Episode 138 - Week 15 Preview: Bear Hunting
The theme of our introduction to the Packers’ Week 1 game against the Bears was simple: Chicago has closed the gap and may be ready to leap over the Packers in the NFC North.
I don’t want to give us much credit for predicting the Bears’ rise, though, because I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
In that preview, we focused on the Bears’ offseason spending spree, targeting six players upon whom Chicago lavished expensive contracts, taking advantage of the rising salary cap and a cheap young quarterback.
Those six players have by and large performed very well, too.
Allen Robinson has battled injuries all season, but when healthy he’s been productive. He’s scored four touchdowns for the Bears this year, including two in his best performance of the season, a breakout game against the Lions almost exactly a month ago.
Taylor Gabriel has been as productive in Chicago as he ever was in Atlanta, He’s already hit a career high in catches and is on pace to set a new career high in yards.
Prince Amukamara has matched a career high with three interceptions. More importantly, he’s stayed relatively healthy, which has been a problem in his career to date.
Trey Burton is taking advantage of his first extended opportunity as a starting tight end. He, too, is on pace for career highs in pretty much every major statistical category.
Kyle Fuller, whom the Packers tried to snag with an offer sheet, has smoothed out some of the bumps from his inconsistent play over the past two seasons. His seven interceptions and 19 passes defensed both lead the league.
And then there’s Khalil Mack, the crown jewel of the Bears’ offseason. What we saw from Mack in Week 1 may have been his best single performance so far this season, but it’s hardly his only good one. He has two multi-sack games this year, four games with at least two quarterback hits, and he’s forced a league-leading six fumbles this year. He’s easily been worth the enormous contract extension and the increasingly small price in draft picks the Bears gave up to get him.
True, the Packers are armed with multiple first round picks and significant cap space next year. With the right moves, they could easily retake the NFC North. But not this year. The Bears have resoundingly answered our Week 1 question. Their rapid rebuild worked. It closed the gap with Green Bay and vaulted the Bears into contention and the Packers, Vikings, and Lions are playing catch up.
The only question now is whether or not the Packers can turn the tables for one week and keep their season from being lost to the Bears entirely.
Five Things to Think About During Sunday’s Game
1 - Let’s start by talking about the pass rush for both teams. Somewhat coincidentally, the Packers and Bears have both collected exactly 40 sacks so far this season. But it’s interesting to note the difference in what downs those sacks are coming on for both teams.
The Packers have gotten 20 sacks - half of their total - on third downs. The Bears have just 14 sacks on third downs, but the also have another 14 on first downs. That means while the Packers are getting their opponents off the field with sacks on third downs, the Bears are more likely to put their opponents in long down-and-distance situations with first down sacks.
2 - The Packers and Bears may be equal in their sack totals, but they’re miles apart when it comes to creating turnovers, especially interceptions. The Bears lead the league with 25 team interceptions so far this season. No other team in the league has even reached 20 yet. 11 different Bears players have recorded at least one interception this year. As a team, the Packers have totaled just seven interceptions through 13 games, and three of those picks belong to HaHa Clinton-Dix.
3 - If we’re going to talk about interceptions, we have to at least mention Aaron Rodgers and his interception-free streak. We’ve pointed out in the past that there’s at least a little bit of luck that goes into avoiding interceptions. There were a couple interceptable passes in the Packers’ win over the Falcons that defenders simply dropped.
But still! It was September the last time Rodgers threw an interception. That counts for something, right?
If the streak is going to end, though, there’s a good reason to think it might be against the Bears. Chicago defenders have intercepted Rodgers more often than any other team. Rodgers has thrown interceptions in nine of 21 career games against the Bears counting the playoffs. And, when those playoff games are included, the Bears are one of just three teams against whom Rodgers has had multiple multi-interception games.
4 - The Packers and Bears are starkly different when it comes to balance among their receivers. While the Packers have leaned heavily on Davante Adams, the Bears have targeted a diverse range of pass catchers. Five different Bears have caught at least 30 passes so far this season. Only Adams and Jimmy Graham have reached that mark for the Packers. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is close, though. He has 29 through 13 games.
