Is week one too early to have a trap game?
The Green Bay Packers, one of the NFL’s chic picks to conclude the 2015 NFL schedule in Super Bowl 50, open the season on the road at the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 13. They figure to be favored. It’s a trap.
Do I think the Bears can steal a victory from the consensus projected NFC North division-winner Packers? Yes. Here’s why.
New regime in Chicagoland
The Bears are at the beginning stages of their latest organizational upheaval. While this may be a fairly common trait for the Meh-sters of the Midway ever since Ditka left town, they are, at this stage, an unknown quantity in terms of style and caliber of play. The vanilla flavor Bears opponents will taste in the preseason will scarcely resemble what they’ll open with against the Packers.
It may not be a strong bet to assume the new John Fox era will suddenly light the necessary fire under several notable underperforming Bears players, but it would be foolish to think the Bears are not recharged with new enthusiasm for a new approach. The old way wasn’t working. Thus, a new regime was brought in. They’re tired of losing. Particularly to the Packers.
They’re also opening the season at home, against their longest, most-storied rival. A quick glance at the Bears’ schedule reveals that there is no more important game for the Bears than the opener: at home, against their hated rival, against the division bully — all without the burden of past failings or demoralizing losses. The Bears enter the game motivated by a clean slate and legitimate optimism (realistic or unrealistic — you decide).
There will be surprises in this game.
The rivalry that isn’t
Is a rivalry still a rivalry when one team dominates the other for years at a time?
I’m no odds-maker. However, if you look at the Bears/Packers overall history, their win/loss records against each other could hardly be more even: The Bears currently lead the head-to-head series 93–91–6. The Packers lead in terms of overall NFL championships (13 to 9) and Super Bowl victories (4 to 1). These are two teams with long, storied, grand histories.
Recent history reveals two franchises that aren’t even close. Over the past 15 regular season contests between the two foes, the Bears can claim only three victories. This does not include the Packers’ dismantling of the Bears’ Super Bowl hopes in January 2011 in Chicago in the NFC Championship game. The Bears have not returned to the playoffs since.
Over their grand span of time (the NFL’s longest rivalry) history and odds are hinting that the Packers’ recent run of success against the Bears is overdue for a reversal. Weigh that in to whatever degree you wish.
The Seahawks factor
Revenge is a powerful motivator. Can it also be a distractor? Are the Packers capable of looking past the Bears to their week two opponent, the Seattle Seahawks?
The Seahawks will travel to Green Bay for the first time since 2009 to reunite the top two teams from last season’s NFC Championship game. A game, you will remember, the Packers dominated for about 55 minutes, until they managed to drastically and repeatedly implode. There is no greater snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss in the recent annals of Packers history.
The only team that knows a worse horrific loss while on the verge of a championship, coincidentally, is the Seahawks. Both teams say they put last season’s dreadful endings behind them. Both teams are lying.
It’s tempting for Packers fans to look past the Bears game to the Seahawks’ visit. Although it would be painful to lose to the Bears, even on the road, it would be a far bitterer pill to swallow if the Packers were to lose their home opener to their most recent bugaboo team, the blue birds of the Pacific Northwest. The Packers have lost the past three games against the Seahawks — all played in Seattle. The last time the Packers defeated the Seahawks was in 2009 (pre Pete Carrol era) in Green Bay.
It’s not a stretch to believe that the Packers view the Seahawks as a stouter rival than the division-mate Bears. The Packers and the Seahawks expect to be in the playoffs at season’s end. A head-to-head win will likely factor prominently in playoff seeding.
The Packers players and coaches will be asked about the Seahawks. They will claim that their focus is solely on preparing for the Bears. The Packers’ performance in the Bears game will tell us if that is really true.
The Packers of the past three seasons have stumbled to identical 1–2 starts. Head coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged their need to reverse this trend as part of his justification for giving up play calling. Having handed over offensive play-calling to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, McCarthy will now be free to focus more on the Packers’ woeful special teams and mediocre defense. Clearly, special teams played a huge role in the Packers’ implosion against the Seahawks, and throughout the season as they allowed an incredible seven kicks to be blocked. In one season.
The Packers’ defense finished ranked 15th by season’s end, surrendering 348 points (the Bears surrendered 442). However, it was a tale of two seasons within one. The Packers’ defense struggled to stop the run with any regularity through the first half of the season. During their week nine bye, the Packers re-jiggered their defense by benching underperformers (A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones) and moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews to inside linebacker on early downs. The turnaround was remarkable. If you factored in only the Packers last eight games, the defense ranked among the top defenses in stopping the run.
The Bears understand this better than most. In the two Packers victories against the Bears in 2014, Matt Forte rumbled for 122 yards on 23 carries, while Ka’Deem Carey added another 72 yards on 14 carries in their first meeting. In their next meeting (post-bye), Forte managed a mere 54 yards, while Carey added 13.
If the Packers hold true to form and start sluggish, the Bears are more than capable of stealing a game. The schedule-makers did Chicago a favor in putting the Packers on the slate early. This trend may be the strongest reason for Bears followers to believe in an opening day victory.
Am I predicting a Bears win? No. Do I think it can happen? Yes, for the reasons stated above. The Packers still hold an overall talent advantage, despite the lack of top receiver Jordy Nelson (injured reserve) and the iffy status of new No. 1 receiver Randall Cobb. Expect quarterback Aaron Rodgers to work his typical magic over his favorite team to play, the Chicago Bears, by distributing the ball widely among his young, diverse receiver corps, and relying heavily on the ascending Eddie Lacy. The Bears’ Forte will likely have much success against the Packers’ suspect defense, but the Bears’ lack of offensive go-to stars will likely be the difference in this week one matchup.
Talent differential considered, the Packers will be favored to win in Chicago. But talent does not win games alone. Recent vintage Packers teams start the season slowly. Until such time as they prove otherwise, this is their brand. With the temptation to look forward to their home opener against the more troublesome Seattle Seahawks, this is a trap game, folks.
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