Hello Wisconsin: The Green Bay Packers are the Class of the NFC

The Packers are now the top dogs in the NFC.

The Green Bay Packers are the best team in the National Football Conference, and there’s also a good argument that they are currently playing the best football in the NFL.

That’s where this team stands heading into week 17 after an exceedingly impressive dismantling of the Tennessee Titans, a contender in their own right. 

It was an all-around impressive performance, other than a pair of special teams blunders (a missed extra point and a field goal block that didn’t end up counting). It was the best defensive game of the year for Mike Pettine’s unit, and the offense (particularly Davante Adams) has rarely looked better.

It was also fantastic to see A.J. Dillon give us a glimpse of exactly why the Packers drafted him in the second round of this year’s draft. One had to feel as though we were getting a look at the Packers’ starter in 2021 and beyond. 

The game on Sunday night should also have put an end to any talk that the Packers would be better off without homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. It was always a foolish statement to begin with, but there were plenty of fans who legitimately believed the Packers would be ill-suited for playing in the cold and snow.

I think we can safely say that’s not the case now.

With a win in Chicago this weekend, the Packers will be just two victories at home away from a trip to the Super Bowl. 

The Packers have not had a team this well-rounded since at least 2014. Last year’s trip to the NFC Championship was a pleasant surprise. This year, the team should be considered the favorite to take the conference’s crown. Anything less would be a disappointment.

But the way this team is gelling right now on both sides of the ball, and with the energy that surrounds these players, I’ve never felt more confident that we’re looking at a Super Bowl team.

Let’s start the New Year off right.

An impressive defensive performance from the Packers

I’ve been relentlessly critical of Mike Pettine for much of this season, and I think rightfully so. At the midway point of the season, I think it would have been absolutely deserved had he lost his job.

Something has changed over the last months or so that has led to significantly better play from the Packers’ defense. However, I was reluctant to put forth much praise, considering the competition.

No longer--Petine and the entire defense deserve some applause for what they accomplished against the Titans’ (previously) top-scoring offense, holding them to just 14 points and keeping all-world running back Derrick Henry under 100 yards for the first time in nine weeks.

It wasn’t just the fact that Henry was held under 100 yards. He was a legitimate non-factor in the game. More than half of his yards came while the Packers were already up by three scores, and were more than happy to let the Titans eat some clock. 

Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are playing like the best safety tandem in the league right now. In fact, PFF has them as the two highest graded safeties in the league since week 11.

Rashan Gary continues to improve week after week. The Packers had a season-high 22 pressures, with Gary leading the way with six of them… while only playing just over 50 percent of the team’s snaps. He also had several impressive plays in the run game, setting the edge really nicely.

Za’Darius Smith continues to play pro bowl caliber football, while Preston Smith over the last several weeks suddenly seems to be looking more like the Preston Smith of 2019. 

Kenny Clark has been turning it on in the month of December. Krys Barnes has earned a bigger role in the defense and looks like a future stud. Jaire Alexander is the best in the league at his position.

I’ve said all along that this defense has the talent to be one of the best units in the league, but that coaching was holding them back. It appears we’re finally starting to see the talent being utilized to its strengths, and proper adjustments being made on that side of the ball.

This is a unit that’s hitting its stride at exactly the right time. If this performance remains consistent through the rest of the season, the Packers won’t just be playing in a Super Bowl--they’ll be winning it.

I told you so

A brief P.S. on the defense.

In last week’s column, I made the point that the Packers should not sell out to stop Derrick Henry in the run game, or else they would get burned through the air. Several commenters thought this was, well, a stupid take.

Turns out, the Packers agreed with me.

We saw the Packers put some pressure on Ryan Tannehill, bringing in defensive back blitzes and getting aggressive with press coverage. They didn’t play off the ball nearly as much as usual, which allowed for more aggressive play in both the running and passing game.

The Packers were clearly told to put bodies on Derrick Henry, as we saw with the Ryan Tannehill option touchdown. But this was absolutely not the case of a defense stacking the box and forcing Tannehill to go up and over; it was simply a change in philosophy that paid dividends.

The Packers were able to stop Henry precisely because they put together a balanced yet aggressive defensive game plan that allowed them to put their best players into positions of strength. They swarmed to the ball when Henry ran, and didn’t go too light in their defensive packages in early running downs, but also didn’t put too much pressure on their defensive backs to have to avoid big plays in the passing game.

Wisconsin Beer of the Week

I know I just featured a beer from Lakefront Brewery two weeks ago, but this one really hit the spot the other day while I was watching the game. 

