Sunday, December 16, 2012

Packers set to nail down NFC North with win over Bears

Today's the day when either the Green Bay Packers clinch the NFC North or the Chicago Bears keep their fading playoff chances alive. Which do you think is more likely to happen? Let's look at how the game sets up.

The statistical look
The oddsmakers have the Packers listed as 2-1/2 point favorites, and the over-under at 43 as of the time of this writing. So, there's that. There's also the fact the Packers have won seven of their last eight games while Da Bearz have lost four of their last five. Head coach Mike McCarthy has Lovie Smith's number: the Pack has won the last five straight meetings between the two teams and seven of the last eight against Chicago overall. At the "Mistake by the Lake," otherwiwse referred to as Soldier Field, the Packers have won the last two straight and three of the last four. Over the course of the last five games they've played against each other, the Packers defense -- as spotty as it has been at times during that stretch -- has given up a total of only 65 points...13 points per game. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers apparently knows how to mess with Jay Cutler and the rest of Da Bearz' offense. The Packers have a 21-9 record in December and January regular-season games under McCarthy, and rank No. 4 in the league in scoring during this same two-month period, scoring an average of 26.7 points per game and allowing only an average of 18.5 points per game, good for No. 6 overall in the NFL. Chicago's Jay Cutler has a passer rating of 53.1 in his seven starts against the Packers. Packers' QB Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, is 8-2 against Chicago, 5-0 in day games. In the last three games against Da Bearz, Rodgers has a passer rating of 117.4

Those are just some of the stats for those who geek out on that sort of thing.

Players make the difference...a-duh
Then there's the personnel issues. LB Brian Urlacher, CB Tim Jennings, K Robbie Gould and WR Earl Bennett are all out for Chicago. Defensive linemen Shea McClellin and Henry Melton are doubtful. Chicago basically had to skip a practice this week because they just had too many players hurt and apparently didn't want to risk any further injuries. They do have Jay Cutler, who is said to have a sprained ACL and sore neck from last week's game against the ViQueens. Cutler is still looking for his first good game against the Packers. Sorry, Jay. Won't happen this week. Even with WR Brandon Marshall as your go-to guy.

The Packers, while also down some players to injury, are at least starting to get some players back. Key among them is LB Clay Matthews who always seems to feast on Da Bearz. He had 3-1/2 sacks in the two teams' first meeting this season. He'll have to knock some of the rust off after sitting out for about three games. But Chicago will have to account for him and that will open up defensive opportunities for other players.

One of the glitches in this week's preparation for the Packers was a hip injury in practice sustained by starting right guard, Josh Sitton, who is doubtful for the game. T. J. Lang returned from his ankle injury and was getting time at his original left guard spot as well as at right tackle. The Packers may have found a diamond in the rough in the form of undrafted rookie offensive lineman Don Barclay. With Sitton out, the O-line might be configured with Lang at left guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith moving to right guard and Barclay staying at right tackle. While they have had to give him some help on pass plays, his run blocking has been quite good. And that comes at a time when the Packers' running-back-by-committee approach is starting to pay dividends. Expect the Packers to run often to open up the passing game for Rodgers and company.

Despite having to move players around, the Packers just have more depth at more key positions and that comes in quite handy in a game like this, which will be a tough one. There's been a lot of mouthing off, particularly from Chicago, over this past week. So expect some chippyness throughout the game. Bound to happen. Some of these guys don't seem to like one another very much.

Turnovers in the Packers' favor
Despite Da Bearz' reputation for generating turnovers -- and they do -- it is the Packers who have come out on top in this category when the two teams have played in recent years. In the last five games, including the 2010 NFC Championship game, all Packers' wins, the Packers got 13 takeaways. Nine of those turnovers were interceptions off Jay Cutler. The Packers' pass rush against a woeful Chicago offensive line, has given Cutler happy feet and when that happens he starts to make bad decisions. Yay for our side.

Let's call it...the prediction!
My friend Billy Da Bearz fan -- known for his Chicago delusions -- says he's going to be at the game. It will be a sad ride home for my good friend, especially since he says Da Bearz will win 27-21. Paraphrasing Judge Smails, "Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy...".

I think that unless the Packers go up early and quickly, the game will be tight through the first half. But the Packers' depth and weapons will just eventually wear out Chicago.

I'm calling the game 27-17 Packers. Go Pack Go!!!