With a win this week, Green Bay would wrap up the NFC North championship and the playoff spot that goes with it. Coach Mike McCarthy has always repeated his desire to seal up a playoff spot as early as possible, so you can be assured the Packers will be going all-in for a win this weekend. Chicago, though, will be fighting for their playoff lives, and they'll have to do it without defensive stalwarts Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings. That's not to say they're not formidable, and a combination of serious talent and desparation always makes for a good effort. Stay tuned for another great chapter in the NFL's best rivalry.

The Countdown

5 - The number of different players who have started at running back this year for the Packers. This ever-rotating cast of characters has featured Cedric Benson, Alex Green, James Starks, DuJuan Harris, and even Randall Cobb, who lined up in the backfield for the first snap of the game the first time the Packers played the Lions. Now, though, the Packers seem to have achieved some kind of stability and depth at the position, with Green and Harris presumably about to split carries while they're occasionally spelled by the recently re-acquired Ryan Grant.

4 - Sacks of Jay Cutler by the Minnesota defense last week. The struggles of Chicago's offensive line have been well documented, dating back to the first Bears/Packers game when the Green and Gold made Cutler black and blue with seven sacks. With Clay Matthews returning to the lineup this week, perhaps the Packers will be able to duplicate their performance from the first game.

3 - Rushing touchdowns this season by the perpetually underrated Matt Forte. Before an injury last year, Forte was having one of the more productive seasons in the NFL. He hasn't been quite as good this year, but he's definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially after a solid outing in Minnesota last week (85 yards on 13 carries; 34 yards on six receptions).

2 - Players on the Bears with at least six sacks. The formidable Julius Peppers leads the way with seven, followed by Henry Melton with six. Two other players, Israel Idonije and Corey Wootton, both have five and a half sacks. For a Packer team with a banged up offensive line, facing a pass rush like Chicago's could be a significant problem. T.J. Lang is expected to be healthy enough to play this week, but where he plays is still up for debate.

1 - Wins by Jay Cutler against the Packers in his last seven starts. Cutler has had his typical difficulties with turnovers this season, but he is still a talented player. Paired with old Denver running mate Brandon Marshall, Cutler is always dangerous, and should be regarded as such this weekend, regardless of his past record. Some may say a 1-6 career record is an indication of a trend, but it could mean he's due for a breakout performance.

Last Time - Packers: 23 Bears: 10 - September

Aaron Rodgers threw for 219 yards and a touchdown, but the real story was the Packers defense, which badgered Jay Cutler into four interceptions in addition to sacking him seven times. Clay Matthews took Jamarcus Webb behind the woodshed, beating him for 3.5 sacks. Cedric Benson had perhaps his best game of the season, rushing for 81 yards on 20 carries.

Oh, and Tim Masthay threw a touchdown pass.

Meet a Bear - Lance Briggs - 6'1", 244 lbs. - OLB - 10th NFL season

Brian Urlacher gets the headlines and Tim Jennings gets a lot of intereceptions, but Lance Briggs is the engine that makes the Bears defense go. Jermichael Finley was probably right this week when he alluded to the fact that Urlacher has lost a step this year, but he neglected to mention (at least right away) how strong the Bears' linebacking corps is, even without Urlacher on the field. Lance Briggs (and his 81 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns) is a big reason they've maintained their solid performance.

Although he's a bit on the small side for a linebacker, Briggs packs a big punch, as evidenced by this (technically illegal) big hit on Calvin Johnson. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0l-r_HVM6k]

The Bears will win if...

...Brandon Marshall makes good on his pregame trash talk and beats up on the Packers' secondary. Marshall has the skills to be a big pain in the backside, but he wasn't especially productive the last time the Bears and Packers got together, even dropping a sure touchdown pass. Nevertheless, his talent can't be denied, and he'll be a headache for Tramon Williams and Company on Sunday.

The Packers will win if...

...their newly deepened corps of running backs can make it three solid rushing performances in a row. Alex Green and Friends ran well against Minnesota and Detroit, but to negate the Bears' pass rush, they'll have to lend a hand once again. If they can, Aaron Rodgers will have just that much more time to attack a depleted Bears defense.

The Pick - Packers: 27 Bears: 17

Injuries will likely be too much for the Bears to overcome as they face off with an increasingly healthy Packer team. While Brandon Marshall may be better this time out, it won't be enough as Green Bay rolls out three strong running backs to drain the clock down the stretch.

The Rest (home team in ALL CAPS)

Bengals over EAGLES TEXANS over Colts Broncos over Ravens DOLPHINS over Jaguars BROWNS over Redskins Vikings over RAMS SAINTS over Buccaneers FALCONS over Giants Seahawks over BILLS Panthers over CHARGERS Lions over CARDINALS Chiefs over RAIDERS Steelers over COWBOYS PATRIOTS over 49ERS TITANS over Jets

Last week: 9-7

Season total: 141-65-1 (.681)

Tweet of the Week

Tom Crabtree makes a triumphant return to Tweet of the Week with some thoughts on a leafy vegetable. I'm not sure exactly how the NFL drug program works, but Tom may want to be on the lookout for a man holding a urine sample jar.

https://twitter.com/TCrabtree83/status/277626555268730880

NFC North Champs! Packers: 21 Bears: 13

Happy Aaron Rodgers Day!