The battle for supremacy in the NFC North should be one of the most compelling to watch over the final five weeks of the 2012 season. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers are not only legitimate contenders in the NFC, but each squad has displayed the potential to make a serious run at the Super Bowl title.
I took a little time to study each team's strengths and weakness. Here's my breakdown of which squad is superior:
The Packers have built their offense around the talents of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, so the running game typically takes a back seat. The Packers rank 23rd in rushing yards per game (100.7) and average just 26.3 rushing attempts per contest. Part of their disappointing production on the ground can be attributed to injuries major and minor to running backs Cedric Benson, Alex Green and James Starks. In particular, the loss of Benson, who was placed on injured reserve in early October, has robbed the team of a power running game between the tackles. The eighth-year pro is a big, physical runner with great vision and sneaky cutback skills. Although he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the Packers' first five games, Benson's presence in the backfield alleviated the pressure on Rodgers in the pocket, creating big-play opportunities off of play-action.
With Matt Forte and Michael Bush, the Bears boast what is arguably the best 1-2 running-back combo in the league. The duo poses serious problems for opponents with their collective size, strength and athleticism. Forte, who leads the team with 683 rushing yards, is a sensational perimeter runner with a smooth running style. He excels at turning the corner on off-tackle runs, and also displays the patience and grittiness to attack downhill seams when the defense overruns the play. Bush, a fifth-year pro with 366 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 2012, is the Bears' designated sledgehammer between the tackles. He shines in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but he's also capable of handling the workload as a feature runner. Forte is prone to nagging injuries; Bush ensures that the Bears' running game will remain potent in every situation.
Rodgers is unquestionably one of the top passers in the NFL, but he is playing with his hand behind his back, thanks to a host of injuries. Greg Jennings, the Packers' No. 1 receiver, has been out with a groin injury, and Rodgers has missed the presence of the Pro Bowler over the middle of the field. Rodgers has also been hindered by the leaky pass protection provided by the Packers' injury-riddled frontline. The Packers have surrendered a league-worst 37 sacks; Rodgers has been running for his life in the pocket, leaving him unable to attack the vulnerable areas of coverage. In spite of these issues, Rodgers is still completing 66.5 percent of his passes and sports a 28:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, revealing just how explosive the Packers' offense can be when he is in rhythm.
Jay Cutler doesn't receive the kind of recognition he deserves, likely because of his seemingly surly personality and sideline demeanor, but opponents certainly understand the talent he brings to the table. Few NFL passers can rival his arm strength, talent and ability to make pinpoint throws from awkward positions in the pocket. With a true No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall, Cutler has made the Bears' aerial attack one of the most feared in the league. However, he also plays behind a leaky offensive line that prevents him from routinely setting up and delivering from a clean pocket. Although offensive coordinator Mike Tice has attempted to tweak his play calls and schemes to give Cutler more protection, the Bears have still allowed 35 sacks, and remain a disaster along the frontline.
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Defending the run remains the top priority of every defensive coordinator in the league. In Green Bay, Dom Capers adheres to that premise by utilizing an exotic zone-blitz scheme to overwhelm opponents with constant movement after the snap. Using a scheme built on deception and confusion, the Packers have been able to befuddle their opponents, limiting runners to minimal gains; they've given up just three runs of 20-plus yards, and rank 11th in rushing yards allowed. Considering the numerous injuries to key defensive players (like linebackers Desmond Bishop and Clay Matthews and safety Charles Woodson), the Packers' solid play against the run is a testament to their gap-discipline and hustle.
The Bears' defense has ranked among the NFL's best since coach Lovie Smith's arrival. The unit excels at playing an aggressive one-gap scheme that encourages the defensive linemen to aggressively run up the field in their assigned gaps, with the linebackers flying fast to the ball from the second level. What makes the Bears so effective is their combination of speed, athleticism and experience. Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are all over 30, but they're still able to play fast, thanks to their instincts and awareness. With a host of younger players also flying to the ball with reckless abandon, the Bears routinely stuff runners at the line of scrimmage, and have held opponents to fewer than 97 rushing yards per game. The Bears' turnover advantage is a byproduct of winning against the run on early downs, illustrating the importance of forcing long-yardage situations on third down.
