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NFL Kickoff: What to watch for in Packers-Bears opener

Football is here. Real, competitive professional football with stakes is back in our lives, starting this Thursday night.

And what a way to start.

Kicking off the National Football League's 100th season is not the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots but two of the league's oldest franchises engaging in an age-old rivalry: the 199th edition of Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers.

The two NFC stalwarts opened last season on Sunday Night Football, when Green Bay came back to defeat Chicago at Lambeau Field in a 24-23 instant classic. This year, the Packers will take on the Bears at Soldier Field on Thursday night to kick-start their campaigns. Green Bay enters with a 97-95-6 advantage in their all-time series.

Thursday's events will either pull the Bears one game closer to tying the rivalry record and gaining one leg up in the division race or distance the Packers' all-time lead and give Green Bay its first road victory of the year, matching last season's total.

We've been looking forward to this opener for months, hashing out every matchup and detail to the extreme. But there's still anticipation to build and one more preview to read.

Here's what to watch for during Thursday evening's season opener at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC:

1. How will Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense perform in their first game under Matt LaFleur?

On Thursday night, Rodgers will start a season opener for the very first time without Mike McCarthy calling shots from the sideline. Mike has been replaced with Matt. The first-time head coach comes by way of assisting Sean McVay in Los Angeles and running Mike Vrabel's offense in Tennessee. At 39 years old, he is four years Rodgers' senior. Who the senior voice at the line of scrimmage will be Thursday night and throughout the season was a point of discussion and, reportedly, contention this offseason.

Rodgers and LaFleur spoke to's Michael Silver this summer and both expressed there was a disconnect regarding Rodgers' freedom to audible LaFleur's play calls. The storyline was picked at over and again throughout the summer, and despite LaFleur's best wishes, it has not resolved itself because Rodgers has yet to see the field; he was supposed to play in Green Bay's second and third preseason games but was held out both times for precautionary reasons.

All this has continued to build anticipation for Thursday night when we will surely get our first look at Rodgers in LaFleur's system, though what that look looks like remains to be seen. Will there be more pre-snap movement? Will Aaron Jones shoulder a larger workload? How long will the honeymoon last? Those questions will start to be answered on Thursday evening.

2. Will the Bears' defense pick up where it left off without Vic Fangio?

There are few holes on Chicago's roster on either side of the ball, but especially on defense. The Bears lost just one starter from last year's top scoring defense to the Packers (Adrian Amos) and replaced him a former Packers starter (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix). Their biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball, in fact, came on the sidelines where Fangio was replaced by Chuck Pagano at defensive coordinator. Chicago is expected to experience a regression in the turnover department from last year's outsize performance and there might be some growing pains with a new defensive playcaller, who hasn't held a DC position in eight seasons. But the Bears are also returning an impenetrable front seven led by Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and of course Khalil Mack. The Bears linebacker has been a menace off the edges over the past three seasons, recording 162 QB pressures (2nd) and forcing 12 turnovers (T-4th) in that span. In his first game as a Bear, Mack recorded a strip sack and a pick-six at Lambeau before sitting out the second half during Rodgers' miraculous comeback. Expect Mack to play the whole game Thursday barring injury and being the focal point of a Bears defense adjusting to new management.

3. Is David Montgomery the real deal?

Chicago's biggest mystery on offense is likely whether Mitchell Trubisky can take The Next Step, but that won't be resolved in one evening of late-summer football. Instead, Bears fans should be looking forward to the debut of Montgomery, their third-round running back out of Iowa State entering the league with hype and expectations galore. Replacing Jordan Howard, whom Chicago traded to Philadelphia before the draft, Montgomery will be paired with the speedy Tarik Cohen in the backfield and should take a large share of carries out of the gate. Montgomery played just one game in the preseason, totaling six touches for 46 yards and a touchdown. But it was enough to set the fantasy football-industrial complex and Bears chat forums ablaze with anticipation. Against a refurbished Packers front seven (Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith among the additions) that ranked 22nd in rushing defense in 2018, can Montgomery carry the load and Chicago to victory in his first career start?

4. Is Chicago's kicker situation really resolved (and will the Bears fans be patient with Eddy Pineiro)?

It's been 242 days since the "double doink," the second-to-last play of Chicago's loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round. Two-hundred-and-forty-two days with a nagging need at the kicker position. Let's recap Chicago's crazy kicking competition: Out went Cody Parkey, in came nine tryouts for rookie minicamp, out went most of them, in came Pineiro via trade, out went Chris Blewitt and then finally out went Elliott Fry. The last man standing in Chicago's quest to find a kicker averse to launching pigskins into goalposts, Pineiro enters Thursday night's opener as the Bears' starting kicker ... for now. He closed the preseason by hitting three of three field goals, but also shanking an extra point juuuuuuuust a bit outside and earning boos from the Soldier Field faithful. If or when Pineiro misses a kick against the Packers, be it in the first quarter or the dying embers of the fourth, will Chicago's fans, after toiling in offseason-long agony over the state of their place-kickers, give him a break? Or will Pineiro crumble under the regular-season scrutiny and force the Bears to go back to the drawing board, again?

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