5 - Sunday’s game is somewhat unique in that it features two very mobile quarterbacks. Mitchell Trubisky is almost a throwback to when quarterbacks were as much runners as they were throwers and Aaron Rodgers has always been known for his ability to take off and run.
Rodgers, though, has been limited in his rushing attempts so far this year due to that famous knee injury. But when he has run the ball, he’s been effective. His 6.1 yards per carry average is his highest mark since he averaged 6.3 in 2014, another season where his rushing ability was limited somewhat. He hasn’t scored a touchdown this season though. The last time he scored on the ground was Week 16 of 2016 against the Vikings.
Meanwhile, Trubisky’s running ability is notable for how often he’s been able to collect big plays. It’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but Trubisky’s four runs of 20 or more yards in just 57 attempts is vastly more than Packers running back Jamaal Williams has managed in his 86 attempts. Williams has yet to record a run of 20 or more yards this season.
What Young Player Should We Watch This Week?
He’s been a favorite of mine since we first pointed him out in the aftermath of the draft, but I have to give another shoutout to Tyler Lancaster. He’s playing more and more snaps on a weekly basis, and his efforts against the Falcons were especially strong.
The Bears have a strong offensive line. It’s been one of the hallmarks of their success this year. The Packers could use another strong effort from Lancaster again this week if they’re going to stay competitive.
What Happened the Last Time the Packers and Bears Played?
It’s very rare that you can look back and say that a game was truly an all-timer, but the Packers/Bears game in Week 1 really was. We may never see another game quite like that again. The circumstances were just too unusual and the Packers were just playing too poorly...until they weren’t.
Remember, even before Aaron Rodgers got hurt, things were not going all that well. Only one of the four drives Rodgers led before his injury lasted longer than three plays (not including punts), and things (obviously) only got worse from there.
All told, the Packers had seven drives in the first half. Here’s how they ended:
End of Half
But it got better. The Packers scored on four of their five drives in the second half, only breaking their scoring streak to kneel down the final 58 seconds worth of game time.
Who’s Going to Win?
I think there are only two possible outcomes in this game: a close Packers win or a big Bears win.
The Bears didn’t find a way to put the Packers away in Week 1 and it cost them in the biggest possible way, and thanks to the strength of the Packers’ offense, such as it is, I think there’s still a strong possibility that a close game favors Green Bay. If the Packers can keep it close, I think they squeak it out.
But if the Bears get rolling, this game could be trouble. A big Chicago lead could make the Packers one-dimensional on offense, and that favors the Bears and their ferocious pass rush. I think if the Bears get more than a 10 point lead, chances are they’ll end up winning by closer to 20.
Our voters are feeling confident this week. Polling shows a 59.25% win confidence rate, higher than the Packers’ last divisional game against the Vikings in Week 12 by way of comparison.
That continues a positive trend for our voters overall. All of the major Packers figures we track got a bump to their poll numbers this week, none bigger than Aaron Rodgers. Voters have been down on the quarterback lately, but his weighted approval rating is up to 62.25%, the first time he’s been over 60% since Week 12.
People are also warming to the possibility of the Packers making a playoff push. Fans show a 39.5% confidence rate that the Packers will be playing in the postseason.
One Last Thought
The idea of a trap game is always a little bit nebulous, but more often than not over the past decade or so, the Packers have been a team that’s had to watch out for them. Fail to take a team too seriously and you never know what can happen. You might end up losing a game you shouldn’t. That’s more or less exactly what took down Mike McCarthy. An unexpected loss to the Cardinals and suddenly he was out of a job.
But this week could be a trap game of different sort for the Packers. They might be able to take advantage of a team coming off a big high. The Bears just had a triumphant win over the mighty Los Angeles Rams and should be riding high. They don’t have all that much to play for this Sunday either, other than pride. Could it at least be possible the Bears are in danger of being trapped by the Packers? I’m not always sure I believe in such a thing as a trap game, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out.