Packers try to clinch division against rival Bears
LAKE FOREST, ILL. As if the league's oldest and fiercest rivalry needed an extra kick, Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall added some spice this week when he railed against the Green Bay Packers.
Talk about an unnecessary effort.
This game had plenty riding on it already, with the surging Packers trying to lock up another division title and the fading Bears trying to stop their free fall.
A win Sunday at Soldier Field gives Green Bay the NFC North title. And a victory by the Bears possibly saves their season.
"I think it's smart to address the elephant in the room," Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "No one's trying to sweep it under the rug, we know what's at stake Sunday. We've also been in this situation before and the stakes were even higher. So it's not like it's anything we haven't seen before."
Two years ago, the Packers beat the Bears in the NFC title game in Chicago. Now, they hope to capture another title and bury their rivals in the process.
A loss might not mathematically eliminate Chicago from the playoff race, but it sure would dent their hopes. As it is, the Bears are sixth in the NFC and fading fast.
They've dropped four of five after a 7-1 start, with the schedule taking a tougher turn and the bumps and bruises mounting.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher could miss the remainder of the season because of a pulled hamstring. Cornerback Tim Jennings, the league leader with eight interceptions, sat out last week's loss at Minnesota with a shoulder injury.
Kicker Robbie Gould (calf) went on injured reserve this week. Quarterback Jay Cutler missed a game last month because of a concussion and couldn't finish against the Vikings because of neck soreness. He expects to play, but the Bears were so banged up that coach Lovie Smith decided to have a walkthrough rather than a full practice on Wednesday.
Then again, the Packers are rolling with seven wins in eight games despite a list of injuries that would have derailed most teams.
"It's been a challenging stretch," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We've had a lot of different guys fill in and play, but I think it's been pretty rewarding as well, the way we started, the adversity we faced early in the season. We're not done yet. We have a lot of things in front of us that we'd like to accomplish."
Well, they're in familiar territory. They collapsed after Cutler broke his right thumb last season and saw a 7-3 start dissolve into an 8-8 mess that led to general manager Jerry Angelo's firing. Coach Lovie Smith was spared for at least this season, but his security is once again being called into question.
He said this week he realizes wins and losses will ultimately determine his future, but he also tried to squash the idea that the Bears are coming apart again.
"Keep in mind we're not a 5-8 team that's getting ready to play," Smith said. "We're an 8-5 team, win this weekend and we're right where we want to be. So there's no time for us to, we left all that, this is about playing our rival, and they're a good football team, and this right here is going to be the boost that's going to get us going for the stretch."
Something else to keep in mind: Chicago's record of late against Green Bay.
The Packers have won five straight and seven of eight against Chicago, counting that conference championship, and they've given Cutler fits through the years. He's 1-7 with twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (eight), including a game with Denver.
He had a particularly rough time at Lambeau Field in Week 2 with seven sacks and four interceptions, not to mention a sideline spat in which he berated and bumped left tackle J'Marcus Webb.
"I think they've had good schemes against us," Cutler said. "I haven't played my best ball against them. It's a lot of different scenarios. A lot of different variables go into the quarterback position. At the end of the day, I've just got to play better."
It would help if he didn't have to deal with Clay Matthews. The veteran linebacker returned to practice this week after missing the past four games because of a pulled hamstring and was eager to create the sort of havoc he did the first time these teams met, when he turned in a career-high 3 ½ sacks.
On the plus side for Cutler, cornerback Charles Woodson remains sidelined by a broken collarbone. That had to be disappointing to Marshall.
After all, he had said he was looking forward to facing the perennial Pro Bowler during a lively session with reporters this week in which he took issue with comments he said Woodson and Tramon Williams made while also acknowledging he's never disliked a team as much as the Packers.
"I'm not going to use the word hate, but I really dislike the Green Bay Packers and their players," he said.
Packers receiver James Jones seemed to shrug it off, saying, "Maybe it's something their teammates are preaching or the fans are preaching. Maybe he really does dislike us, I don't know why, he doesn't even know me, he don't know my middle name, I haven't done anything to him. So I don't know why he dislikes us but maybe he was just talking about the rivalry."