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Saturday, January 1, 2011
Five things to watch: Bears-Packers

By Michael C. Wright

Playing time: Lovie Smith claims the team will play to win, but his history indicates the Bears will rest some of the key players, especially those who are nursing minor injuries. The Bears already captured the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs, and it’s unlikely they’ll move past New Orleans and Atlanta for the top seed. So despite what Smith and the players say, there’s really not much on the line for the Bears (other than the need to maintain momentum). There’s a good chance that at some point in the game a few of the frontline players could take a seat on the sideline; especially if the Packers jump out to a big lead.

The offensive line: Offensive line coach Mike Tice should creep into some of the discussions this offseason about a few of the expected head coach vacancies around the league, given what he’s done with the Bears’ line this season. The offensive line has surrendered five sacks in the last three weeks after giving up 11 in its three previous outings; a vast improvement. The Bears need to continue making progress up front, and improve the blossoming cohesion even more. The unit receives credit for what it’s done in protecting Cutler, but the running game has also significantly improved.

Improvement on defense: Having given up 104 points over the past four games, after allowing just 58 in the first four after the Oct. 31 bye, the Bears continue to struggle on defense. The matchup with Green Bay gives the Bears the perfect opportunity to enter the playoffs coming off a solid performance against one of the NFL’s hottest offenses. The Packers generated 379 yards in the first meeting, and lit up the New York Giants’ defense last week. So this should be a major test for a Bears defense which needs to go into the playoffs with some momentum.

Milestones: The team doesn’t want to push the issue, but it’s very-much aware of the milestones that running back Matt Forte and receiver Johnny Knox are close to achieving. Knox needs 40 yards receiving for his first 1,000-yard season, and Forte needs 22 on the ground to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since his rookie season. Look for the Bears to try to get Forte and Knox involved early (because there’s a chance both could be pulled at some point), without compromising their game plan.

Packer penalties: The Packers committed a single-game record 18 penalties for 152 yards during the September meeting between these teams, including a flag for holding that wiped out a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jermichael Finley. A good portion of the calls came on holding penalties that the Bears believe could have been sacks. So the Bears are hoping this time around they’re able to get those sacks on Rodgers (they’ll take the penalties, too), who has been red hot since his return from a Dec. 12 concussion in Detroit. Rodgers passed for a career regular-season high 404 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Giants last week with a passer rating of 139.9.