The Green Bay Packers (9-4) are one win away from clinching the NFC North for the second straight season. The Chicago Bears (8-5) might be another loss away from a second straight late-season fade.
The two battling situations will clash Sunday in Chicago, where the Bears host the Packers in Week 15 of the NFL season.
Winners of seven of eight games, Green Bay can clinch the division with either a win Sunday or wins in Week 16 (Tennessee) and Week 17 (at Minnesota).
Chicago is currently holding the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff picture, but the Bears have lost four of its last five games after a 7-1 start. A season ago, Chicago started 7-2 but finished just 8-8 after winning one of its last seven games.
To get back into the division race and stave off another fade, the Bears will have to snap a current five-game losing steak to Green Bay.
Below, we give you some other quick things you could watch Sunday.
(Not) Forgetting Brandon Marshall
Forget the semantics of the pre-game chatter from Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. Regardless of scheme or any perceived lack of respect from either side, the Packers held Marshall to just two catches for 24 yards in the first meeting. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler targeted Marshall just five times, with one of the attempts resulting in an interception. Overall, it was a big reason why Green Bay won comfortably.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers won’t give into Marshall’s plea for one-on-one press coverage, nor should he; Marshall represents almost 39 percent of the team’s targets and 49 percent of the receiving yards. If you stop Marshall, you stop the Bears passing game.
Turnovers Tell The Whole Story
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has remained adamant that winning turnovers, third down and penalties is the key to his team’s current 11-game winning streak inside the division. But against the Bears, you need only look at turnovers. Over the five-game winning streak against Chicago, Green Bay is plus-five in turnover differential despite the Bears possessing a high-volume turnover defense. In each game, the Packers either won the turnover battle or tied Chicago.
And just as you’d expect, the last time they lost that battle was in Sept. of 2010, or the last time Chicago beat the Packers. If the Packers can stay out of the red in turnovers Sunday, a win is likely to follow.
Ugly, Winning Football
A season ago, the Packers won games with an offensive assault on the scoreboards that was easy on the eyes. However, that style of play did not translate to winning postseason football. In 2012, the Packers are winning playoff-style games in November and December.
Consider that Green Bay hasn’t thrown for over 300 yards passing Oct. 21, a stretch of six games but also five wins.
Instead of putting up flashy numbers, the Packers are grinding out victories with a stronger focus on running the football. Over the last four wins, Green Bay is averaging a somewhat staggering 140.8 yards a game on the ground. With the possibility of Don Barclay starting at right tackle again, there’s no reason to think the Packers will shy away from their new offensive identity.
Matchup to Watch: Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Bears LT J’Marcus Webb
Matthews is returning from a hamstring injury that kept him out over a month, so the Packers are expected to limit the Pro Bowler’s snaps. In the grand scheme of things, that decision is a sound one. But if the first meeting is any indication, Matthews can effect the outcome of Sunday’s game more so than any player not named Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler. Back in Week 2, Matthews sacked Cutler 3.5 times and generally dominated Webb on the right side of Green Bay’s defense. You’d also like to think that having Matthews back will have ripple effects for the pass rush, especially towards Erik Walden. The Packers other starting outside linebacker has been a ghost since Matthews went down.
In the first meeting, Green Bay received a perfect storm of happenings on the defensive side of the ball. Matthews dominated, Cutler made horrible decisions and running back Matt Forte left in the first half with an ankle injury. At home, with Forte healthy and Matthews just now making his return, the Bears should be better equipped to play on that side of the football. That said, there are still fatal flaws along the offensive line that continue to kill this team week-after-week. Few quarterbacks are effected so deeply by pressure than Cutler, which only serves to magnifiy the problem. The Packers-Bears rivalry is almost always close, but it’s a much safer bet to expect a game-changing turnover from Cutler than Rodgers. The Packers get one Sunday to clinch the NFC North.
Packers 20, Bears 16 (Season record: 8-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.