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NFL Preview - Chicago (4-3) at Green Bay (5-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Football's oldest rivalry resumes in Titletown for the 185th time on "Monday Night Football" when the Green Bay Packers aim for their seventh straight win over the Chicago Bears.
Both teams come in banged-up but Green Bay has won four consecutive games and sits atop the NFC North after Aaron Rodgers completed 24-of-29 passes for 285 yards and connected with wide receiver Jordy Nelson for two touchdowns (11 and 76 yards) in an easy 44-31 win over hapless Minnesota back in Week 8.
"Aaron and I were able to connect and make some big plays," said Nelson. "We're two guys that communicate a lot to one another. We're students of the game, we try to be detailed at what we do and make sure we're on the same page."
The Bears have had extra time to prepare for this one and will be coming off a bye week but will be without starting QB Jay Cutler and star linebacker Lance Briggs.
Veteran signal caller Josh McCown will make his first start this season after completing 14-of-20 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and a 119.6 passer rating in relief of the injured Cutler during a 45-41 loss to the Washington Redskins on Oct. 20.
"Josh has been in the league for a long time," said Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod. "He's played a lot of games. He has a lot of experience. So we're excited about the opportunity."
Perhaps they shouldn't be, however.
Rodgers and the Packers converted on 13-of-18 third-down attempts and were two-for-two on fourth down against the Vikings as Green Bay never punted and scored on all seven drives that didn't end either the half or the game.
And understand Green Bay did all of that without the services of receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones -- two of their top three outside the numbers threats who were lost to injury against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 13 -- and dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley, who suffered a scary neck injury during a win over Cleveland on Oct. 20.
Cobb has a fractured fibula and may return near the end of the season, while Finley was released from the ICU last Monday after being diagnosed with a bruised spinal cord, something that will keep him on the sidelines indefinitely. Jones, who has a knee sprain, is expected back soon.
Three of the seven Green Bay receivers who played against Minnesota appeared in their first game a week earlier. One of those players, Jarrett Boykin, who had eight catches for 103 yards and a score in his debut, registered five grabs for 89 yards versus the Vikes.
"We've got a great team, very well-coached," Rodgers said. "Guys are ready to play."
Running back Eddie Lacy, the NFC's Rookie of the Month for October, also contributed by carrying the ball 29 times for 94 yards and a score in the triumph.
"Aaron's had a lot of challenges Monday through Saturday that don't show up on the stat sheet, just trying to get on the same page with younger players and trusting the game plan," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said.
The extra week of rest couldn't help Cutler all that much. The strong-armed veteran is expected to miss a month of action with a torn muscle in his groin. The Bears' leader sustained the injury while being sacked in the second quarter of what turned out to be a very costly setback at Washington. In addition to Cutler, the seven-time Pro Bowler Briggs went down for six weeks with a shoulder injury.
Cutler had been performing well in new head coach Marc Trestman's system, having completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 1,658 yards and 12 touchdowns through the first seven games while helping Chicago get off to a 4-2 start.
And his unavailability comes at an inopportune time. After Monday's game against the Pack, Chicago has another important divisional game the subsequent week, when the team hosts Detroit.
McCown, a journeyman, has his coach's confidence, though.
"He's going to put us in position to win games," said Trestman.
Briggs' injury further depletes a linebacker corps that saw fellow starter D.J. Williams go down with a season-ending pectoral tear in a win over the New York Giants earlier in October.
The 32-year-old Briggs, who serves as Chicago's on-field signal-caller on defense, was in the midst of another strong campaign. The 11-year veteran had amassed 64 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and eight passes defensed over seven games.
"We're losing a great leader in Lance," said Trestman. "We're going to have to work very hard to recover."
The Bears hold a slim 91-87-6 edge in the all-time series but the Packers have dominated recently, winning six straight and eight of the last nine meetings (including playoffs). Green Bay also has swept the season series in three of the last four seasons (2009, 2011-12).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is a matchup between two of the top three scoring teams in the NFL, with Chicago checking in at No. 2 (30.4) and Green Bay just a tick behind at No. 3 (30.3).
The Bears, though, are behind the 8-ball without the underrated Cutler. Chicago has generally struggled against the Packers with its signal caller in the lineup while Rodgers is 9-2 as a starter against the Bears, upping his success in recent contests by completing 69.6 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns against two interceptions in his last four against Chicago.
Trying to stop perhaps the game's best player without injured defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, along with the more recent nicks to Williams and Briggs at linebacker seems like a long shot even with Green Bay's issues at the receiving positions.
The Bears will certainly make things tougher for Rodgers than the Vikings and the fact that big-play cornerback Charles Tillman plans to play despite a balky knee helps but at the end of the day this is a defense that, while still opportunistic, is 27th in the NFL, allowing 391 yards per game.
"We need to prepare and stay focused on our opponent and the changes they've made," McCarthy said. "At the end of the week, we want to make sure we're focused on winning and that our quality of play is as high as possible."
McCown will be starting for the first time since going 1-1 in Chicago's final two games of the 2011 season. His first start back then came in a 35-21 setback at Green Bay on Christmas Day, in which he threw for 242 yards with a touchdown but had two interceptions.
"Josh is going to do the job," Cutler said. "We've got a good game plan coming in. Josh fared well against (the Redskins). He'll play well again this week."
McCown will lean on a solid group of playmakers around him, including big- bodied receivers Brandon Marshall, who leads the Bears with 46 receptions for 540 yards and five TDs, and Alshon Jeffery, along with tight end Martellus Bennett and dual-threat running back Matt Forte.
"We really have to play together more than ever now and I think that's something that we're capable of doing," Trestman said.
The Bears can't let Green Bay run away from them in the NFC North but things don't exactly trend toward Chicago in this one. The Packers have also won 11 straight home games (including playoffs) and 23 of their last 24 at Lambeau Field. During the current run they have allowed just 14.7 points per game.
Meanwhile, when they are playing division foes Green Bay only amps up the dominance, winning 14 of its last 15 regular-season games against NFC North opponents, a .933 winning percentage which ranks No. 1 in the entire NFL over that span.
Dating back to 2006, Green Bay is 34-10 in NFC North games (No. 2 in the NFL) and 19-3 at home.
Good luck with all that.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Bears 13
11/01 14:31:34 ET