5 Things to Watch: Packers vs. Bears

Aaron Rodgers' ability to play at a high level coming off a collarbone injury will be key to Green Bay's success Sunday against rival Chicago.

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Five things to watch for in the Week 17 matchup between the Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) and Chicago Bears (8-7) at Soldier Field with the NFC North on the line:

1. How Aaron Rodgers fares in his return   

Nearly eight weeks ago, it was the Bears who knocked Rodgers out of action with a fractured left collarbone. Now, Rodgers returns with a chance to knock the Bears out of the playoff picture. It’s also a chance for Rodgers to help the Packers celebrate their third consecutive division title, this time doing so in hostile territory.

All eyes will be on Rodgers’ every move. Is he going to perform like the pre-injury Rodgers, or is he going to have to adjust the way that he plays? Will he be rusty? How aggressively will Chicago go after him? What happens when Rodgers absorbs his first hit? What if — hold your breath, Packers, fans — he re-injures the collarbone?

"We’re going to cut him loose and we’re going to go play," coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "We’re going to play to win."

It’s one thing to say it, but it’s much different to actually see how effective the franchise quarterback can be in his return, especially in such a crucial game against the long-time rival.

Though Matt Flynn performed fairly well in the past three games, Green Bay is clearly a better team with Rodgers on the field — even if he’s not 100 percent. McCarthy said Thursday that "Aaron has accepted the level of risk" to play in this game, but with a bull’s-eye on his non-throwing shoulder, Rodgers is hoping this turns out to be the right decision.

"I read a great quote by Kobe (Bryant) recently," Rodgers said Thursday. "He was talking about his injury and how when you’re injured it heightens your awareness of that injury. But when you get back on the court or the field, it’s all about performing and trying to block that out. I think that’s the easy part when you’re out there. It’s easy to talk about it with you guys and understand the risks. But when you’re out on the field, it’s about performing and playing and not worrying about it."

2. Eddie Lacy’s effectiveness with a sprained right ankle

Lacy is listed as probable, and the expectation all week has been that he’d play in this game. However, when he left the Week 16 game in the third quarter and didn’t return, Lacy admitted Friday that he "could barely walk on it."

Lacy again wore a walking boot on his right foot throughout the week and said that he was diligent about staying in the training room for rehab work. But the sprained ankle Lacy suffered this past Sunday was his second one in the past couple weeks. The first time that Lacy sprained his right ankle, running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said that it was "big and swollen." Even with that, though, Lacy was so productive in Dallas that he was named the NFC’s offensive player of the week.

One wrong step or one low tackle could take Lacy out of this game. Maybe that doesn’t happen at all, maybe it happens late in the fourth quarter . . . or maybe it happens early on and Lacy is done for the day.

"For me, it’s just going to play until you can’t play anymore," Lacy said. "I never know when the last play will be or when my ankle is going to hurt, so until that moment I just run on it and give it the best I can."

Fortunately for Lacy, backup James Starks and the entire Green Bay offense, Chicago is the NFL’s worst run defense this season. Now with Rodgers back, it will open up more room for Lacy (or Starks) to operate near the line of scrimmage against a team that allowed the Packers to rush for 199 yards in their first matchup this season.

3. Stopping the run vs. Matt Forte

Forte has been one of the NFL’s best running backs this season. Green Bay has been one of the NFL’s worst run defenses this season. Add in that two of the Packers’ better run-stoppers — outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly — are out, and there’s a series of ingredients that could lead to the Bears absolutely dominating in this area.

This will be critically important for Green Bay if it is going to pick up the road victory. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers always preaches that it’s all about stopping the run first, but his group has significantly struggled in that area over the past couple months. In the first meeting this season, Forte ran for 125 yards (5.2 average) with one touchdown.

The challenge for Capers is that, with Matthews’ absence likely to be felt significantly as a pass rusher, the Packers might be stuck playing conservatively in an effort to contain Forte.

"You can’t let them get the run game going," Capers said. "If you get too wild and crazy with your pressures, then they’ll run the ball."

4. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams vs. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery

These two cornerback-wide receiver matchups will likely play a major role in the outcome. The tale of the tape has the Marshall/Jeffery duo being a combined nine inches taller and 71 pounds heavier than the Shields/Williams tandem, leading to a physical mismatch at both outside spots. Shields are Williams have been two of Green Bay’s best defensive players this season, and with the NFC North up for grabs, they’ll both have to bring high-quality performances in order to help the Packers win.

In the first matchup, Marshall and Jeffery both had big games. Marshall had seven catches for 107 yards with one touchdown, while Jeffery finished with five receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown. Green Bay will have to hold them below that level of production this time around.

"I thought that the first time we played them we did some decent things, other than two or three situations," Capers said of defending Marshall and Jeffery in Week 9. "We weren’t consistent enough; we gave them a few plays."

"Jeffery has really developed, I think made tremendous strides this year," Capers added. "You know Brandon Marshall has always been a guy, when he gets the ball in his hands, because he’s so big and physical, you have to wrap him up and tackle him."

5. Forcing Jay Cutler into mistakes

The Bears wasted no time after their 54-11 shellacking in Week 16 in Philadelphia to name Cutler the starter for this regular-season finale. Getting a beatdown of that magnitude goes well beyond quarterback play, but backup QB Josh McCown was so consistent in his five starts this season (13 touchdowns and just one interception) that it could be argued that Chicago took a risk — and perhaps made a mistake — in choosing Cutler over McCown. It was McCown who led the Bears into Lambeau Field in Week 9 to beat the Packers.

Cutler’s 17:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season — especially when compared to McCown’s 13:1 ratio — proves that Cutler will take risks if he’s forced into certain situations.

"He’s not afraid to challenge you; he’ll stick the ball into some tight quarters sometimes," Capers said.

That’s part of the reason why stopping the run (see No. 3 above) is so key for Green Bay. If Forte is giving Chicago consistent six-yard gains on first down, Cutler will be faced with manageable second- and third-down situations with only short yardage needed to be gained. Those aren’t the times that Cutler is as likely to throw the ball into those tight quarters.

With one regular season game to go, the Packers are ranked 27th in the NFL with just 10 interceptions. But if Green Bay can add two interceptions to that season total, it could be the difference between a win and a loss.

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