It’s only fitting that meeting #200 between the NFL’s oldest rivals means this much. And it’s only fitting that it will be played at noon in December on a day when the temperature is not expected to get past the teens.
Strange as it seems, it’s the first December meeting at Lambeau since 2011 and the first noon kickoff in this series at Lambeau since 2008. The ideal setting for a game that will tell us a lot about these two teams in 2019. As we know the roles are reversed: last year in Week 15 the Bears eliminated the Pack from the playoffs in a win at Soldier Field. This time around, Green Bay can return the favor. A Bears loss, coupled with a loss by a win by either the Vikings or Rams, will end their dream of a return to the postseason.
And while Bears fans are suddenly believing in their team’s turn-around, with three straight wins and four out of five to get them above .500 for the first time this season, most Packer fans are in worrying mode, unimpressed by the Pack’s 3-2 performance after jumping out to that 7-1 start.
But all would be forgiven with a win over the Bears. Not only would it get the Pack a step closer to the NFC North title, even if they lose at Minnesota next week, it would also keep the dream alive for a top two seed in the NFC. There are reasons for optimism and pessimism. Let’s start with the negatives:
The Bears come in to this one as the more desperate team. They know their season is basically over if they lose and they remember the 10-3 loss in the opener when Tramon Williams announced that his unit knew they just needed to make Mitch play quarterback. For some reason Matt Nagy had Mitch drop back to pass 45 times, good for 75% of the offensive plays. If that happens again, the Pack will cruise. But that won’t happen again. The Bears’ offense has found a flow by finally committing to rookie RB David Montgomery, who has 36 carries for 161 yards the last two games–wins over the Lions and Cowboys. And Trubisky used his legs against Dallas, ten carries for 61 yards and a score.
The Bears’ offense has found its footing by running the ball, and using the RPO with their QB, who lately has found his two unheralded tight ends, JP Holtz and Jesper Horsted–covering tight ends has been a problem for the Pack all season. With WRs Taylor Gabriel and Javon Wims likely out, the Pack secondary will focus on Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. It would be nice to see Jaire Alexander shadowing Robinson, but I think he’ll be needed to handle the speedier Miller. Kevin King appears ready to return, though he’s listed as questionable again–we need one of his ‘good’ games.
More negatives: Nagy’s Bears seem to get better as the season goes along. They’re 11-2 in the second half of the season and 4-0 in divisional rematches the last two years. And his defense expects to get back run stuffer Akiem Hicks, who’s poised to come off injured reserve on Saturday. It’s impossible to know how many snaps he’ll play and whether he’ll need time to shake off the rust after missing eight games with a dislocated elbow. But his presence on the field lifts a very good Bears defense that will look to take away Aaron Jones and make the Pack’s inconsistent passing game beat them.
Now, for the good news: when Virginia McCaskey meets with her minority partners, she should leave a spot at the table for Rodgers, who’s 17-4 against the Bears in games he starts and finishes. Yes, he’s more mortal now than he was five years ago, but his arm is as strong as it’s ever been, he’s healthy and he lives for these kinds of stages. And after a couple of weeks of whispers about what’s wrong with Rodgers, this is the kind of game where he can make a statement.
The Packers are as healthy as they could possibly hope to be heading into Week 15. Every player on the roster is practicing this week. The only thing that caught my eye on Thursday’s report was Davante Adams popping up as limited with his toe. You know it still has to be bothering him because he is just not getting his usual separation and has been less of a downfield threat over the past month.
The Bears have not been so lucky. With Hicks likely returning, they will be without ILB Roquan Smith, whose lost for the season with a torn pec. Removing the team’s leading tackler on a defense already missing LB Danny Trevaithan removes some of its bite. Nick Kwiatkoski has been solid in place of Trevaithan; while Kevin Pierre-Lewis held his own when Smith went down. Also dangerous returner and gadget play threat Cordarelle Patterson suffered a head injury in practice on Thursday and his status is in question. That would be a huge loss for the Bears on a cold day, where one big play could turn the game.
Yes, it will be cold. The final regular season game at Lambeau will feature the frozen tundra, with a high of 19 degrees–wind should not be a factor. Obviously, both the Pack and Bears are cold weather teams, but Trubisky doesn’t have much of a track record and his accuracy issues aren’t likely to improve on a frigid day.
The Bears have gotten off to slow starts this season, and figuring things out offensively in the second half. They’ve scored just two touchdowns in the first quarter all season, but have reached the end zone 13 times in the third quarter–they’ve scored TDs on their opening drive of the second half in their last seven games.
So if history holds, the Packers will get off to a quick start and take a two score lead in the first half and then they’ll have to hang on for dear life in the second half. Getting Jones involved early and often is imperative: the Pack is 7-1 when he gets at least 15 touches. He and Jamaal Williams need to be productive in the passing game too, to deal with the pass rush, led by Khalil Mack.
We’ve rarely seen the Pack go to the up-tempo no huddle offense this season, but this might be a good time to use it, especially with a couple of backups and a rusty veteran coming back from injury. It needs to be a day when Rodgers gets rid of the ball quickly and spreads the ball around–getting production from Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow, as well as the usual suspects.
Defensively, we’ll likely see the Bears move the fall pretty freely between the 20s. If they can stiffen in the red zone as they’ve done all season and make Trubisky try to convert big third downs with his arm, they should be in good shape.
There’s a lot of steam nationally that this might be a game that the Bears steal. That they will keep their faint playoff hopes alive against a Packer team that isn’t as good as their 10-3 record. And there is definitely reason for concern. We really haven’t seen the Pack play a complete game since the late October win in Kansas City.
But there is much on the line for the Pack: an NFC North title with wins over the Bears and Lions, a top two seed if they can win out. They’re 6-1 at home this season, while the Bears have not been great on the road, winning at Detroit, Washington and Denver–with a big assist from the officials. And then there’s Rodgers, who like Brett Favre before him, seems to save his best performances for Green Bay’s most bitter rival.
I’m concerned. It won’t be easy. It may not be pretty. But the Packers escape and move closer to the NFC North title.
Packers 20 Bears 17