NFC North: Packers-Bears II 2012

Packers-Bears II: Notable deactivations

December, 16, 2012
CHICAGO -- With a little over an hour remaining before Packers-Bears II, let's roll through Sunday morning's roster maneuverings and a few other pregame notes. The Chicago Bears will be even more short-handed than originally thought.
  • The Bears deactivated defensive tackle Henry Melton (chest), as expected, but they also won't have linebacker Geno Hayes (knee), who was supposed to start at strong-side linebacker. Special-teamer Blake Costanzo will likely get the first NFL start of his pro career.
  • The Bears also added defensive lineman Shea McClellin (knee) to a list of inactives that also included cornerback Tim Jennings and receiver Earl Bennett.
  • The Green Bay Packers will have right guard Josh Sitton, who was added to the injury report because of a hip injury on Friday. He is active and presumably will start.
  • Packers receiver Donald Driver is inactive because of a thumb injury he has been dealing with. Young receivers Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross are both active.
  • Amazingly, I've been asked several times Sunday morning if the Packers cut tight end Jermichael Finley. They have not cut Finley. He is active for this game. I assume what confused people is Bob McGinn's Sunday analysis in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which suggested the Packers will part ways with Finley in the OFFSEASON. We'll hit that topic in Monday's Free Head Exam.
CHICAGO -- Good morning from Soldier Field. As you can see from this Instagram photograph it is cloudy, windy and mournful here as we await what could be one of the more significant games in recent NFC North history.

Soldier Field
Kevin Seifert/ESPN.comFlags are at half-staff at Soldier Field.
Flags around the country are at half-staff in remembrance of the Newtown, Conn., school tragedy. Although it is a cloudy day in downtown Chicago, temperatures are unseasonably mild -- it was 47 degrees at 10 a.m. ET -- and there is no rain in the forecast.

As we discussed all week, the Green Bay Packers can clinch the NFC North with a victory over the Chicago Bears. A loss by the Bears would be their fifth in six games and would raise the heat on coach Lovie Smith. Because the Bears finish the season with two consecutive road games, it would be fair to wonder whether Smith had coached his final game at Soldier Field.

Here's what ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on the topic Sunday morning:
When the Bears introduced Lovie Smith in 2004 as their next head coach, he said his first goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers. Recently, Smith's teams have struggled to do that. Heading into today's game against Green Bay, the Bears have lost four straight games to the Packers and are trying to avoid a fifth straight loss that would jeopardize their chances of advancing to the postseason.

Smith's overall record against the Packers is 8-9. Some in the Bears organization are uneasy over Smith's job security and recognize that another Chicago loss to the Packers could ultimately wind up costing Smith his job, according to one source. It's difficult to say any one game determines whether someone keeps or loses his job. But the significance of today's game against the Packers is not lost on many in and out of the Bears organization.

If the Bears lose Sunday, they would need help getting into the playoffs even if they win out and finish 10-6. There is much yet to be determined, but there is no doubt Sunday's game could prove a turning point in Smith's career in Chicago.

Packers-Bears II: Bears' defensive slide

December, 14, 2012
During a spot this week with our friends at the "D-List" on ESPN 540, I was asked to boil down what has happened to the Chicago Bears after their 7-1 start. I wish I could have simply held up the chart in this post, but apparently, you must articulate your points verbally in the radio medium. (You can listen to a podcast of our discussion here.)

In losing four of their past five games, the Bears' defense has fallen off dramatically from the pace it set in takeaways and sacks. As you can see in the chart, the Bears rank No. 21 in the NFL in a metric that combined those statistics since Week 9.

I would add two other pieces of context to that capsule. The Bears had seven defensive touchdowns through Week 9, putting them on pace to obliterate the NFL record of nine for an entire season. But they haven't added to that total since, and there is little doubt the Bears' offense was more productive when playing from ahead thanks to the leads their defense handed them.

In fact, of the seven touchdowns receiver Brandon Marshall scored through Week 9, five came with the Bears holding at least a 17-point lead. It's much more difficult to throw the ball and make big plays in a close game or when trailing, as we've seen in the game ssince then.

