Packers-Bears Preview

The day after Christmas provided the Green Bay Packers with a

huge present.

The Packers found out Aaron Rodgers will be back for Sunday’s

road matchup with the Chicago Bears that will decide the NFC

North.

Rodgers missed his seventh straight game last Sunday as Green

Bay (7-7-1) fell 38-31 at home to Pittsburgh. That put the Packers

on the brink of elimination, but Chicago (8-7) failed miserably in

its first attempt to clinch the division with a 54-11 loss at

Philadelphia later that night.

It means that Sunday’s winner will capture the North.

Green Bay is in search of a third straight division title and

have Rodgers back under center after recovering from the broken

collarbone he suffered in the first meeting with Chicago, a 27-20

home loss Nov. 4.

“We’re talking about the best player in football. I feel good

about it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers’ return.

Rodgers has 15 touchdowns to four interceptions and 2,218 yards

passing. His replacements have eight TDs to 10 picks and 2,002

yards.

He also might be getting one of his top offensive weapons back

for the first time since Oct. 13. Receiver Randall Cobb had what

McCarthy, who has missed the past 10 games with a fracture right

fibula, was activated from injured reserve Saturday and is listed

as questionable.

One player who won’t be available for Green Bay is linebacker

Clay Matthews, who is out after aggravating a right thumb injury.

He looked to be in extreme pain on the sideline Sunday after

getting injured on a sack.

Linebacker Mike Neal will replace the Packers’ top defensive

playmaker.

“I’m not Clay Matthews, I’ve said that before,” Neal said. “I’m

not trying to fill Clay’s shoes, I’m trying to fill Mike Neal’s

shoes.”

Matthews’ absence is good news for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler,

who missed the first meeting with a groin injury. Cutler owns a 1-8

career record against the Packers, including a 21-14 home defeat in

the NFC title game three seasons ago when he was forced to leave

early with a knee injury.

Cutler’s Bears enter off their worst performance. Chicago fell

behind 21-0 in the first quarter and finished with a season-low 257

yards in a game that was never competitive.

First-year coach Marc Trestman told the team immediately after

the mismatch to forget about the blowout loss and says the Bears

need to have “good amnesia.”

”I’ve got to be the voice of reason,” Trestman said. ”I’ve

got to see the big picture. Every coach handles themselves

differently in these situations, and there’s no right way to do it

for coaches because they all handle them differently. This is the

way we’ve done it, trying to maintain some practicality works in

this case.”

What works versus Chicago is running against a defense allowing

a league-worst 161.5 yards per game on the ground – 25.6 yards more

than the next-closest team. The Eagles gained 289 rushing yards for

the second-highest total by a team all season.

Chicago is yielding 5.4 yards per carry – the NFL’s worst mark

since the 1961 Minnesota Vikings were at that figure.

Rodgers’ injury has transformed the Packers into a better

rushing team than it has been recently. Green Bay ranks seventh

with 131.7 run yards per game, with rookie Eddie Lacy also seventh

while averaging 79.4.

Lacy is averaging 96.7 yards over the last three games on 56

total carries with four touchdowns. He hurt his ankle against the

Steelers, but McCarthy seemed optimistic about his chances of

facing the Bears.

”I feel Eddie is in good place,” McCarthy said. ”I expect him

to play.”

If Lacy can’t play, James Starks will start.

Chicago is hoping Lance Briggs will be better in his second game

back in the lineup. Briggs returned last Sunday and saw action in

57 plays after missing seven games because of a fractured shoulder,

getting credited with just one tackle.

”Lance is going to get better the more he plays,” embattled

defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said.

The Packers will be tasked with slowing down a high-powered

Chicago passing attack in which Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery

have combined for 180 receptions, 2,562 yards and 18 touchdown

catches.

The Bears ended a six-game slide in the series last month and

seek to sweep the Packers for the first time since 2007.

This marks the first season since the NFL realigned into eight

divisions in 2002 that the North champion will not win at least 10

games. Chicago wins the division if this contest ends in a tie.