The Bears get into their first matchup for the division with the biggest hurdle standing between them and a division title, the Green Bay Packers, after their greatest offensive performance since the '90s. Looking over at TJ's piece, I agree with him that a Thursday night contest lends itself to offenses either not being prepared or just otherwise unable to really perform, even with solid offensive teams at the wheel, and that coupled with the propensity of Bears/Packers games to be mostly low-scoring, defensive affairs (I did say "mostly") should keep things down a little. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Last Year: 15-1, winning the NFC North, and losing to the Giants in the playoffs en route to their Super Bowl parade.
This Year: Not quite the start most envisioned, although they did lose to a very good team in San Francisco, and currently sit at 0-1, in last place in the NFC North (savor it while you can, Bears fans).
When Last We Met: The last time the Bears and Packers faced off was Week 16, when Josh McCown took the field after Caleb Hanie couldn't give the Bears more than 14 points in three of his four starts. Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen took the reins, leading the Bears' rushing attack to 199 yards, and McCown threw for 242 yards, which almost beat Hanie's total passing yards in the prior three games, put together. Oh, and the Bears lost that one 35-21 to fall to 7-8 and have their playoff hopes finally dashed against a series of jagged rocks. Sad times.
Offense: You know the tools in this offense's toolbox, so I shouldn't need to extol the virtues of Aaron Rodgers (perennial Bear-torcher), Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley (3 touchdowns in the first meeting last year) or even Cedric Benson (okay, wait, 9 carries, 18 yards... meh). But I do need to touch on Randall Cobb, who is turning into something of a Percy Harvin figure - wide receiver, kick and punt returner, and even took some snaps coming out of the backfield. And if you're going to ask why he's important, he got nine receptions against the Niners to lead the team and Greg Jennings is currently questionable with a groin injury, meaning Cobb could get a few extra looks. And with a pair of the Bears' best defenders (Urlacher, Tillman) a little gimpy themselves, the Packers will be looking to take anything extra they can get.
In recent matchups against the Bears, such as the NFC Championship game in 2010 and last year's matchup, the formula has been to get ahead early. Always a viable strategy, and in 2010 and 2011 they could just let the pass rush get to work and clean up the rest.
Defense: The defense has undergone a few changes - wasn't it just a couple years ago they were the top defense in the league? Gone are Charlie Peprah and Nick Barnett. Cullen Jenkins, adios. And such paves the way for Nick Perry to be a first round pick, Jarrett Bush and Morgan Burnett to get extra playing time, and youngster D.J. Smith to take a spot. Early returns, eh, not so positive. While the Packers did get four sacks on Alex Smith (2.5 from Clay Matthews, 1.5 from Charles Woodson), they allowed 186 yards on the ground to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, and Alex Smith did just enough to add a pair of touchdowns of his own.
The defense has been able to get an edge on Bears' receivers because they could press and jam all day, and no one could beat the jam. With the addition of a few more, ahem, sizable players, it should be interesting to see if that approach changes.
If the Bears do this: Well, things will get interesting if the Bears' offense can get some things going early, particularly using the run game to springboard into a full-on offensive rush. It's a facet of the Packers' defense that to this point hasn't had an answer for over a year. The primary question is, of course, the Packers' pass rush against the pass protection of the Bears - it looked fine against the Colts once Dwight Freeney left the game, but we'll see how the team switches things up if Matthews starts adding to his sack total. But if the Bears can keep the Packers' pass rush at bay, they should be able to get some more of the 20+ yardage plays that they were picking up seemingly at will against the Colts' defense.
If the Packers do this: Really, Aaron Rodgers can still be the guy who's thrown for 1,976 yards, 15 TDs to 5 interceptions with a 102.9 rating against the Bears and it'll be difficult for the Bears to keep up - but it depends on what the Packers' pass rush is able to do to the Bears' offense. We know what the Packers' offense is capable of, and we know how their pass rush works - blitzing from everywhere and usually sending Clay Matthews too. Getting to Cutler will be their biggest key, because unlike in prior years, I'm not sure if they have the size to match up with Brandon Marshall, nor the run-stopping to handle Matt Forte and Michael Bush.
But as I mentioned above, offensively, if Urlacher and Tillman are any kind of hampered on Thursday night, the passing game will be that much harder to stop. Rodgers isn't a rookie Andrew Luck - he's a veteran that's been quite good against the Bears throughout his career, and he knows how much Urlacher and Tillman mean to the Bears' defense.
Closing Thoughts: The Packers didn't suddenly become an awful team overnight - they're still a top team in the league, they had a bad game, and they want to make someone pay for it. One game doesn't mean a whole lot in the span of things. But the Bears have a vastly different offense, and if the Colts game is any indication, they have some idea how to use those new parts and adjust the offense. I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready to see it start tomorrow night.