Capers is one of the best tacticians in the business. He uses an aggressive scheme, built on exotic blitz pressure from various personnel groupings, to blow up blocking schemes and confuse quarterbacks. When Capers' complex schemes are executed properly, the Packers harass and pummel quarterbacks with rushers attacking from various angles. This season, the Packers rank third in sacks (34) despite having been without their top pass rusher, Clay Matthews, for the past few weeks. With several players, including Jerel Worthy, Mike Neal and Erik Walden, contributing along the frontline, the Packers' pass rush is far more dangerous than it has been in recent years.
The Bears' approach is simple, but it's hard to find a team that's better at pressuring the quarterback with just four defenders. Led by Peppers (6.0 sacks), Israel Idonije (5.0) and Corey Wootton (4.5), the Bears have amassed 30 sacks, wreaking havoc on opponents utilizing an assortment of stunts, twists and games at the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will occasionally sprinkle in some double-A gap blitzes to confuse opponents, but the Bears' "win with four" philosophy has routinely overwhelmed opponents, creating turnovers and negative plays.
The Packers have played well on defense, but the performance of the secondary remains a concern. The unit has been victimized by big plays (having given up 41 passes of 20-plus yards and six completions over 40 yards), and the coverage has been suspect on the perimeter. While some of those woes can be attributed to the loss of Woodson in the back end, the communication and discipline of the group has been inconsistent at times, leading to blown assignments. On the flip side, the Packers have picked off 12 passes and have come up with a few key knockdowns in critical moments. Casey Hayward in particular has been sensational on the corner; his emergence could fortify the secondary when Woodson returns to the lineup in a few weeks.
On paper, the Bears' secondary wouldn't rate highly, but the unit has performed better than any other in the league. Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman have been exceptional at taking the ball away, and their ability to generate turnovers has created hesitation in the minds of quarterbacks. With safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright also snagging errant throws in the back end, the Bears have recorded seven pick-sixes, becoming the unit opposing passers fear the most.
After the snap, he retreats and reads quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's eyes, to get an early break on the throw:
Getting a great jump, thanks to his anticipation and awareness, Urlacher snags an interception and registers another pick-six for the Bears:
Mike McCarthy has done a great job getting the Packers to move past that famously disappointing Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and numerous injury issues to remain legitimate title contenders. With a no-nonsense approach, McCarthy has helped his team focus on improving down the stretch to obtain prime position heading into the postseason. From a tactical standpoint, McCarthy has been able to constantly adjust his offensive approach to compensate for a porous offensive line and the absence of his No. 1 receiver. Given that the Packers still have explosive offensive potential, McCarthy deserves credit for his adaptability.
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Smith has quietly molded his squad into one of the favorites in the NFC behind an opportunistic defense and sneaky, explosive offense. His work with the defense in particular has been impressive to watch, with the unit producing eight defensive scores this season. While some luck is certainly involved in generating "scoop and scores" and pick-sixes, the fact that the Bears have been able to come up with big plays each week is a testament to his leadership.
The Packers finish with four divisional games in the month of December. With the home-and-home dates with the Minnesota Vikings, a tough road test against the Bears and a prime-time matchup with the Detroit Lions, the Packers face an uphill climb with regard to winning the NFC North. Throw in a home contest against the Tennessee Titans, and it's clear that the Packers will need to be at their best to finish 4-1 down the stretch.
The Bears also have a difficult slate over the final month of the season, including four contests against legitimate playoff contenders. Although home dates against the Seattle Seahawks and Packers will certainly test Chicago, the division crown will ultimately be decided by the Bears' ability to win road games against the Lions, Arizona Cardinals and Vikings. If Cutler remains healthy, the Bears certainly have a chance, but the state of the offensive line could make that prospect a long shot.
The NFC North race draws its must-watch status from the outstanding talent on both the Packers' and Bears' rosters. While each team has issues that could prevent it from making a legitimate run at the title, both have also played well enough to be considered front-runners in the NFC, which is indicative of their potential. Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each team, I end up leaning toward the Bears, based on their defense and running game. Those traits represent the blueprint for winning in the postseason; I believe that will carry the Bears to the NFC North crown this year.