With still a few months to go until the first kickoff of the NFL season, we continue our weekly previews of matchups we can’t wait to see in 2014.
Packers vs. Bears (Week 4, Week 10)
In sticking with an unintentional theme of divisional rivalries, we move into the heart of the Midwest. Historically, it’s the league’s most-played rivalry, and it was a classic in 2013.
Week 17 was a winner-take-all scenario for the Packers and Bears, with the division title on the line.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers made his return from a broken collarbone on this cold, snowy night in Chicago, and led the Packers to a win with a series of improbable plays.
The bizareness began for Rodgers and the Packers in the first half, when he was hit on the arm while beginning his attempt to throw downfield. The officials ruled the play a fumble, yet no one picked the ball up until Rodgers and his sideline full of teammates urged Jarrett Boykin to take the ball into the endzone. Suddenly, Green Bay had a 10-7 lead — an advantage that wouldn’t last long.
A short Matt Forte touchdown run put the Bears ahead 14-13 in the third, and the game followed that trend of back and forth scoring until Rodgers’ offense took the ball with 6:24 left to play, trailing 28-27.
With one incompletion, or one run a yard too short being all that separated Green Bay from kissing its postseason hopes goodbye, Rodgers showed why he is considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Chicago was out of time and out of the playoffs at the end of its first season under head coach Marc Trestman.
But greener pastures may be ahead for the Bears.
Year two is typically when a team shows a significant leap, often times resulting in playoff appearances. For example, take a look at Green Bay’s big cheese, Mike McCarthy. His Packers improved from 8-8 in 2006 to 13-3 in 2007. Tony Dungy took a struggling Tampa Bay squad from 6-10 in his first season (1996) to 10-6 the next. The team he built ended up winning a Super Bowl in 2002 under Jon Gruden. Dungy then went to Indianapolis and bettered an already-successful Colts team from 10-6 in 2002 to 13-3 in his second season.
That’s not to say that the Bears will absolutely run away with the NFC North in 2014; but it took just an 8-7-1 record to win the division last season. Factor in the possibility of that second-season improvement, and suddenly, a division crown doesn’t look too far off into the distance. And that’s before we’ve even gotten into the talent on Chicago’s roster.
The Bears boast arguably the league’s best one-two punch at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. They’re both big, they can both jump higher than anyone except Calvin Johnson (it would be a close competition), and they both have spectacular catching ability. What more could Bears quarterback Jay Cutler want?
Speaking of Cutler, he’s likely looking at this season as a campaign of redemption. Cutler was injured and missed five games in 2013 before returning to match Rodgers pass-for-pass in the season finale, but he ultimately came up short against an outstanding opponent on his own home turf. With a solid receiving corps and a backfield that includes Forte (who still doesn’t get enough respect for his play) and rookie Ka’Deem Carey — a two-time consensus All-American while in college at Arizona — Cutler has the weapons necessary to make this quarterback battle even more entertaining in 2014.
I haven’t even mentioned all of the talent in Green Bay. In the first 70 players revealed in the NFL Top 100 of 2014, the Packers have three: Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews. Chicago leads Green Bay so far in total number of players — the Bears have Forte, Tim Jennings, Jared Allen, Jeffery and Marshall — but I think it’s safe to say that at least one Packer (Rodgers) is still waiting behind the curtain of the top 30.
And how could we forget Julius Peppers? The former perennial Pro Bowl defensive end — the same one who harassed Rodgers twice per season for four years as a member of the Bears — has switched sides, joining the Packers as a free agent after being cut by Chicago. The Bears replaced Peppers with veteran defensive end Allen, which not only sets up the “which wiley veteran will do more for his defense?” watch, but also increases the tension among familiar faces in new places.
With the Bears looking for redemption and the Packers looking to keep a tight grip on their division title, Week 4 will give us the first of what will likely be two great games. We can’t wait.