Where: Soldier Field, Chicago (grass, outdoors)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: Packers by 3
Forecast: Cloudy, 43 degrees
Records: Packers (9-4; NFC North 4-0); Bears (8-5; NFC North 2-2)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Sept. 13, 2012, Packers 23, Bears 10; Dec. 25, 2011: Packers 35, Bears 21. Series record: Bears lead 92-87-6, but Packers have won five straight.
What matters: Bears week! Packers-Bears is one of the oldest and greatest rivalries in professional sports. It's high-voltage trash talk. Brandon Marshall, Jermichael Finley and Lance Briggs calling each other names. Bragging rights. Lovie Smith’s job security. Postseason implications. But most of all, a division title on the line. In the 91-year history of this rivalry, there hasn’t been a regular-season Bears week as fiercely intense, fervently anticipated and with as much riding on the game as this one. If the Packers win, they clinch the NFC North crown for the second-straight year and further imperil the precarious playoff hopes of the Bears, who hold a one-game lead in the NFC wild-card race. Several Packers, perhaps incensed by the noise coming from south of the state-line, admitted it would be even sweeter to win the division on Chicago’s home field. Although many of the players, especially those inside Green Bay’s mostly tactful locker room, maintained it’s an important divisional game and a heated rivalry between two mutually respectful teams, the uncommonly barbed and personal trash talk was noteworthy. Marshall saying he strongly dislikes the Packers and their players; Finley referring to Bears All-Pro LB Brian Urlacher as “slow”; fellow Chicago LB Lance Briggs calling Finley “an idiot.” The vitriol between these teams is so palpably rich and thick you could sprinkle it on top of Soldier Field.
Who matters: The easy answers are the guys that spewed the most venom -- Marshall, Briggs and Finley. But the game is more likely to be decided by the quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers is 7-2 in career regular-season games against the Bears. In those games, he’s 204 of 293 (69.6 percent) for 2,195 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 99.0 passer rating. Compare that to Jay Cutler, who always struggles against the Packers and has a 60.5 passer rating with them. In Green Bay’s Week 2 win over Chicago, Cutler threw four interceptions, including two to CB Tramon Williams and one to DB Charles Woodson, who afterward ridiculed Cutler. The best way to force him into making bad decisions and poor throws is a rapacious pass rush, like the one the Packers had in the last matchup, when they had seven sacks. OLB Clay Matthews had 3.5 of those sacks, and he’s expected back Sunday from a hamstring injury that’s kept him out the past four games. His snaps are likely to be limited, but he only needs a few to wreak havoc.
- Bears WR Marshall vs. CB Williams and the rest of the Packers secondary. Marshall’s comments this week mostly centered on the Packers' defensive backs proudly saying they stopped Marshall, who caught two passes for 24 yards in the Week 2 matchup. He contended that Green Bay had to use multiple defenders to cover him and slyly dared the Packers to play him man-to-man. That won’t happen. Williams will shadow him all game but he’ll have plenty of help, probably in the form of “two-man” coverage with a safety over the top to try and keep the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall in check (101 catches for 1,342 yards and nine touchdowns this season).
- Packers TE Finley vs. Bears LB Briggs. Finley (43 catches for 464 yards and two touchdowns) insists he didn’t mean any disrespect when he suggested the Bears would be better off without likely future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher (out with a hip injury) in their lineup. Still, when Briggs fired back by calling Finley an “idiot,” he ratcheted up the rancor. The last time Finley played at Soldier Field, he caught three touchdown passes, and he said he’s excited to return to Chicago on Sunday. Waiting for him, potentially with a violently vengeful big hit, could be Briggs (81 tackles, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks this year).
- Packers OTs vs. Bears DE Julius Peppers. Last year, LT Marshall Newhouse drew the dreaded Peppers assignment most of the time, but the seven-time Pro Bowler moves around on the defensive line and could target whoever’s playing right tackle on Sunday. Undrafted rookie Don Barclay started last week, but G/T T.J. Lang, coming off an ankle injury, could get the start outside if Green Bay wants to go with a more veteran option. Barclay has needed lots of help in pass protection, but Lang, who’s a much better guard than tackle, has also struggled with elite pass-rushers as the replacement for Bryan Bulaga (IR, hip). Peppers, who had two sacks in Week 2, could make life miserable for Rodgers.
