If you’re expecting arrogance, if you’re expecting the trash talk befitting a one-sided rivalry, you should probably stop reading right now.
Nothing would be more fun than to predict a coronation for these young Green Bay Packers on Sunday. A tenth straight win over the Chicago Bears would punch their ticket to the playoffs, an improbable payoff to this roller coaster ride of a season.
It’s impossible not to consider the symmetry between this year’s finale and last year’s. A division rival coming to Lambeau with nothing to play for but pride and the intense desire to ruin their rival’s season in front of their fans.
Now take that a step further: the Bears have no reason to consider how a loss might improve their draft position. They’ve locked up the No. 1 pick to go along with their own. But they will have to decide whether to trade it for another bounty of picks or use it, draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams, and move on from Justin Fields. So, in many ways, Fields may be playing for his future in Chicago. A strong performance in a win over the Pack, making it five wins in the final six weeks, and a surge of momentum may cause the Bears to run it back with Fields. Packer fans, do with that as you like. Some might call it a silver lining.
You really couldn’t ask for a more motivated team to meet the Pack. Let’s not forget the organization’s fascination with trying to end the 30-year dominance by their neighbors to the north. The GM made beating Green Bay his first order of business when he took the job, and he’s still waiting to see what that feels like. Matt LaFleur is 9-0 against the Bears, and the closest game was the first one: a seven-point Packer win.
That sets the stage for the 207th meeting of the original Border Battle. The Pack is coming off their most complete performance of the season, and they’ll likely have a full complement of receiving options available. While they’ve listed Christian Watson, Jayden Reed, and Dontayvion Wicks as questionable, it’s believed they’ll all be available. The Pack may even get Luke Musgrave back, giving Matt LaFleur a chance to show some two tight end looks that don’t appear on film. He won’t have AJ Dillon, who will miss this game after suffering a stinger against the Vikings.
More fuzzy is Elgton Jenkins and Preston Smith’s availability, both of whom missed practice this week. As for the Bears, they’ll likely be without stud cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who’s doubtful. Slot corner Kyler Gordon is questionable, further testing the depth at that position. Also questionable are TE Cole Kmet and RB Khalil Herbert. Kmet practiced Friday; Herbert did not.
The trade for DE Montez Sweat has transformed Chicago’s defense, which has led their late surge. They are one of the top units against the run, can get pressure without blitzing, and are taking the ball away in bunches. But let’s not forget the QBs and offenses they’ve been feasting on: the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings (with Josh Dobbs), Lions, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, and Atlanta Falcons.
They will likely need to rely on turnovers again to slow down the Pack’s offense, which has seen Jordan Love evolve into one of the league’s most productive QBs, leading the league in QBR since Week 10. Turnovers should be tough to come by, too. During the nine-game winning streak, the Pack has turned the ball over a grand total of two times – the fewest in a nine-game span in the history of the series.
The biggest unknown is how Joe Barry’s defense will deal with the uber-motivated Fields. He’ll have Jaire Alexander back and will need to figure out whether he has him follow D.J. Moore around or whether they sprinkle him back in while giving Carrington Valentine and Corey Ballentine their chances to stay on the field.
Most importantly, he’ll need to figure out how not to let Fields run for 150 yards. He’ll no doubt play mostly zone so the safeties and linebackers can stay laser-focused on the league’s most dangerous running QB. Fields is a much less productive passer against zone defenses. Mobile QBs have given the Pack fits all season. We can expect an off-track, with the turf just a bit longer and muddy than usual.
I have a feeling both teams will be able to move up and down the field a bit, and I expect the Bears to be squarely in this game for four quarters. Let’s face it, we really can’t know what to expect from the Pack – and we’ve seen this team lose more than its share of home games in January lately.
But this is a different team, for better or worse. They’re young and haven’t faced this kind of pressure before. It’s a great growth opportunity for Love and this offense, with a chance to possibly earn a trip to Dallas next weekend to play Mike McCarthy and future defensive coordinator Al Harris in a stadium where they’re undefeated.
Could the Bears spring the upset? Of course. They’re bound to beat the Packers at some point. They’re a trendy pick this week because Week 18 has recently seen teams with nothing to play for beat teams with their playoff future on the line.
Despite the beatdown of the Vikings, I still have very little faith that Joe Barry will contain Fields, but I also don’t believe the Bears pass rush can win consistently, and their secondary is in for a rude awakening. It’s gonna be a dogfight, and it won’t be pretty, but the Packers won’t have to worry about backing into the playoffs.