By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (3-10) host the Packers (7-6) on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Freeze out Rodgers
When the Bears played the Packers in Week 7, running the ball was going to be a chore. The Packers’ run defense had allowed only eight runs of 10-plus yards and was third in the league in allowing only 3.44 yards on first-down rushing. It’s still going to be a chore. Now, the Packers are tied for sixth in allowing 30 of those 10-plus-yard runs, and they’re fourth in permitting only 3.72 yards rushing on first down.
Green Bay is one of 13 defenses allowing fewer than 100 yards per game on the ground. But I say given the weather conditions, hammer it anyway. Jordan Howard leads a Bears offense that’s still averaging nearly five yards on first-down rushing. He gains better than three yards after contact and rarely loses yards, with only 9.8 percent of his runs resulting in losses. Green Bay is aggressive up front and has forced 44 runs for negative yards, which is tied for fifth-best in the league. Staying ahead of the chains with a frosty football and claiming the clock is always the best way to quiet Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Defense: Remain wary of Rodgers
Eight weeks ago, they were talking about the demise of Rodgers up in Wisconsin. I didn’t buy it then, and I’m certainly not buying it now. Nor am I buying that a sore calf and hamstring will limit Rodgers in any way. He still leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.
The Packers are second in the league in converting 47.1 percent of their third downs. As always, Rodgers continues to excel in the first quarter. His eight touchdowns are tied with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for the league lead. He gets the Packers out in front, allowing them to control the tempo of the game and play aggressively on defense. The Bears respect Rodgers and his unique ability to squirm out of trouble, bad calf or not. He leads the Packers in runs of 10-plus yards and has averaged almost six yards a carry.
Special teams: Expect the unexpected
Given the weather, expect the unexpected on special teams. Ice, snow and bitter cold temperatures create a hard and slick football. From snap to kick and everything that comes after, the sequence could result in an opportunity for either team. No kick, punt, or fielded return should be taken for granted. If so, opportunity comes knocking for one of these teams to make a potentially game-turning play on teams.
Intangibles: Scout’s eye
This key is purely Bears specific. Eliminated from the playoffs, the Bears are deep into evaluation mode. General manger Ryan Pace, his staff and the coaches are looking for more than a few good men to put together a three-week stretch worthy of earning a contract for 2017 and beyond. Scouts use the final three games of the season for their final grades around the league, as if the first 13 games have little bearing. Players who continue to compete with passion and toughness will earn high marks for not allowing the adversity of the season, the playing conditions or circumstances dictate the extent to which they invest themselves. Anything less will ruin their tape and pause their careers.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.