Seeking their fourth straight victory in the storied rivalry, the Green Bay Packers meet the Chicago Bears in their season opener Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.
The Packers, coming off a 12-4 mark and blitz to the NFC title game, have won their last three meetings against the Bears, most notably last season’s 55-14 drubbing in Week 10. Chicago managed to bounce back and win its next two games, but closed the season on a five-game losing streak to finish 5-11, its first losing season in five years that ushered in new head coach John Fox.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, dealing with a revamped secondary and the loss of top receiver Jordy Nelson to a season-ending ACL tear during the preseason, seemed very confident heading into the matchup. Now in his 10th season in Green Bay, McCarthy was speaking at a team function with the local chamber of commerce and said his squad would “kick Chicago’s ass,” though the comments weren’t supposed to be made public.
Someone in attendance recorded McCarthy’s speech and posted a video online, and he responded on Sunday to some of the blowback.
"It was all in fun, but I think it's really just an example of why you shouldn't say things like that in public," McCarthy said. "The reality of it is, it is really the way the game is looked upon. It's a great rivalry. I'm sure a lot worse is said in private about the opposing teams and so forth, but it is with great respect.
"It's the oldest rivalry in the National Football League. In my opinion, I think it's the best rivalry game that I've played in. So playing down there opening day, it's going to be a lot of fun. It's a big challenge."
Fox, starting his first year in Chicago after taking Denver to one Super Bowl during his four-year stint, actually agreed with McCarthy’s statement on Monday in reference to last season’s manhandling: "I looked at the tape. They should be confident."
Indeed, even with Nelson down, the Packers still have perennial MVP candidate and quarterback Aaron Rodgers running the offense with back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Eddie Lacy behind him and Pro Bowl receiver Randall Cobb as his top target.
Rodgers is coming off the fifth 4,000-yard season of his career, and racked up 38 touchdowns to only five interceptions last year, a ratio that makes him one of the NFL’s most efficient passers for a Green Bay offense that was tops in the league with 30.4 points a game last season.
But how the Packers cope defensively, especially with cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Davon House leaving in free agency, will likely decide their fate in the NFC, the division, and against the Bears.
Veteran corner Casey Hayward is the starter, but at some point McCarthy will likely rely on rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins to make plays in the secondary, and second-year safety HaHa Clinton-Dix should see his role expanded as well.
Chicago isn't exactly lacking in terms of offensive talent. Though he led the NFL with 18 interceptions last season, quarterback Jay Cutler’s 3,812 passing yards was his highest total in six seasons and he tossed a career-best 28 touchdowns.
Cutler also benefits from running back Matt Forte, a seven-year veteran who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all but two seasons since entering the league in 2008 and last year tallied 102 receptions for 808 yards and four touchdowns. For some extra motivation, Forte is entering the final year of his current contract and is in pursuit of a new deal.
The Bears did see some changes in the receiving corps, most notably the trade that sent Brandon Marshall to the Jets in the offseason, but they expect big things from fourth-year wide out Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery’s dealt with a calf injury throughout the preseason and training camp, but the Bears are reportedly “optimistic” that he will be ready to go against Green Bay, according to NFL.com. Last season, Jeffery pulled down a career-high 10 touchdowns, and he was supposed to get some help from rookie receiver and first-round pick Kevin White, but the former West Virginia star required shin surgery and was placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). He could return later in the season, but Chicago clearly isn’t taking chances with the speedster.
But Fox is likely more concerned with the state of his defense before Green Bay comes to town. Chicago allowed 27.6 points per game last season, the second-worst mark in the league, and ranked No. 30 against the pass and No. 17 against the run.
Fox has been tasked with rebuilding on the fly, and he’ll have to do so without some top producers from last year’s squad. The Bears said good bye to defensive end Stephen Pea, who was third on the team with 6.0 sacks last season, as well as roster stalwarts like cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
With the exits came some new additions like veteran strong safety Antrel Rolle, formerly a giant, and cornerback Tracy Porter, though the latter is dealing with a hamstring injury and it’s unclear if he will play against the Packers. Chicago also signed defensive end Lamarr Houston from Oakland to serve as a reinforcement for top pass rusher Jared Allen.
Betting odds: Green Bay -6.5
Over/Under: 50 points
Prediction: Green Bay over Chicago, 27-20