GREEN BAY, Wis. — The oldest rivalry in the NFL has become a bit one-sided with the Packers winning four straight over the Bears, but a Week 2 win by Chicago on Thursday night at Lambeau Field could mean much more than just one game.
Green Bay, which went 15-1 last year, lost at home to the 49ers in Week 1 while Chicago easily took care of the Colts. The Packers didn’t play poorly but the Bears were better with 41 points, more than they scored in a game last season, and a league-high five takeaways. That puts pressure on the Pack.
History has not been kind to teams that lose their first two games, especially in Green Bay. Since the NFL’s current playoff format began in 1990, not one of the five Packers teams that started 0-2 made it to the postseason.
With Aaron Rodgers, the reigning Most Valuable Player, throwing the ball to one of the league’s best collections of wide receivers, it seems inconceivable that the Packers could miss the playoffs. But if the Bears put together another well-rounded performance, Chicago could take early control of the NFC North and force Green Bay to play catch-up.
Considering that last year it took 364 days for the Packers to lose (Dec. 2010 to Dec. 2011), the vibe inside the team’s locker room was noticeably different this week. But Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy both tried to keep it in perspective.
“We’re going to let (the media) blow it out of proportion, and inside the locker room we’re going to realize it’s one game,” Rodgers said.
Though Green Bay has spent the past few days sitting alone in last place, the Bears aren’t overreacting to one game either. Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers still views Green Bay as the favorite to win the division.
“Until we beat them or until somebody else wins the division, I would have to say so,” Peppers said this week in a conference call. “They won it last year, so until somebody else wins it, they are the team to beat.”
The Bears look like they have the talent to be a serious threat to the Packers, starting at Green Bay’s biggest area of weakness. The duo of Matt Forte and new acquisition Michael Bush ran for 122 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. Stopping the run was a significant problem for Green Bay in its opener, as San Francisco rushed for 186 yards with a 5.8-yard average.
After that performance, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers faced a lot of questions about whether they’ll have any chance at stopping Forte and Bush, especially on just 96 hours of rest.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of respect for Forte,” Capers said. “I’ve always felt he’s been the real threat of their offense — not only as a runner, but as a receiver. He’s a good all-around back. Now Bush gives them a big back to put in there. They had those two guys in the game together a little bit against the Colts.”
Chicago also has upgraded its passing game, trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall this offseason to reunite him with QB Jay Cutler, his former Broncos teammate. Marshall, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is the first elite receiver Cutler’s had to work with since, well, since they last played together in 2008. Plus, the Bears used their second-round pick on receiver Alshon Jeffery, who had 80 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut.
Cutler is feeling so confident in Chicago’s passing game that he fired a bit of a verbal shot at the Packers this week. In an interview with the local media, Cutler reportedly wished Green Bay’s secondary “good luck” if cornerbacks like Tramon Williams plan to be physical with Marshall. Williams, who’s at his best in press coverage, was on the receiving end of one of Marshall’s best games in 2010: 10 catches for 127 yards. (He had nine for 119 Sunday.)
“We’ve got some dudes that if you’re gonna get up in their face, even our speed guys are gonna get around them, and our big guys are gonna throw and go,” Cutler was quoted as saying. “So we invite press coverage.”
However, even if the Bears score anywhere near 40 points, it becomes the type of game that the Packers typically win. Green Bay led the league in scoring last season in large part due to Rodgers setting the NFL’s all-time record for passer rating with 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. This past weekend, the 49ers played at a slower pace and kept Rodgers off the field, which worked to their advantage. So if Cutler tries to light up the scoreboard, Rodgers prefers that.
“I kind of welcome a team that doesn’t hold on to the football as long as San Francisco does,” said Rodgers, who passed for 303 yards and two TDs Sunday. “We like an up-tempo game like that. If we have to play a high-scoring game, hopefully we’ll be ready.”
Rodgers could be without one of his top targets though, as two-time Pro Bowler Greg Jennings is doubtful due to a groin injury.
It would help if the Packers were able to run the ball with any success. Midway through training camp, Green Bay signed veteran Cedric Benson, whose career began in 2005 when the Bears drafted him fourth overall. Benson, in his Packers debut, carried the ball just nine times for 18 yards, which McCarthy called “not acceptable.”
Benson said this week that his time in Chicago “was so long ago” and that he doesn’t “have any personal grudge or anything like that against them,” despite the Bears releasing him less than three seasons after drafting him.
However, Benson does feel a lot of responsibility for Green Bay’s ineffectiveness on the ground in Week 1 and wants to correct it against his former team.
“I pride myself on running the football,” Benson said. “We weren’t very productive in the few attempts we did have. There’s no magic word or one thing in particular, it just takes everybody working together. But I think there’s success to be found.”