Slowly but surely, the Green Bay Packers are erasing the historical gap separating two of the most decorated franchises in NFL history.
When the Packers (5-2) and Chicago Bears (4-3) square off in the 187th meeting of the league's oldest rivalry Monday night, Chicago will face the potential of seeing its once dominant lead shrink to just three games. The Bears currently control the all-time series, 92-88-6, and haven't trailed since 1932.
However, the Packers have put a big dent in the Bears' lead in recent seasons.
Green Bay has won six straight meetings between the two teams and eight out of nine overall. Over the last four seasons, the Packers have swept the Bears three times and split once. And since Mike McCarthy took over in 2006, Green Bay has won 10 and lost just five against Chicago, including the postseason.
The gap is closing. Slowly.
Here are five questions the Packers need to answer Monday night to take another step towards evening the all-time series with Chicago:
1. Can the Packers Attack the Bears' Front Seven?
Green Bay has rarely entered a game with Chicago as a heavy favorite in the trenches, but Monday night will certainly be one of them. The Bears have been devastated by injury in the front seven, especially at defensive tackle and linebacker. Gone are Brian Urlacher (retirement), Lance Briggs (shoulder) and Henry Melton (ACL) from a once proud defense, leaving the Packers a golden opportunity to manhandle the game up front. If Green Bay can continue running the football effectively and working the intermediate passing game, the Bears will be in big trouble. This is a bad defense that is soft up front and now starting two rookies at linebacker. Expect the Packers to take this game right to the Chicago front seven from start to finish.
2. How Will the Packers Deal With Chicago's Tall Receivers?
Not many offenses feature the kind of tall, physical receiving options found in Chicago. Brandon Marshall (6-4), Alshon Jeffery (6-3) and Martellus Bennett (6-6) make a difficult trio to handle because even stick-tight coverage can be beat with ball placement and physicality. The Packers aren't exactly big in the secondary, either. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams will both give away several inches, with only Davon House providing the kind of length that could match Chicago's at receiver. It's certainly possible that Dom Capers will elect to use House even more Monday night, possibly as a starter on the perimeter against Jeffery. The Packers know that even with Jay Cutler out, Chicago will take vertical shots to Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett. Matching the physicality at the line of scrimmage and rolling coverage when the Bears attack downfield will be keys for the Green Bay secondary.
3. Will the Packers Pressure QB Josh McCown?
The Packers have turned Jay Cutler into a turnover machine in recent seasons, mostly because of relentless pressure. In 2012, Green Bay sacked Cutler seven times and picked him four times during a Week 2 win at Lambeau Field. Overall, Bears quarterbacks have been sacked 16 times and turned over nine times over the last four meetings. The script doesn't change with McCown at quarterback. The 34-year-old looked efficient in Marc Trestman's timing-based offense against Washington two weeks ago, getting the ball out of his hand quickly and accurately to his playmakers. Despite losing Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers have continued providing pressure and sacks on opposing offenses. McCown may not give the football away as freely as a pressured Cutler did, but making the veteran uncomfortable will be important given the targets he has in the passing game.
4. Can the Packers Shut Down Another Star RB?
Green Bay's fourth-ranked rushing defense is even more impressive considering the litany of running backs faced by the Packers this season. Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, Gio Bernard, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have each taken cracks at figuring out the Packers front, but only Morris found any consistent space. Green Bay will take its shot at another top running back Monday night, when Matt Forte and his 533 rushing yards and six touchdowns come to town. Expect the Bears to ride Forte early and often, especially with McCown at quarterback. The Packers would feel good about their chances if Forte suffers a fate similar to other top backs against Green Bay this season.
5. Will the Packers Win the Turnover Battle?
Green Bay may be playing its best defense since the 2010 season, but the turnovers still aren't coming. Over seven games, the Packers have just seven takeaways—good for 26th in the NFL—and six games with one or fewer. The Bears are currently sporting a plus-seven turnover margin in 2013, thanks mostly to a more cautious offense and a defense that is turnover-or-bust this season. Chicago has the NFL's second most takeaways with 18, but only four have come in the last three games. If Green Bay can take care of the football, yards and points will almost certainly come in bunches Monday night. In fact, the Bears probably need a giveaway or two (or three) to win a road game with that defense. The Packers would like to start registering more takeaways on defense, but playing a clean game on offense is infinitely more important.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, Chicago 13 (6-1)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.