Pack Poised to Claim Final NFC Playoff SpotPosted:Dec 31st, 2010 5:12 pm
In the 181 previous meetings between the Packers and Bears, they've never closed the season at Lambeau and they've never met when both teams had at least nine wins. Such is the case this weekend as the Packers look to punch their ticket to the post-season with a win over their arch-rivals.
The Packers' performance the last two weeks gives hope that it's not ready to bow out just yet. The close loss at New England without Rodgers, followed by the demolition of the Giants suggests this team might just be peaking at the right time. The worry is that NFL mouthpieces are calling the Pack "the team you don't want to play in the playoffs." They were saying that about the Eagles a week ago. How did that work out on Tuesday night?
But the reality is the Packers come into this one on a roll, while the Bears have given up 84 points the past three weeks and will undoubtedly have little to play for. Assuming either the Falcons or Saints win their noon starts, the Bears will be locked into the #2 spot in the NFC. Lovie can talk all about how they're playing this one to win. That they'd like nothing more than to knock Green Bay out of the playoffs. But go back to 2006, when they were in a similar situation. Lovie called off the dogs in the finale and his team advanced to the Super Bowl.
The Packers, of course, have to assume they're going to get the Bears' best effort. If not for the unforgivable loss at Detroit, this one would be for the NFC North title and the #2 seed. But the Pack dug its hole and now will continue to work itself out of it.
It looks like Cullen Jenkins will miss another game in a maddening season that will give the Packers pause when they decide whether to re-sign him. When healthy, he's the Pack's second best pass rusher and helps form an intimidating D-line along with the skyrocketing B.J. Raji. If they make the playoffs, the Packers will need him to have their best chance against the dangerous Mike Vick in the playoffs.
Sam Shields developed a mysterious knee injury this week. It sounds like he'll play, but we'll probably see him relieved of his kick return duties. With Korey Hall injured, James Starks is likely to be active this week. One other roster note, the Pack brought back Evan Dietrich-Smith and put rookie Marshall Newhouse on IR.
As for the Bears, they're a vastly different team from the one that escaped with a 20-17 win over the Pack at Soldier Field, a loss that started a string of three out of four losses that put the Packers in this precarious playoff position.
The Bears are running the ball more than throwing it, as Mike Martz has learned how to use his personnel wisely, abandoning much of what he was doing early--like asking Jay Cutler to take seven step drops and throw the ball downfield. Offensive line coach Mike Tice is being credited with shuffling his deck midway through the year and the result is a much more efficient unit that is no longer a liability.
While there are not a lot of offensive playmakers, Matt Forte has had a rebound season and ranks 12th in yards from scrimmage. The Packers did a great job corraling the Giants' running attack; a similar effort will be needed on Sunday. The biggest hurdle, as usual, is Devin Hester. If he's out there returning punts, he's a threat to take one to the house every time he touches the ball.
Defensively, the team is still led by linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. But in recent weeks the Patriots and Jets moved the ball at will against them. Aaron Rodgers is coming off the best game of his career and statistically one of the best games in NFL history. He's razor sharp, as is the Packers offense.
Toss in the emotional edge the Packers have by needing this game to keep the season going and it adds up to a rousing victory at the final game at Lambeau Field this season. I'm heading to the game along with my wife Patti, who will make her first ever visit to the shrine.
Pack 31 Bears 17