My wife recently noted that I’ve been really hitting the “specialty” beers hard lately in comparison to some of the more standard styles. Which… fair. This is mostly because a) I like to buy local and b) I’ve already had basically all the flagship standards from all my favorite local breweries many times, so I like to keep finding new, interesting things.

But I figured I should stock up on some of your more easy drinking, simple styles, including this American pale ale from Lakefront called Shifter.

This is a really crisp, easy drinker at 5.2 percent. For a pale ale it manages to avoid extreme hoppines at just 30 IBU, and it has a bit of a sweet, wheaty flavor to it you’d tend to find in wheats and belgians. It has a nice clear, light gold color to it that tells you just by looking at it that it’s going to be refreshing.

It was the ideal kind of beer for watching a football game--you can sip it and enjoy it when things are going well, and you can nervously down it quickly when the game gets tense. Or at least, that’s how it tends to go with me.

You can find Shifter anywhere you find Lakefront beer, and it also comes in their sampler packs.

The MVP race is over

You can call the MVP race now.

Finally, it appears the national media is broadly proclaiming Rodgers to have taken the lead in the MVP race. This is a pretty good indicator of how the votes will fall once they’re cast. And with the Chiefs deciding to sit Patrick Mahomes this weekend for their meaningless game against the Chargers, that pretty much clinches it.

Barring a really unusual set of votes, Aaron Rodgers will win his third career MVP, which puts him into rarified air, alongside such players as Jim Brown, Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

For Rodgers to put together this kind of season at age 36 and 37 after being essentially left for dead by the talking heads over the last couple years is remarkable. He remains one of the game’s best and most talented players. And as far as I’m concerned, he’s cemented himself as the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

Around the NFC North

Once again it’s time for us to take a look around the NFC North.

The CHICAGO BEARS got to beat up on the worst team in football, which has their fans all excited and their executives ready to re-sign Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy (to which Packer fans all exclaim, “YES PLEASE!”). How fitting it is that they get to have their season ended by their oldest rival, 100 years after they joined the NFL. 

The DETROIT LIONS had a rough go of it against Tampa due to COVID taking out… well… basically their entire coaching staff. But let’s be frank, the team basically gave up several plays into the game. For all the analysts falling over themselves to proclaim the Buccaneers to be the team to beat in the playoffs, RELAX. This was an already-bad Lions team that’s playing with an interim-interim head coach and without anything resembling a passion for victory.

The MINNESOTA VIKINGS got knocked out of the postseason officially by the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Eve, which was a wonderful gift to receive, as much as it might have given the Packers a bit of breathing room for the Vikings to manage to squeak one out. With their season over, the attention now turns to the future. Do the Vikings believe Mike Zimmer, after seven seasons, is truly “the guy” who can get this franchise over the hump? Does the team have the pieces in place to be competitive next year? Who do they prioritize in the draft? There are a lot of holes to fill, and the Vikings will have to spend at least the next two seasons trying to build a roster capable of overcoming Kirk Cousins’ deficiencies if it is to have a chance at a divisional championship again, let alone a Super Bowl.

On the Darnell Savage/Nick Collins comparisons

Packer fans love nothing more than making comparisons to players and teams of the past. The latest example of this is the rush to compare Darnell Savage to Nick Collins.

Normally I cringe a bit when I see these sorts of comparisons, finding them to be lazy and essentially having no value. But this is one case where I think the comparison is apt.

The obvious comparisons can be made to the players’ stories. Collins (a second-round pick) and Savage (a late first-round pick) were both drafted relatively high. They had up-and-down rookie seasons and didn’t turn it on immediately. Collins eventually flipped the switch and became a superstar, and Savage seems to be doing it earlier in his career than Collins did, with the results to be determined.

What’s more interesting to me is looking at the actual measurable and tangible ways in which the two players are similar.

Collins and Savage are remarkably similar in size and body type, coming in at 5’11, 207 and 5’11, 198, respectively. The two have the exact same arm length, with Savage’s hand size being just a bit bigger.

They were both fast at the combine, with Savage especially so (4.36 for Savage, 4.49 for Collins). Their 20-yard shuttles and three-cone drills were nearly identical, they did the exact same number of bench press reps and they were within a half inch of each other on their vertical leap. 

Then there’s their play style. For both Savage and Collins, the real leaps in progression started to come when they got more comfortable playing all over the field, including playing deep zone, playing man coverage and playing up at the line of scrimmage. 

Savage has started to flourish when he’s been used more in the old Collins/LeRoy Butler type of role all over the field, and his coverage this season has really come a long way.

