The Thursday Night Football schedule opens earlier than ever this season, with the debut matchup pitting the 1-0 Chicago Bears against the 0-1 Green Bay Packers. Of course, those records say a lot more about the quality of their opening-day opponents (the Colts and 49ers, respectively) than about these two closely-matched teams.
The answers to these three questions will be central to determining which team takes a big step forward in the race for the NFC North crown:
1. Do the Bears have enough defensive backs to survive Aaron Rodgers?
Even on a bad day, Aaron Rodgers threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns in last week's loss to San Francisco. Five different receivers caught at least four passes each, and any of that quintet—James Jones, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley or Greg Jennings—could be the one who beats the Bear secondary for a big play or a clutch score.
Chicago's Charles Tillman is an outstanding corner, and partner Tim Jennings is coming off a career day with two interceptions. Behind them, though, the D.J. Moores and the Kelvin Haydens (not to mention promising safety Chris Conte) must have big days to keep Green Bay's depth at wide receiver from running the Bears into the ground.
2. Can Chicago contain Clay Mathews?
For all the Bears' offensive success last week, Jay Cutler still took his share of lumps early on. The Colts sacked him twice and added a defensive touchdown on Cutler's rushed throw for a first-quarter interception.
Both of Indy's sacks came from their best pass rusher, Robert Mathis, a fact that should have Green Bay sack specialist Clay Mathew salivating. If the Bears' offensive front looks as shaky early on as it did against the Colts, the Pack could open up an insurmountable lead very quickly.
3. Will Green Bay's run defense show up?
Ever since B.J. Raji arrived to hold down the nose tackle spot, Green Bay has been a fearsome defense for opposing runners. Even last season, when the Packer pass defense plummeted to last in the league, the run defense stayed respectable at 14th out of 32 teams.
Last week, though, the Pack got torched for 112 yards by Frank Gore and another 41 by Kendall Hunter. Another showing like that one and Chicago's tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush (122 yards and three touchdowns combined last week) will eat them alive—and keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers' hands in the process.
Prediction: Green Bay 28, Chicago 24
For a rarity in this matchup, the offenses have the clear advantage over the defenses. At the end of the day, the Packers have more talent at more positions than the Bears, so even another big day from Brandon Marshall won't be enough to save Chicago.114101