The Bears Still......Posted:Jan 2nd, 2021 3:27 am
Everything was going so well. The Pack was preparing for its season finale on the heels of the best overall performance of the Matt LaFleur era in the rout of the Titans. They had claimed space eater DT Damon "Snacks" Harrison off waivers from the Seahawks to fortify the defensive line. They took the practice field on Thursday afternoon with a 79% chance to ensure that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC would go through Lambeau Field.
And then, disaster. A "freak, non-contact" knee injury, as La Fleur described it and just like that, David Bakhtiari's season was over (with no guarantee that he'll even be ready to play when next season starts). Just a gutting, devastating development for the newly minted all pro left tackle. Aaron Rodgers used the phrase "grieving process" and said his emotions were still a little raw 24 hours later.
By no means does losing Bakhtiari eliminate the Pack from the Super Bowl conversation. The Pack's line is infinitely deeper than it was a few years ago, when they were an injury away from Jason Spriggs protecting Rodgers' blind side. But the Pack's elite line has lost its leader, its best player and the team has lost one of its five most valuable players. LaFleur said he might shuffle things around on the offensive line, depending on the opponent going forward.
Best guess for the Bears game is that he goes with the group that played when Bakhtiari missed weeks seven thru nine: Billy Turner at LT, Ricky Wagner at RT, with Elgton Jenkins, Corel Linsley and Lucas Patrick manning the interior. The Bears pass rush has not been as lethal as advertised this season, but they still have veterans Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn and the Pack is best served by playing the guys with the most experience at tackle. Fortunately, Wagner is good to go, after injuring his knee in the Titans game.
The Packers scored 41 points in their sleep in the first matchup and the biggest difference this time around is the return of Akiem Hicks, whose presence makes running the ball a bit more challenging. I don't think even the return of Hicks will be enough to slow down the Pack's offense the way it's humming right now.
The Pack's biggest edge in this matchup is in the passing game, with the Bears missing two of its three starting cornerbacks. Rookie Jaylon Johnson and slot Buster Skrine have been ruled out, replaced by rookie Kindle Vildor and the seldom used Duke Shelley. Rodgers should find matchup advantages all afternoon. Kyle Fuller tends to stay on one side of the field, so Davante Adams should have a field day.
The Bears offense is what everyone is talking about right now, and we'll get to that in a moment. What no one outside of Chicago is talking about is how the defense has faltered of late. Through the first 11 weeks, they were the league's top ranked in third downs and red zone defense. Over the last five weeks, they've dipped to 25th on third downs and 21st in the red zone. Many Bears fans want to see defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano fired, and if they miss out on a playoff spot, they may get their wish.
Weather won't be a factor on Sunday, with temperatures a near balmy 30 at kickoff, so the Pack should have no problem scoring 27-35 points. The question is, how will the Bears offense do against a legitimate defense. Their late season resurgence has come against the Lions (a home loss), and wins against the Vikings, Texans and Jaguars. Yes, they've averaged 35 points a game, but those defenses are all garbage right now.
Suddenly, Mitch Trubisky looks like a capable quarterback: he's using his legs and actually making things happen outside of the pocket and he's playing for a spot on the 2021 roster. He's been helped by a running game, led by David Montgomery, that has chewed up the weak competition. Montgomery had the one long run in the first matchup against the Pack, but was otherwise held in check. But he's looked very good the last few weeks and has scored seven times in the last month.
But the Packers showed last week that they are up to the challenge against the league's best back. And as impressive as the Bears offense has been lately, they aren't in the same league as the Titans. Expect the Pack to load the box to take Montgomery away and force Trubisky into obvious passing situations. There's even a chance that Harrison gets his feet wet this week, probably subbing in for Kenny Clark to keep him fresh. Come playoff time, I expect Mike Pettine will have packages with the two of them on the field together.
I wonder whether Pettine will assign Bears receiver Allen Robinson to Jaire Island. He's Mitch's priority in most big spots. Rookie Darnell Mooney and tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham have had their moments, but Robinson is the apple of Trubisky's eye, and I'd make sure Alexander does not maintain social distancing from him all afternoon.
The elite play from safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage lately gives me confidence that the Pack's defense will get stops on key third downs and in the red zone and they will take the ball away once or twice as well. My biggest concern, as usual, is special teams. The Pack can't allow Cordarelle Patterson or DeAndre Carter to tilt the field and give their offense a short field.
This game is exactly what we all dared dream about back in the spring. A date with the Bears at Soldier Field with a chance to wrap up the top seed and maybe knock the Bears out of the playoffs (with a loss and a Cardinals win over the Rams, minus Jared Goff).
We all know that Soldier Field has been the Pack's home away from home since the Brett Favre era. They've won nine of the last ten there, 21 of the last 26. On top of that, Green Bay is 7-1 in December-January games against the Bears and 5-0 against them in season finales.
And then there's Rodgers, who statistically has been the best QB ever to play the Bears, with a career 103.5 passer rating and he's 20-4 in games he's started and finished against them. With Patrick Mahomes taking the day off, Rodgers can put a ribbon on his third MVP trophy with another signature performance in Chicago.
I'm not betting against him, even without his beer guzzling buddy protecting his blind side.
Packers 31 Bears 24