What a long, strange trip it's been. Even the late, great Jerry Garcia couldn't have penned a more oddball script to the 2013 NFL season which comes to a close Sunday. The Green Bay Packers meet the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in a winner take all game for the NFC North Division title. If the Bears win, they'll take the division with a 9-7 record, the worst clinching mark in the old Black and Blue since the last time the Detroit Lions captured first place in 1983. If the Packers win, the 8-7-1 mark would match the 1978 season in which the Minnesota Vikings eeked out the division title with an identical record, edging the Pack via a tiebreaker. The first time these teams met, both were 5-2 and looking like contenders that could challenge for the Super Bowl. That was on a Monday night in November and we know what happened then.
Aaron Rodgers crumbled beneath Shea McLellen and broke his left collarbone. The dramatic twists and turns of his recovery were chronicled feverishly with each succeeding game. In the 7 games Rodgers watched from the sidelines, the Packers limped along with a 2-4-1 record. Thursday, Rodgers was finally cleared to return and face the team many thought might have ended his season. The heoric return of the MVP quarterback on the final day of the season with a playoff berth on the line....Hollywood would have a hard time buying that.
So here we are. Before diving into the particulars, let's make our weekly trip inside the Lambeau Field locker room to hear what the boys have to say about Sunday's do or die trip to the Windy City:
So you don't think one man can make a difference? The Las Vegas line turned the Packers from a three point underdog to a two and a half point favorite as soon as Rodgers was announced as the starter. The impact won't be so much as what Rodgers will do with the ball in his hands, but rather how the Chicago defense will line up before he takes the snap. Poor Eddie Lacy has been nearly run into ruin over the past few weeks as opposing defenses have crowded the line of scrimmage to take him away with seven and eight men in the box. Lacy has still been able to outgain every NFL back over the past 11 weeks but it has come with a cost. He's been running on one and a half wheels, dealing with a sprained ankle that hasn't had time to completely heal. With Rodgers on the field, Chicago will be less inclined to stack the box and dare him to make plays down the field. That strategy certainly worked when it was Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn pulling the trigger. It's a dangerous ploy with a former league MVP. Reverting back to a two-high safety look could give Lacy or a still fresh James Starks more room to operate against the league's worst rushing defense. It will also create play action and play pass opportunities for Rodgers on short to medium routes downfield. The Bears will have to pick their poison and neither works to their advantage.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers defense is vulnerable against the skill players of Chicago. Running back Matt Forte is one of the most underrated ball carriers in the league and he's an excellent target in the passing game. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have both soared over 1000 receiving yards on the season by soaring over helplessly smaller defensive backs, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields among them. Remember, it was Josh McCown who beat the Pack at Lambeau, not Jay Cutler. Cutler has since returned from his injuries and while he struggled early in his first game back against Cleveland two weeks ago, he did rally the Bears to a victory. Last week against Philadelphia, it was a disaster and many in Chicago are calling for coach Marc Trestman to go back to McCown. Throw in the fact Cutler has beaten the Packers but once in nine tries and there may be some validity in that argument. Given better protection by an improving offensive line, Cutler will rely on Forte to set up deep shots to his lengthy wideouts. Without Clay Matthews to draw extra attention, the Packers must find a way to hurry the time clock of Cutler which is when he becomes prone to squeezing throws where he shouldn't resulting in big mistakes.
Special teams will come into play with Devin Hester, much more dangerous on kickoff than punt returns these days while Micah Hyde has suddenly given the Green Bay return game a boost. Both place kickers know how to handle the rock hard balls on a barren Soldier Field turf. Mason Crosby and Robbie Gould have had excellent seasons.
The Bears knew before they played last Sunday night in Philly they could clinch the division outright with a victory and laid a colossal egg. The Packers have had to claw and scratch their way back from an 0-3-1 stretch without their leader. To be given a reprieve has given them renewed hope. My head says take the Bears. They haven't forgotten the 2010 season where they could have knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs with a season finale win at Lambeau, then losing the NFC Title game as division champs to the Packers three weeks later on their turf, denying them a Super Bowl the Packers claimed, gives them an intangible edge. Ah, but my heart says ride the storybook finish to an incredibly strange journey. I'll take the Packers in a thriller, 28-26.