Chicago Bears (4-3) at Green Bay Packers (5-2)
Monday night on ESPN
The reports of the demise of the Green Bay Packers have been greatly exaggerated, as the Minnesota Vikings can attest to. Green Bay stumbled to a 1-2 start, but since their week four bye they have now reeled off four straight wins, outscoring their opponents 116-70 during that span. On the road at Minnesota the Packers scored on every single possession other than an end of game kneel down, and Green Bay is now stands as one of just eight teams in the NFL with two or fewer losses. Last week the Pack gained 464 yards, converted 15 of 20 third and fourth down attempts, and played keep away by holding the ball for 41 minutes.
The 2013 season has been just the opposite for Chicago. The Bears raced off to a 3-0 start, opening up a two-game lead in the NFC North over the Packers, but have lost three of four since then; their only victory was on in which they struggled at home to put away the then winless Giants. The Chicago front seven was seen as their biggest strength entering the season, but with Pro Bowl DT Henry Melton, DT Nate Collins and LB D.J. Williams all now on injured reserve, and Pro Bowl LB Lance Briggs out for six weeks with a fractured shoulder, the unit has become a porous weakness. Multiple lingering injuries to their best cornerback, Charles Tillman, have exacerbated the poor performance from the defense. In their last game, before last week’s bye, the Bears gave up 49 points and 499 points to a Washington team that had previously won just one game; both were the most that a Chicago team had allowed in ten years. In the past the pass rush was able to mask the mediocrity at safety, but the deficiency in that area has exposed the weak play of major Wright and Chris Conte.
Jay Cutler is out for a month with a torn groin, and since Cutler arrived the Bears have gone 2-10 in games he has missed. Josh McCown played well last week, but over his journeyman career he has shown a tendency to make poor decisions, which is why he is a backup despite decent arm strength. One positive for Chicago is the marked improvement in their offensive line. The OL had been a sore spot for years, but they have progressed mightily; after allowing 93 sacks in 2011-12, they have given up the second fewest (11) thus far this year. Matt Forte has been playing very well, averaging 4.6 yards per carry with 795 yards from scrimmage. Brandon Marshall has 540 yards receiving and five touchdowns, but since the first game of the year when they were torched by Anquan Bolden, the Packers have done an excellent job of game planning to take away their opponents top threat. That means that Alshon Jeffrey, who has been very hot and cold, will need to step up in this game for the Bears.
After seeming to go forever without doing so, the Packers have now run for 100+ yards in six straight games; last week they nearly went for two bills, rushing for 182 yards. Green Bay ranks third with 141 yards rushing per game and third with 4.8 yards per carry. James Starks returned for his first playing time since a week three knee injury, and together with Eddy Lacy creates a very nice thunder and lightning running back combination for Green Bay. Despite the losses of James Jones and Randall Cobb to injuries and Greg Jennings to free agency, the passing offense keeps on ticking. Jarrett Boykin has taken full advantage of the opportunity afforded him by coming through with 13 receptions for 192 yards in the last two games. If there is one thing to watch out for with the Packer offense it is RT Don Barclay, who has struggled in pass protection. Do the Packers give Barclay help holding off Shea McClellin, or do they double team Julius Peppers, as most teams have done? The return of Casey Hayward, who led all rookies with six interceptions this year, really helps solidify the Packer defense. Alongside Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, Green Bay does not give opponents a weakness in coverage to exploit.
That awesome Bears defense from last year is just a distant memory, and now to the dismay of every team on their schedule, Green Bay has developed a running game. Last week Eddy Lacy ran for 97 yards and a score, James Starks averaged 8.1 yards per carry, Jordy Nelson caught eight passes for 123 yards, and on third downs Aaron Rodgers went 10-for-10 for 172 yards and 2 TD. The Chicago defense is 29th in scoring (29.4 ppg), 32nd in yards per pass (8.7), and 25th against the run (117.3 yards per game). I know divisional games tend to be close, but I just don’t see any way that the injury-depleted Bears have a chance to win at Lambeau.
Pick • Packers 34, Bears 21
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