Their measurables and their versatility are strikingly similar. So it’s no wonder people see Collins in Savage--put a 36 on Savage and you might not be able to tell the difference when watching some of their tape. 

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I think most of us can agree we’re happy to put 2020 behind us. 

Who knows what the year ahead has in store… I certainly couldn’t have predicted this shitshow a year ago tonight. It’s almost impossible to believe that this time last year I was getting the house ready for a party with a few dozen people, most of whom I haven’t seen in nearly a year now.

But, I hope that the new year brings you joy, luck and all things that are good. Because damn, we could all use some of that after this year!

The Packers can go ahead and get things started nicely with a win over the Bears and a Super Bowl a month later, thank you very much.

Week 17 quick forecast

Despite the Packers coming off an epic smackdown of the previously spooky Tennessee Titans, I’ve still seen some people on Twitter worried about this game.

“OooOooOo, the Bears have been picking up steam lately!” 

Yeah, against trash competition.

Look, the Bears are not a good football team. And not only that, but the Packers are a completely awful matchup for them. Even if this game didn’t have any meaning for the Packers, coming away with a victory would be a tall order. But the Packers have a lot at stake here, and need a victory to clinch the top seed.

This one won’t be close.

Packers 34, Bears 13

 

__________________________

Tim Backes is a lifelong Packer fan and a contributor to CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter @timbackes for his Packer takes, random musings and Untappd beer check-ins.

11 points

Comments (29)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
packerbackerjim's picture

December 31, 2020 at 07:15 am

I hope your prediction is accurate. The trite axiom of the “throw out the records when it’s the Bears v Packers” might actually have some resonance, at least to the extent I’m uneasy. The Collins as a comp for Savage is amazing in the similarities. He’s really turned it on this second half. My hope is that this New Year has a great start to it and may it continue for the rest of 2021.

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stockholder's picture

December 31, 2020 at 07:33 am

Really liked this. ++++

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Razer's picture

December 31, 2020 at 07:56 am

Good read - thanks Tim. The most complete game that I've seen this team play in two years. I hope this a sign that the team is hitting a playoff gear. On defense, I don't know if it was coaching that woke up or the players that came together as a unit. The NFL is a fickled realm and consistency is my measure for success. I need to see another solid outing to confirm the transformation. Looking for the secondary to keep up its solid play. We will be tough to beat if we force teams to grind out yards on the ground.

While we should soundly beat the Bears, you cannot discount that defense. They are healthy and Hicks will make running the ball a challenge - a challenge that we need to accept. For me this game will be the offense's opportunity to grab the torch. We are playing a top defense for all the marbles and it is man against man. Aaron Rodgers and all his weapons need to demonstrate their arrival. I expect Chicago to be very aggressive on defense, sending a lot of different pressures.

Love your beer selection. Crisp, refreshing and not too boozy. Lends itself to having more than one. And like the Packers - showing another gear.

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dobber's picture

December 31, 2020 at 10:30 am

Chicago is a lesser team than Tennessee, but I agree: Chicago has a more formidable defense and Akiem Hicks is the engine that makes it go. Still, this is a team ARod and LaF have had success against both with and without Hicks on the field. Unless the Packers make some significant mistakes or the Bears play absolutlely lights-out, it should be a W.

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murf7777's picture

December 31, 2020 at 08:06 am

“For Rodgers to put together this kind of season at age 36 and 37 after being essentially left for dead by the talking heads over the last couple years is remarkable.“

It is very similar to Brady’s career. At about the same age 35 or 36 Patriot fans after brady having an average season or two wanted to move on from him. “ Patience is a virtue”

Now, let’s go beat da Bears and get a bye.

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Coldworld's picture

December 31, 2020 at 08:40 am

The D last week finally made sense. That is my problem. It has taken from the first 49ers game last year to become a balanced D. In the interim we have seen a horribly underpowered D line forcing one ILB and a hybrid to try to compensate. No one but Pettine saw that as a winning proposition.

To compound that, we asked our DBs to play soft off D mostly, despite the fact that they were picked to be aggressive. Amazingly, it made them much less effective.

Perhaps this is related to the Z delegation, perhaps not, but last week the best RB in football was being impeded at the line and contained. Our ILBs all looked far better (not to overlook the impact of Barnes) and our secondary, minus one cover player over prior games, looked much sharper and more effective across the board. We got pressure, contained the run, didn’t give up big plays in the air and got turnovers.

To your point, we did that without selling out on the run. We held an elite O to 14 points (I’d argue 7 of which came the one time we did play off at the end of the first half) and held up against Henry.

