[UPDATE: The predictions at the end of this post have changed with the Thursday news that quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be starting Sunday.]
The biggest storyline going into the game is the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the starting lineup for the Packers. Rodgers was named the starter on Thursday.
Rodgers has been sidelined since breaking his collarbone in a loss to the Bears on Nov. 4, missing seven consecutive games. Green Bay went 2-4-1 during that stretch but still has a chance to secure its third straight division title
Chicago or Green Bay has captured the NFC North in nine of the 11 seasons in the division’s history. The winner receives the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs and will host a game against the fifth seed once the postseason starts, while the loser’s season comes to a close.
ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.
Demovsky: Why do you think Marc Trestman stuck with Jay Cutler instead of going back to Josh McCown? Is that an indication that Cutler is in their future plans or do the Bears simply think he gives them the best chance to win this game?
Wright: First off, Trestman stayed true to his word, which in my mind goes a long way toward the first-year head coach gaining trust and credibility in the locker room and with Cutler. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s injury on Nov. 10 against the Detroit Lions, Trestman and general manager Phil Emery made it clear that the quarterback would regain his starting job as soon as he was medically cleared to play. Even while McCown was performing well in Cutler’s absence, Trestman and Emery stuck to what they had previously said. On numerous occasions, Emery has said he believes Cutler is a franchise-level quarterback, and that thought within the organization hasn't changed, which means he’s definitely in the plans for the future, provided the sides can make a deal at the conclusion of the season.
Rob, how will Rodgers' return to the lineup affect the Packers?
Demovsky: It has to be an emotional lift to get your Super Bowl-winning MVP quarterback back on the field for the first time in nearly two months. But that doesn't mean there might not be issues. Who knows how rusty Rodgers will be? This is by far the longest in-season layoff he's had since he became a starter in 2008. He's going to have some mental hurdles to get overcome, too. How will he react the first time he takes a big hit? Medically speaking, the Packers wouldn't be putting him out there if they didn't feel like his collarbone wasn't overly susceptible to another injury, but perhaps in his mind, there could still be some doubts.
One way the Packers can take some pressure off Rodgers in his return will be to give the ball to Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for 1,112 yards in his rookie season. Lacy could have a big game against the Bears' 32nd-ranked rushing defense. Mike, how is it that the Bears’ run defense has fallen off so badly?
Wright: Rob, it hasn't fallen off, man. It was already horrid, and became progressively worse as the season went along and injuries mounted. By my count, the Bears have lined up with 13 different combinations of starters on the defensive line alone, and that’s not even taking into account what’s gone on at linebacker, considering Lance Briggs has missed time, and they lost starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams in Week 4. So with all of the turnover in the front seven alone, it’s difficult for the group to gain any level of cohesiveness. The truth is the Bears need to significantly upgrade the talent in the front seven this offseason.
The Bears basically gave the Packers new life with Sunday’s debacle at Philadelphia. Injuries obviously are an issue, but what’s the atmosphere out there now with the Packers knowing they've got a shot? Green Bay was pretty banged up back in 2010 when it came to Chicago during the NFC Championship Game and ousted the Bears on the way to the Super Bowl.
Demovsky: When the Packers players left Lambeau Field on Sunday after losing to the Steelers, many of them seemed resigned to the fact that their season might be over, so it will be interesting to see how they react now that they have new life. That’s almost hard to fathom given everything they've gone through this season with their quarterbacks. That said, they are pretty banged up at this point. The biggest issue, besides quarterback, is Clay Matthews’ broken thumb. That’s a major blow to this inconsistent defense.
The Packers and Bears have played some meaningful games over the years. How does this one compare? Even though the winner goes to the playoffs, is there any luster off of it given the fact that neither team looks like a strong Super Bowl contender?
Wright: I see absolutely no luster. The Bears started the season 3-0, and since then have stacked back-to-back wins only once (Dec. 9 and Dec. 15), while the Packers just aren't the same team if Rodgers isn't in the fold. The fact that I see this as being a dud of a game means it’s going to be a good one; just watch. Injuries on both teams have destroyed what would have been probably an epic matchup. Just think if both teams were fully healthy. The winner will represent the NFC North in the postseason, and it’s a shame that it won’t be a true representation of the division. I see an early playoff exit for the winner of this game.