Obviously there are other issues floating as well. But to me that's the most efficient way to explain why a team that started 7-1 is now fighting for its playoff life in Week 15.
When the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers met in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, we noted how professional and cordial their rivalry was. Their fans might hate each other, but the teams themselves rarely crossed into trash-talk and never engaged in dirty play.

So much for that -- at least the former. We'll find out Sunday at Soldier Field if the latter will emerge as well.

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs was the latest to break the mold, calling Packers tight end Jermichael Finley an "idiot" for suggesting the Bears might be better off with linebacker Brian Urlacher sidelined. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Briggs advised Finley to "just suit up and play ball."

Frankly, I'm so immune to Finley's often-inane comments that I was hardly moved by this one. I don't disagree with part of his premise -- Urlacher has indeed been slowed this season -- but as always, other parts can be read as provocative. Briggs took the bait, or at least capitalized on the opportunity, and off he went.

Whether it's for show or a display of genuine emotion, we've seen an unmistakable sharpening of the edges this season in the Packers-Bears rivalry. It can probably be traced back to Week 2 and some sharp comments from Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, who said he saw "the same old Jay" in reference to quarterback Jay Cutler's four interceptions. Woodson also seemed perturbed that "all of a sudden [the Bears] were the team to beat because they got a couple new guys."

As we noted yesterday, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall further stoked the fire by saying he took exception to the Packers' analysis of why he caught only two passes in that Week 2 game. Finley jumped in with his usual nonsense, and that brought us to Briggs.

So what exactly is going on here? Part of it, I'm certain, is an edgy Bears team that knows the implications of another December collapse. In addition, the Bears have lost seven of their last eight games to the Packers while playing nice with them. What do they have to lose by mixing it up a little more?

In the end, absolutely none of this will have an effect on who wins Sunday. But it sure helps fans and media members pass the time before kickoff.

Packers-Bears II: Twitter chat

December, 13, 2012
Tramon Williams and Brandon MarhallAP PhotosPackers CB Tramon Williams will be tasked with covering Bears WR Brandon Marshall on Sunday.

Thanks to everyone for participating in our "PackBearsChat" over on Twitter earlier Thursday afternoon. We used three of your topics to roll through a discussion on Sunday's big matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.


What will be the deciding factor in Sunday's Packers-Bears game?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,011)

We discussed which team would do a better job protecting its quarterback, sought analysis on the matchup between Bears receiver Brandon Marshall vs. the Packers' defense and wondered if the Bears would make adjustments to stop the Packers' suddenly-effective running game.

If you missed the chat, you can scroll through it in archive form below. Also, feel free to participate in the SportsNation poll if you think one of these topics will be the deciding factor in the game.

This was an experiment of sorts as we try to integrate our growing Twitter following (@espn_nfcnblog) into the blog. I think it went OK. We'll learn, polish and do it better next time. Thanks to editors Emily Schaible and Alisha Puckett for their help in conceiving the idea, structuring the discussion and pulling it together in this post.

Blogger Blitz: The 'JayRod' rivalry

December, 13, 2012

Way back in 2009, we christened the "JayRod" rivalry to help us track what we figured would be a long and competitive rivalry between two young and ascending quarterbacks in the NFC North.

Since that point, Jay Cutler has led the Chicago Bears to a 32-21 regular-season record, in addition to an appearance in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, has pushed the Green Bay Packers to a 44-15 mark, along with a Super Bowl championship in 2010. He won the league MVP award in 2011.

In head-to-head matchups, however, the rivalry hasn't been much of a contest. More in this week's Blogger Blitz.

Packers-Bears II: On Woodson, Marshall

December, 12, 2012
Well, that escalated quickly. I snuck away from the blog for an hour Wednesday afternoon to record the weekly Inside Slant podcast, and two related news items were waiting upon my return.

First, Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson has been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears. Woodson had returned to practice last week as he continued to recover from a broken collarbone, but coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that Packers doctors aren't ready to clear him for this game.

That turn of events will prevent Woodson from answering to a series of blunt public statements from Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, who told reporters that "I really dislike the Green Bay Packers and their players" because of what he deemed was their inappropriate analysis of his performance in the teams' Week 2 matchup at Lambeau Field.