In part I believe that this is because, for the first time, the overall defensive philosophy made sense, gave our players a chance to make plays while credibly opposing the ground game and played to the strengths of our OLBs and D backs.

Yes it was a great step forward if it means Pettine has had a step change in perspective and it’s a shift in our overall approach. If not, and it’s a one off, it does seem very powerful evidence that our defensive performance is primarily the result of the coach making the roster under perform, as a number here have suspected. Pettine needs to show that this wasn’t an aberration but an evolution.

That doesn’t mean every game has fronts like last week, but it does necessitate many of the things we did becoming regular situational tools in our defensive approach. We should see this week if they will be.

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HankScorpio's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:36 pm

The thing that was really exciting about last week's defense to me was that they obviously committed very heavily to stopping the run and did so effectively. And it did not seem to cost them much, if any, in pressuing the QB.

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jannes bjornson's picture

December 31, 2020 at 01:50 pm

They were committed to tackling for a change.

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flackcatcher's picture

December 31, 2020 at 05:33 pm

A lot closer to the truth than they'll acknowledge.

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Guam's picture

December 31, 2020 at 08:56 am

I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder Tim. I was one of your critics last week when you said give Henry his yardage and protect against the pass. After the game, one of my first thoughts was "I wonder if Tim is going to admit he was wrong?".

I saw a defense, that almost always uses two down d-linemen, use thee defensive linemen (and two OLBS crowding the edges) every time Henry was in the game. Pettine effectively went to a five man DL whenever Henry was playing. If that isn't loading the box (at least as far as Pettine is concerned), I am not sure what is.

I believe even Pettine stated after the game that their first objective was stopping Henry and thereby also slowing down Tennessee's play action passing game. I am curious what other commenters saw. Did the Packers game plan to stop Henry or was this still Pettine's stop the pass first defense?

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TimBackes's picture

December 31, 2020 at 09:01 am

Using more down linemen and heavier packages is an effective means of combating the run, but it's not the same thing as stacking the box, necessarily.

It's actually part of what I called for in last week's article. Bring in your heavier sets, but don't commit everything to the run.

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Guam's picture

December 31, 2020 at 11:00 am

Maybe our difference is just semantics, but using heavier sets ( 3DL and 2 ILB) is stacking the box for Pettine. He is such an avid fan of the 2-4-5 or 2-3-6 that for him to actually play a conventional 3-4-4 is very unusual. I hope it continues against teams with good rushing attacks.

Please don't take my critique too negatively - I love your column and it is one of my three favorite columns on CHTV. We just differ on describing this issue.

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flackcatcher's picture

December 31, 2020 at 11:54 am

One of the big changes was adding more DL to the active roster. Pettine never had enough big guys to play a full three man front. My guess is those slots were saved for developmental players that the Packers did not want to lose. Last year it was the offensive line that took the hit with light etc. This year with expanded rosters the stress to protect future talent wasn't as great. With only a handful of teams having a run first offense, it made sense for Gute to push more DB on the active roster. But as the season went on, the cost to the defense (as Bure pointed out) to the ILB and DL in injuries and overwork hurt this unit over the course of the season. Not to mention the Cap issues that have haunted this team all season. As fans, we don't know the issues that Gute was dealing with, nor do we know the reasons he made his roster decisions the way he did. All in all, Gute was pretty cold blooded about it, and Pettine(and MLF) made it work. (Short answer to your question, I think this is the first time we have the full 3-5-5 base this year. Stop Henry. Stop the Titans play action, forcing them to operate out of the shotgun leading to more pass rush. My guess, for what it's worth, is both Gray and Pettine thought their secondary could and would overmatch the Titans WR/TE in the pass game. They did, and we know the rest)

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Doug_In_Sandpoint's picture

December 31, 2020 at 08:59 am

“Something has changed over the last months or so that has led to significantly better play from the Packers’ defense.” Relegating the 3-man rush to the 1265 trash can is my best guess. And playing up a bit on the corners, not 10 yards off. Not dropping Preston into coverage. I think what has changed is that the coaching staff is finally showing TRUST. Trusting Jaire to be a shut-down corner. Trusting safeties to aggressively play all over the place. And the team is responding with great team play and infectious enthusiasm. I’m betting that Snacks has a blast with this group, fits right in and plays 4 games of high caliber football improving this D even further.

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Philarod's picture

December 31, 2020 at 09:04 am

I wish I were feeling as confident about this game as you are. I do think the Pack will find a way to win, but The Bears are hot and playing to get in the playoffs ..and at home.
Of course, the game is almost equally important for the Packers' SB hopes.

Agreed with Rodgers, barring something terrible, as MVP, and great as Mahomes is, it should be by a decisive margin.

