The Chicago Bears' quest to end a four-year postseason absence is off to a strong start. A win over their biggest rival might convince their doubters it can really happen.
While the Green Bay Packers were widely expected to be unbeaten and atop the NFC North at this point, not nearly as many predicted the Bears to be in the same position going into this matchup Monday night.
Following last season's 7-9 finish, Bears president Ted Phillips issued a mandate to general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith that the team needed to show improvement in 2010 or changes could be coming.
Among the moves made during the offseason were bringing in renowned offensive coordinator Mike Martz and elevating Rod Marinelli to run the defense. So far, the changes seem to be working because Chicago (2-0) is off to its best start since opening 7-0 in 2006 en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
However, many still wonder if this Bears team is nearly as good as that one. After beating Detroit thanks greatly to a controversial ruling - when Calvin Johnson's late TD catch was taken away - Chicago was more impressive last Sunday by winning 27-20 at Dallas, but the winless Cowboys have looked shaky since the preseason.
Beating the archrival Packers (2-0) - considered a Super Bowl contender after going 11-5 last year - would be a much bigger statement for Chicago.
"Nobody's picking us to win," safety Chris Harris said. "We like that. That's fine with us. In the locker room, we're all we have anyway, so we don't let outside forces, outside voices dictate how we play."
After finishing no better than 23rd offensively in the league the past three seasons, the Bears are averaging 385.5 yards to rank fifth.
The biggest difference may be the play of Jay Cutler, who has only one interception this year after throwing a league-high 26 in 2009 during his first season with Chicago. Cutler is third in the NFL with 649 passing yards and has thrown for five touchdowns, including three last week at Dallas.
The Bears defense gave up one offensive touchdown last Sunday and forced three turnovers for the second straight week, including two interceptions from D.J. Moore.
"It was a signature game," Smith said. "We just made plays throughout. ... We've been saying what we are, which is a good football team, but you have to get wins to validate that."
Beating the high-powered Packers would bring the largest validation for Smith's club.
Aaron Rodgers has led Green Bay to an NFC-high 61 points, but there are some problems on offense.
With Ryan Grant suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the opener, Brandon Jackson started last week but finished with 29 yards on 11 carries while John Kuhn had 36 yards on nine rushes in a 34-7 rout of Buffalo.
"It's a little difficult when you use running back by committee," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a little harder for those guys to get into the flow and I understand that. So we'll continue to go that way and try to spread that ball around."
Rodgers threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, plus he didn't commit a turnover after a two-interception performance in the season opener at Philadelphia.
The Packers also have doubts about left tackle Chad Clifton's health heading into a potential matchup with Bears All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers. If Clifton can't go because of knee soreness, first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga - a Crystal Lake, Ill., native - will likely start in his place.
Bulaga saw time at that spot in last week's win when Clifton "didn't look healthy," McCarthy said.
"(Clifton's) our starting left tackle," McCarthy said. "He's battling through a rough spot right now medically. We have Bryan Bulaga getting ready. I thought Bryan played well with his opportunity."
The Bears are possibly in transition at that same position with former first-round pick Chris Williams ruled out for this game with a hamstring injury. After the team struggled early last week protecting Cutler, Frank Omiyale moved over from right tackle and the team didn't give up a sack.
"(Omiyale is) athletic enough," Smith said. "You need a good athlete there, to protect the quarterback's blind side."
While the Packers will deal with stopping Peppers, the Bears will try to slow down Green Bay's Clay Matthews, the NFL sacks leader after recording three in each of his team's wins.
Despite getting swept in last season's series, Chicago has won seven of 12 matchups with its rival during Smith's tenure after losing 20 of 23 before his arrival. The Bears are 3-2 at home versus the Packers after dropping 11 straight meetings there.