Green Bay Packers

The Packers Can't Let the Improved Bears Spoil Their Season

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman via USA TODAY Sports

The schedule scribes were cooking when they had the rival Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears face off in the season opener and season finale.

Both teams came into the season with a lot to prove. Jordan Love was entering his first year as the team’s preferred starter, while Bears fans were still trying to figure out whether Justin Fields could be “the guy” or not. After an off-season of trash-talking between fans, Matt LaFleur’s team came out on top and filled fans with optimism.

Fast forward to Week 18. After a season filled with ups and downs, Love has proven he’s the guy and elevated the Packers to a potential playoff run. The Bears are the only thing standing between Green Bay and the postseason. But while the Packers have had the better season since the opener, don’t expect Chicago to roll over and let Green Bay just waltz into the playoffs. The Bears are significantly better than they were in Week 1 and will look to play spoiler to the Packers’ postseason aspirations.

Green Bay’s offense hit a wall after a dominant performance in the season opener. They especially struggled in October. But LaFleur, Love, and the young offense bounced back and entered January in a familiar spot. They had a powerful offense that could go toe-to-toe with anyone, but the offense had to drag an inconsistent and often disappointing defense and special teams with them.

Meanwhile, Chicago still can’t feel confident about their quarterback, but they have a defense capable of hanging with anyone.

The Bears were the 30th-ranked defense in EPA/per play in the first half of the season, but they quickly rose to second in the season’s back half. With Matt Eberflus becoming the defensive play-caller following the odd situation with former defensive coordinator Alan Williams, the defense started playing more urgently and purposefully. There were questions about Eberflus early in the season, but he’s always been an impressive defensive mind.

That defense could make the regular season finale difficult, but the Packers’ offense has also drastically improved. After handily beating the Minnesota Vikings, who also had an impressive defense, the Green Bay offense is ninth by DVOA. Despite a banged-up group of pass catchers and missing Aaron Jones for most of the season, Love has elevated his weapons and made the most of his matchups to keep the offense rolling.

Love is a much better and more aware quarterback than in Week 1, which shouldn’t be a surprise. The Vikings blitzed Love on 75.8% of his dropbacks. But Love thrived under pressure, putting up 200 yards and two TDs because he’s learned how to work through some of his earlier weaknesses.

Love’s 3,843 passing yards and 30 touchdowns in his first season as a full-time starter would already be the best in Bears history.

The matchup between these improved units should be the game’s highlight and a good test for the offense before a potential playoff game. Love has done well against good defenses so far. Can he keep it up?

The other side for both teams is more chaotic.

Chicago has one of the league’s toughest off-season decisions on whether to keep and build around Fields or use the first-overall pick they received from the Carolina Panthers to draft a quarterback. Their recent stretch of wins has bolstered support for Fields, but the defense deserves much of the credit. Fields has still been turnover-prone and is only putting up pedestrian passing numbers.

But Joe Barry has made much worse quarterbacks look like stars, and Fields’ running threat is no joke.

Credit where it’s due, Barry’s defense was mostly good against the Minnesota Vikings when it mattered. But we’ll see how it looks in Green Bay’s final game with a playoff berth at stake. Joe Barry vs. Justin Fields might be the most memeable of talking points, but it’s less fascinating than the other side of the ball for both teams.

Green Bay should still be favored in this game and are the better team, but don’t discount the interpersonal factor. Just like last season, a divisional rival with zero chance of entering the playoffs has an opportunity to ruin Green Bay’s hopes.

Despite the historic significance, the Bears have been the least-meaningful rival in the division for some time. While it’s not uncommon for the Packers to lose a few games to the Vikings and Lions, Chicago has mostly been a minor speed bump. You can feel the vitriol from Bears players, but the Packers players don’t seem to think about the Bears much.

Former Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (which is still odd to write) even commented Tuesday on The Pat McAfee Show that “This is their Super Bowl. If they can’t beat us, is it a rivalry?”

So, the opportunity to end their hated rival’s season with a win in their stadium has to have the Bears salivating. Not since Chicago trounced the Packers on Thanksgiving on Brett Favre Day in 2015 have the Bears had a better stage to strike back at their rival. Even though they can’t make the playoffs, expect Chicago to play tough. Divisional games are always wild cards, and the stakes in this one are higher.

The Bears might be in last place in the division, but they’ve given their fans reasons for optimism and have a chance to add a lot of talent in the off-season. Even in last place, they’re still just under a .500 team. While Packers fans might (rightfully) have discounted Chicago in past games, they can’t be underestimated in this final game.

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Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman via USA TODAY Sports

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