The defense will have to not only play well the next (I'll be optimistic) 4 games, but if the offense does get stopped, may have to carry them for one of the games.

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Since'61's picture

December 31, 2020 at 09:26 am

My only concern with this Bears game is the Packers coming out flat after stomping the Titans. I would not be surprised with a let down this week.

Having said that the Packers are still capable of defeating the Bears. For weeks there was concern over the Packers winning only one game against a winning team. Well, the Bears have had only one win against a winning team also.
They beat the Bucs by one point earlier in the season.

The Packers might start slow but they are the better and more talented team at nearly every position. The only way the Packers lose this game is if they beat themselves.
Rodgers wants the #1 seed and knows playing at Lambeau can be the difference for reaching the SB. Hopefully the rest of the team realized that as well from the Titans game.

Just win baby, no matter the score, ugly or not. Remember that the Bears still suck. Packers 30 - Bears 13. Thanks, Since ‘61

7 points
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jannes bjornson's picture

December 31, 2020 at 10:28 am

If they don't come out with fire, you might as well expect a one and done in the playoffs. This is Bear Week !
This is for the right to defend their home turf. They should be getting better every game going forward.

4 points
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CJ Bauckham's picture

December 31, 2020 at 10:28 am

this is my concern as well. we've had a tendency to buy into our own hype when we're playing well, both this year and last. time to write a new script!

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HankScorpio's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Coming out flat against the Bears with #1 seed on the line is the last thing on my mind. It would be a very bad look for this team's leadership--player and coaching-- to let that happen.

It's the NFL so anything is possible.

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Since'61's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:51 pm

My concern over coming out flat is based on 2 factors. First they just played their best game of the season and second this is their 12th consecutive game without a bye which is a long haul for any team.

Hopefully coaching has kept them motivated. I’m confident that Rodgers will be motivated and focused for the #1 seed. Will he receivers and the defense maintain their focus? We’ll see. I may have concerns but not doubts. I believe we’ll take the game but it may involve some more angst for us fans. Thanks, Since ‘61

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HankScorpio's picture

December 31, 2020 at 10:42 am

The MVP race is not over just yet. Mahoomes will not be enhancing his resume but a clunker from Rodgers could hurt his. I'm not predicting that. I do expect the Packers to take care of business in Chicago with Rodgers doing his normal work. Which likely will result in his 3rd MVP. But it's the NFL. Anything can happen.

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dobber's picture

December 31, 2020 at 10:44 am

There hasn't been much talk on the fact that the Packers are a remarkably healthy team heading into the post season. They're missing one preferred starter (Lane Taylor). Just one! Sure, there have been short stints on short-term IR for some starters, and a couple missed games for players due to nicks and dings. But that's absolutely amazing, especially after the annual carnage we lived through during the McCarthy years. That's the key change that coincides with this: LaF seems to have brought enough of a change in philosophy and approach that it's making a significant difference. I wouldn't have guessed that a change of this sort would have such a profound impact on injuries.

Here's hoping I haven't just jinxed them!

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flackcatcher's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:02 pm

Here hoping. (fingers crossed)

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HankScorpio's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:28 pm

One of the very good things the NFL did in response to Covid was make IR into a temporary thing. I hope they keep that rule in place once the Covid nightmare ends, hopefully very soon.

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dobber's picture

December 31, 2020 at 03:06 pm

Agreed!

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Razer's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:32 pm

Now that you brought it up, I am going add "come away healthy" to the "beat the Bears" objective.

5 points
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dobber's picture

December 31, 2020 at 04:04 pm

This is what really concerns me about this week: a desperate Bears team playing a Packers team trying to earn the #1 seed...this will be a hard-fought game and with the history has the potential to get chippy. Worst-case scenario would be for the Bears to not only beat the Packers, but to beat them up and leave them undermanned for a WC-round playoff game. At least, if the Packers win, they've got a bye week to recover.

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Since'61's picture

December 31, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Agree Dobber that the Packers are very healthy. I don’t know if he’s considered a starter but I wish Raven Greene was available to play. He is the one missing piece that could be a factor for us in the playoffs. I don’t know if he will be able or eligible to return to active status for the playoffs. But if he is able to return he would be a great boost for the defense. Thanks, Since ‘61

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cheesehead1's picture

December 31, 2020 at 11:46 am

Good defensive effort against Tennessee. That’s in the past now, keep building on that D effort against the Bears. Huge game for Chicago who’ll go all out to make the playoffs. I think we win if we can control their run game and then get after Trubisky.....GPG, get the one seed!

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