Marshall managed two receptions for 24 yards in that game, a 23-10 Packers victory, but took exception to the suggestion that Packers cornerback Tramon Williams shut him down on his own.

"For their players to be over there talking about how awesome of a job they [do] shutting down certain players, I don't respect that," Marshall said. "With two and three guys on you, on other guys, so [defensive coordinator Dom] Capers did an amazing job of game-planning us and game-planning me. I didn't beat double and triple coverage or whatever they were throwing at us.

"I take it as a slap in my face when guys talk about my lack of ability to do something against them when they have help all over the place, so I'm looking forward to one-on-one coverage. Hopefully those guys in a game like this will go to their coach and say, 'Let me have him. I want Brandon Marshall. I want to stop Brandon Marshall. Let me have him one-on-one press coverage,' and let's see what happens."

I was in the Packers' locker room after that game. There was no doubt the Packers found a level of satisfaction that they had defeated a team that had been hyped as Super Bowl contenders. Woodson, in fact, said he thought it was "funny that all of a sudden they were the team to beat because they got a couple new guys."

Obviously Marshall was the major new player the Bears acquired this season. The Packers did dominate him, and I wouldn't think there is much to be ashamed in doing it with two or even three men at a time. If anyone was crowing about beating him in single coverage, I didn't hear it.

We can only be left to assume that Marshall felt compelled to spice things up this week to shake the Bears out of a funk borne from a 1-4 slide. Perhaps he was trying to goad the Packers into doing something that would make little schematic sense: Leaving Marshall in single coverage with an offense that really hasn't had another playmaker this season in the passing game.

I'm sure he will be as motivated as ever Sunday, but the Packers had the most effective plan this season for shutting him down. I'm guessing they won't be drawn into Marshall's fun little game this week.

Packers-Bears II: Right-side running

December, 12, 2012
Green Bay Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang (ankle) was healthy enough to be in uniform for last Sunday night's game against the Detroit Lions. That progress has led to reasonable speculation that he will be ready to play this Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

The question is what position Lang will play. Coach Mike McCarthy left open the possibility for leaving rookie Don Barclay at right tackle, allowing Lang to return to his natural left guard spot. Barclay might be a less polished pass protector than Lang, but there is no denying his role in a recent upswing in the Packers' running game.

John McTigue of ESPN's Stats & Information supplied the two charts in this post. As you can see, the Packers rushed more frequently and with much better success to the right side of their formation against the Lions and Minnesota Vikings than they did in their previous 11 games before. (Barclay replaced an injured Lang in the second quarter of the Week 13 game against the Vikings.)

Judging offensive line play is difficult from the outside, but the Packers' public satisfaction with Barclay's performance seems to jibe with the numbers. Whatever combination they have stumbled on during this period has worked.

It's worth noting that the Bears' defense has allowed at least 100 team rushing yards in each of their past seven games. Their opponents' average of 141 rushing yards per game ranks the Bears No. 28 in run defense over that stretch. Prior to Week 8, they had limited opponents to an average of 71 rushing yards per game.
Aaron Rodgers and Lovie SmithGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsThe future for Lovie Smith as Bears coach may be in question with another loss to Aaron Rodgers.
You know how we are around here. We don't like to live in the moment. We want to look ahead, to anticipate what's next, to project and speculate and prognosticate. When at all possible, we look for deep meaning and revealing symbolism in everyday events.

Week 15 provides us an opportunity to do just that. So I'll introduce this sentiment for your consideration: Sunday's game at Soldier Field could put the competitive rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers on hiatus for several years.

A Packers victory would be their sixth consecutive win over the Bears, including the 2010 postseason. More importantly, it would clinch the Packers' second consecutive NFC North title. And while the Packers appear poised for continued success, the Bears could soon be jolted into a significant overhaul this winter.

A division championship would validate the Packers' re-tooling effort, one that has centered around getting younger on defense. A loss for the Bears could leave them needing help to get into the playoffs even if they win out and finish at 10-6. ('s Playoff Machine will show you how they could lose a tiebreaker to the Washington Redskins at 10-6.)