- Packers WR Greg Jennings vs. Bears CB Charles Tillman. In a rare bit of amiable trash-talking, Jennings heaped praise on Tillman, who leads the league with nine forced fumbles, for his takeaway abilities. Jennings laughingly issued a plea to Tillman to “leave us alone, please.” That won’t be the case on Sunday. Regardless who has the ball for the Packers, they’ll have to be aware of Tillman and his active hands.
- Packers QB Rodgers vs. Bears cover-2 defense. They call it Tampa-2 but it’s the same thing Rodgers and the Green Bay offense have struggled against. Opponents are playing a two-deep safety shell against the Packers and daring them to run it. It will be up to the Packers’ unproven RBs Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant to prove they can move the ball on the ground.
- And let’s not forget Packers OLB Matthews vs. Bears LT J’Marcus Webb. Matthews terrorized Webb the last time these teams met, so much so that Cutler physically bumped Webb and yelled at Webb after a sack. Matthews made life miserable for both lineman and quarterback and, in his return from a hamstring injury, will be looking to do so again.
Injuries of note: DB Woodson is out with a collarbone injury. Woodson practiced this week and coach Mike McCarthy said he was ready to go and wanted to play, but the medical staff decided to hold him out another week. WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring), one of the league’s top deep threats, DE C.J. Wilson (knee), one of the team’s best run defenders, and RB James Starks (knee), who was just starting to get into a rushing rhythm, are all out. RG Josh Sitton, who suffered a hip injury in Thursday’s practice and didn’t participate on Friday, is questionable. WR Donald Driver (thumb) and LB Terrell Manning (shoulder) are also questionable.
Inside stuff: Jennings recognized Marshall’s incendiary comments as a subtle ploy to try and get the Packers to play him one-on-one, instead of double-teaming him or putting a safety over the top. Standing at his locker on Thursday, Jennings called Marshall’s reverse-psychology comments “smart” and playfully tried the same trick. “Man, I wish the Bears would play us one-on-one and man-to-man,” he said with a grin. “The Bears are always playing cover-2; I think they're scared not to play cover-2.” Although Marshall won’t get his wish, Jennings may get his, or at least a little bit. Most teams have played the Packers man-to-man underneath with safeties deep over the top to take away the big play. Other than Randall Cobb, the Packers pass-catchers haven’t consistently shown an ability to beat that coverage. Jennings is one of the most versatile and adept receivers in the league; after missing more than two months with an abdominal injury and catching a combined five passes in his last two games back -- and with Nelson out -- Jennings has an opportunity to make a big statement.
Record watch: With a win, the Packers can extend their franchise-record divisional winning streak to 11 games, the longest current streak in the NFL. Also, with a win, Green Bay would have its fourth-straight season with double-digit victories, which would tie a team record.
Bulletin board material: For those living in a hole, there have been some unsavory words exchanged this week. The bad-blood banter has been mentioned above, but let’s go back and give the full, verbal blow-by-blow, starting before the Week 2 game in Green Bay. Cutler wished the Packers secondary “good luck” trying to defend the Bears' passing attack. Then, after the Packers’ seven sacks and four interceptions, veteran DB Woodson said, “It's the same old Jay. … Jay will throw us the ball.” Fast forward to this week when Bears WR Brandon Marshall, in a lengthy anti-Packers diatribe, said, “I really dislike the Green Bay Packers and their players. … all that shaking hands stuff, it's not going to happen." Cut to TE Finley saying Bears LB Urlacher is “at the end of his career right now; he's playing a little slow out there … I don't think they're losing too much if he's out. Putting another guy in might help them a little.” And then Bears LB Briggs responding with “(Finley’s) an idiot. Suit up and play ball.” Should be fun.
Looking ahead: When they return from Chicago -- possibly as divisional champs -- the Packers host the Titans, who could give their run defense trouble with gifted RB Chris Johnson. But it should still be a ‘W’ for the Packers. Then it’s off to Minnesota for the season finale against All-World RB Adrian Peterson and the Vikings. And after that comes what Aaron Rodgers has thus far been referring to as “the p-word.”
Prediction: Packers 34, Bears 17