The shoe isn’t entirely on the other foot, but it’s a pretty good fit.
Last year in Week 17, the Bears had a playoff bye wrapped up and came to Lambeau Field to play a Packers team in win-or-else mode.
Now, this year in Week 16, it’s the Packers who have secured their playoff bye – needing only one more win or a San Francisco loss to lock up the NFC’s No. 1 seed – while the Bears’ season will be on the line on Christmas night in Green Bay.
The Bears, at 7-7, need to win their final two games and get some additional help to return to the playoffs. The scenarios are convoluted, nowhere near as simple as the Packers' win-and-in deal last year, but one thing is certain – regardless of what happens in other games this weekend, Chicago will still be alive come kickoff Sunday night.
“It’s kind of like our position last year, when we had to struggle to get in the playoffs,” offensive lineman T.J. Lang said. “They still have hope. It’s going to be a fight, man.”
The Packers (13-1) could earn the top playoff seed before the game, should the 49ers (11-3) lose on Saturday at Seattle. But the Packers, of course, have prepared all week as though they’ll have to win.
That’s because even if they don’t ultimately need the win for the seeding, they’ll want it for their psyche. Coming off their first loss of the season last week in Kansas City, the Packers feel they must re-establish some momentum heading into the postseason.
The first step toward righting the ship came in the film room on Monday, as the players reviewed their first defeat in 364 days.
“It kind of brings everyone down to earth,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “You look at yourself and try to go over your game and see where you could have helped better, and I think that’s what everyone did.
“Everything is not lost. We lost one game. We still have everything in front of us, so I think everyone is on the same page with that.”
The Packers have bounced back from late-season defeats before. A 35-7 December drubbing in Chicago in 2007 preceded an eventual appearance in the NFC Championship Game. A last-second, one-point loss in Pittsburgh in 2009 didn’t stop Green Bay from earning a wild-card berth the following week. And back-to-back losses at Detroit and New England last year, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined by a concussion, came just prior the immortal run to the Super Bowl XLV title.
This time, the Packers will need to recover from their worst offensive outing of the season (315 yards, 14 points) with a new alignment up front that has Lang at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard. Having a full stable of running backs for the first time in three weeks, with James Starks and Brandon Saine returning from injuries, should help.
Meanwhile, the defense should get Desmond Bishop back at inside linebacker but, more importantly, the unit will look to re-create its turnover magic. The Packers didn’t force a turnover in Kansas City for the first time all season and saw their string of 12 straight games with at least one interception broken as well.
“Something just didn’t feel right during the flow of the game and then you realize we didn’t create any turnovers or takeaways,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “It’s something we’re not used to and we have to get back to that.”
Chicago’s quarterback situation would seem to work in the Packers’ favor in that regard. Josh McCown will make his first NFL start since 2007, when he was with Oakland, and he’ll become the third QB to start for the banged-up Bears this season.
Without star running back Matt Forte and top backup Marion Barber, who is doubtful with a calf injury, the Bears will rely on Kahlil Bell to keep the game manageable for McCown. But with their playoff hopes at stake and a thin backfield, the Bears likely will have to turn McCown loose at some point, too.
“A division opponent, the oldest rivalry in football, it’s a great matchup for Christmas night,” Peprah said. “You just wish that both sides were 100 percent healthy so it could be a full-on clash of the titans, but it’s still going to be a fun one.”
For more Packers-Bears stories from the past week, click here.