Thus the Bears would be at risk of becoming the second team in the 23-season history of this playoff format to miss the postseason after a 7-1 start, a collapse that would pile a number of difficult decisions on the desk of general manager Phil Emery. Topping his list would be the status of coach Lovie Smith, but this season has also exposed the Bears' aging defense as well as their continued inability to find continuity on their offensive line.

Emery's course for the franchise will hinge in part on whether he re-signs quarterback Jay Cutler, whose contract will expire after the 2013 season. Cutler mused about various possibilities during his ESPN 1000 radio show Monday and acknowledged the franchise's path isn't clear.

"I don't know how they feel about me and where they see the franchise going," Cutler said. "You get a new GM in and we'll see how it goes. He's got a lot of tough decisions coming forward. ..."

[+] EnlargePhil Emery
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWith another late-season fade in progress, Bears GM Phil Emery could find himself in rebuilding mode soon.
It's hard to imagine the Bears parting ways with Cutler under any circumstances. But Brian Urlacher's physical fade in the past year illustrates why Emery might want to plan more aggressively for the eventual departure of linebacker Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers. He will also need to re-evaluate the franchise's in-house strategy for building an offensive line. For three consecutive seasons, the Bears have fielded a patchwork group that has left Cutler battered. In 2011 and 2012 alone, 10 different linemen have made at least one start.

From a big-picture perspective, the biggest gap between the Bears and Packers is that Cutler has been forced into the role of the Bears' sole difference-maker while the Packers have reduced their reliance on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. One piece of surprising evidence: Rodgers has thrown only two touchdown passes in his past three games, the fewest over any three-game stretch of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Instead, the Packers are building a running game based on patience, if nothing else. They have averaged 135.8 rushing yards over their past five games, giving carries to five different running backs over that period in what has amounted to a mini tryout. And of the six defensive players the Packers selected at the top of the 2012 draft, four are part of the regular rotation and a fifth -- linebacker Nick Perry -- would be were it not for a season-ending wrist injury.

The Bears have a much shorter list of young building blocks at this point. Of the 56 players on their active roster or injured reserve, you could count maybe six as established and credible starters who will be under the age of 28 next season. That list includes defensive tackle Henry Melton, guard Lance Louis, receiver Earl Bennett, safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte and receiver Alshon Jeffery.

These issues will exist whether or not the Bears win Sunday, and they won't dissipate even if they go on to win the Super Bowl. But a loss would be the Bears' fifth in six games, a year after they dropped five of their final six to scuttle a 7-3 start. That might be enough to spur the kind of sea change we haven't seen in Chicago in a decade, one that cedes divisional competitiveness for a stretch.

Just a thought. We'll be here all week.

Packers-Bears II: Special-teams hit

December, 11, 2012
A bit later Tuesday, we'll take a look at the big-picture implications of Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field. In the meantime, however, let's note that the Chicago Bears won't have three of their top special-teams players when they host the Green Bay Packers.

Place-kicker Robbie Gould (calf), safety Craig Steltz (chest) and safety Sherrick McManis (knee) were all placed on injured reserve Tuesday. Among other roster moves, the Bears signed 39-year-old veteran Olindo Mare to kick in Sunday's game and presumably for the rest of the season.

Gould has been the Bears' place-kicker for 122 consecutive games, dating back to Week 5 of the 2005 season. But he strained his left calf during pregame warmups last Sunday at the Metrodome and apparently won't recover in time to kick freely again for at least three weeks. Sunday, he managed two extra points but ceded kickoffs to punter Adam Podlesh and didn't attempt a field goal.

Mare hasn't played in the NFL this season but was the Carolina Panthers' regular place-kicker in 2011. He could have some winter weather to adjust to Sunday at Soldier Field, but the Bears' final two regular-season games -- at the Arizona Cardinals and at the Detroit Lions -- shouldn't be impacted by the elements.

Meanwhile, McManis ranked third on the Bears with 10 special-teams tackles entering last Sunday's game. Steltz had five and was also getting turns in the Bears' rotation at safety. As the world turns. ...