Packers and Bears Renew Their Rivalry

Last time around was one for the ages. Can this year live up?
Last time around was one for the ages. Can this year live up?

This year's incarnation of the Packers/Bears rivalry features a team with an efficient, explosive passing offense squaring off with a team basking on strong defensive play to carry their sputtering offense...only the first team is the Bears and the second team is the Packers. Confused? Me too.

It may be confusing, but it's the truth. The Bears are passing as well as they ever have. Jay Cutler is efficient, if not spectacular. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are giant pass catchers, and Matt Forte continues to do his poor man's Marshall Faulk routine to great success. Throw in a hulking tight end in Martellus Bennett and the Bears really seem to have it going through the air...which is what we usually say about the Packers.

Of course, the Packers are hardly their usual selves, either. Aaron Rodgers has been ordinary. The run game has been non-existent. Even the receiving corps, once dominant and deep, looks like a one trick pony. They've had to bank on the defense to keep them in games, which it's kinda done twice. It's also been just as much a liability as a strength.

So whose identity holds? That's what we'll find out this week. After all, the quarter mark of the season is usually when these things start to become more clear, and there's nothing like a trip to Soldier Field to teach you a little bit about who you are.

The Countdown

5 - Touchdown passes by Aaron Rodgers through three games

Last year at this point, Rodgers had already thrown eight touchdown passes. It's not that he's been terrible so far this year, but defenses have made him look ordinary. He hasn't been bad, really. He's still completing nearly 63% of his passes, not turning the ball over, and making a couple plays. The plays just haven't been coming as quickly as we'd like them to, or as often as we've come to expect. Perhaps this is the weekend he'll bounce back.

4 - Receiving touchdowns by Martellus Bennett

The Bears receiving leader isn't Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, or even Matt Forte. It's Bennett, the 6-6, 265 pound monster of a tight end employed by Chicago. A bit of a journeyman, Bennett has been productive wherever he's gone, and he's off to a hot start this year. Never a guy you'll have to game plan around, Bennett nevertheless is a big target who could be a headache if left to his own devices.

3 - Packers players with a Pro Football Focus pass rushing grade greater than 1.0

In ascending order, those three are Mike Daniels, Datone Jones (yep, that's right), and former Bear Julius Peppers. Although spotty against the run at times, Peppers has been as good as advertised rushing the passer, ranking in the top 10 at his position in several of PFF's pass rushing metrics. Squaring off against a strong pass blocking line, it'll be interesting to see how the Packers' pass rushers fare this Sunday.

2 - Interceptions thrown by Jay Cutler

Famous for his gunslinging tendencies, Cutler has been remarkably efficient so far this year, at least by his standards. He has thrown interceptions on just 1.7% of his passes this year, just a touch above half his career average. Will Bad Jay Cutler rear his head this week?

1 - Sack by Clay Matthews

Playing in more of a 4-3 alignment has cut Clay Matthews' pass rushing opportunities. According to Pro Football Focus, he's rushing the passer just 78% of the time he's on the field, down from 84% last year. Six percent isn't a ton, but it's made a difference so far. We've seen a lot more of Matthews dropping to cover and a lot fewer whirling dervish blitzing around the edge. He's steadily improved his pass rushing grades, though, so maybe he'll turn it around this week.

Last time - Packers 33, Bears 28, December 29, 2013

Surely you remember this one, right? It's the game where this happened.

Oh yes. You remember.

Meet a Bear - Martellus Bennett - TE - 6-6, 265 pounds - 7th NFL season

I'll admit it: I love the tight end position. Bennett is certainly not a glamorous version of the modern tight end. Most of his game is based on just being larger than everyone who tries to cover him. But he's been productive, he's experienced, and I'm not sure the Packers have a linebacker who can match him.

The Bears will win if...

...Jay Cutler maintains his efficient ways and gets a little help from Forte and Company on the ground. The Bears run attack hasn't been really worth writing home about, but Forte has serious talent and he's plagued the Packers before. If he can give Smokin' Jay a little breathing room, the Bears could give the Packers a long day.

The Packers will win if...

...Aaron Rodgers shakes off his recent bout with mortality. Rodgers remains one of the few trustworthy pieces on the Packers' roster, and if he can get back to his winning ways, the rest of the team will suddenly look a lot better. The defense, the run game, and even Mike McCarthy all look better in supporting roles. Rodgers needs to live up to his status as the big dog in the locker room. If he does, the Packers will be just fine.

The Pick: Bears: 30 Packers: 24

I don't believe in the Packers yet. I would loved to be proven wrong, but they've been maddeningly inconsistent so far this year, and inconsistent teams are hard to pick when you're writing a football column like this one. I'm betting Bears until I see a reason to believe.

Jon Meerdink