Preview: Packers at Bears
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 has 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 called a "very good day" of practice Thursday and could return after missing 10 games with a fractured right fibula.
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 a 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.