Packers’ hot start puts extra pressure on Bears coming out of bye week
If the Bears struggle in their next three games, all of which come against good opponents, the NFC North could slip away from them.
None of this has been as easy as everyone expected.
The Bears meandered through their first five games, salvaging a 3-2 start only because of their Mile High Heist against the Broncos, and they’re fortunate to have such an early bye because coach Matt Nagy has plenty to fix.
And on top of everything he’s trying to solve, there’s one problem he can’t fix: The Packers look really good.
The Packers are the class of the NFC North at 4-1 and are coming off a double-digit road victory against the Cowboys. They already have an important victory against the Bears in hand, and the second game between the teams is at Lambeau Field in December, when the Packers are 18-4 in the last decade.
The best news for the Packers — and the worst for the Bears — is that they don’t seem to have peaked yet. Their defense has been surprisingly good, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers still is acclimating to new coach Matt LaFleur. He’s not even among the top 20 in passer rating, and it’s inevitable he’ll finish near the top of the NFL by the end.
The Packers’ odds of winning the Super Bowl have climbed from 16-1 to 12-1, while the Bears’ have dipped from 16-1 to 25-1. Nagy said recently the early-season adversity has helped clarify to his players that this won’t be a continuation of last season and that they have to work from the ground up to get back to where they were.
The Packers’ hot start has ratcheted up the urgency for the Bears, who are at risk of letting the division get away from them in the next three weeks. It won’t be long before it’s too late to remain patient.
The Bears resume with a home game Oct. 20 against the Saints (4-1), then host the Chargers (2-3) and visit the Eagles (3-2). The Chargers, by the way, went 12-4 last season and still have a plus-9 point differential, so they might be better than their record indicates.
A rough ride through that stretch would bury the Bears in the division if the Packers keep rolling. They host the Lions (2-1-1) on Monday, followed by a home game against the Raiders (3-2), then a road game against the Chiefs (4-1). If they have a two-game lead on the Bears going into November, that’s going to be daunting.
Rodgers and the offense are what every opponent fears, but the Packers are 25th in total offense and 13th in points. Rodgers has the second-lowest passer rating of his career at 93.4 — below Chase Daniel’s 95.6 — and his yardage has dipped from 277.6 per game last season to 261.4.
Defense is the real story in Green Bay for now, which rarely has been the case in recent history. The Packers have had a top-10 scoring defense only four times since 1998 but are No. 8 in points allowed this season at 18.6.
They’re especially good against the pass, and free-agent pickup Preston Smith has led the way. Smith, an outside linebacker, has a team-high 5½ sacks, plus an interception and a forced fumble.
The Packers are No. 4 in opponent passer rating at 75.9 — Mitch Trubisky helped by posting a 62.1 against them in the season opener — and ninth with 15 sacks.
Any team that plays defense like that and has Rodgers at quarterback is going to thrive, and it’s no surprise the Packers lead the NFL with a plus-7 turnover margin.
While Rodgers hasn’t played to his usual level, he hasn’t been bad. With only one interception so far, he now has three in 777 passes in the last two seasons. It won’t be long before he starts lighting it up again.
‘‘We’re still trying to figure out how we can best use the guys that we have in this system,’’ Rodgers said on Brett Favre’s SiriusXM show this week. ‘‘But I like the way we’re going, and I’m not going to put a timetable on when everybody is going to feel totally comfortable.
‘‘I’m just going to say that I’ve seen progress since Week 1 where we struggled. . . . I’m really having a lot of fun right now, and I think the guys are, too. It’s kind of contagious, and we’re going to embrace that feeling.’’
The Packers didn’t need much from Rodgers to beat the Cowboys on Sunday. Instead, they relied on running back Aaron Jones. He ripped the Cowboys for 107 yards and four touchdowns on the same day in which the Bears played their worst run defense of the last two seasons. That better have been the aberration everyone assumes it was, or Jones will give them trouble in December.
The Packers sound and look eerily similar to the 2018 Bears. Their defense is leading the way, they have an upstart young coach in LaFleur and everything sounds happier than it did as they derailed under Mike McCarthy last season.
‘‘I like the vibe on the team,’’ Rodgers said. ‘‘I think we’re having a lot of fun.’’
They’ve even taken their own version of Nagy’s “Be You” slogan.
‘‘I think it’s really about encouraging guys to be themselves,’’ Rodgers said. ‘‘I think when you create an environment that allows the freedom of expression . . . the personalities that we have, I think, are encouraging others to grow and be confident in themselves. You’ve seen the performances.’’
Late-season games against the Packers always loom large for the Bears. Anytime they’ve seemed to be turning a corner the last few decades, getting past Rodgers or Favre has been a pitfall. Before Rodgers’ success against them, Favre went 23-13 against the Bears.
The Bears have not swept the Packers since 2007 and have lost that matchup even in the best of times. They managed a one-score victory late last season when safety Eddie Jackson picked off Rodgers in the end zone. When the Bears went 13-3 in 2001, two of those losses were to the Packers. Their Super Bowl team after the 2006 season got clobbered by the Packers at the end of the regular season.
The point is, it always has been difficult to get by the Packers, and this season won’t be an exception. The Bears already had a healthy grasp of that after losing 10-3 in the season opener, and the ensuing weeks have reinforced it.
It has been an epic accomplishment whenever the Bears have topped the Packers in the NFC North; the Packers have won 12 division titles with Favre and Rodgers. It’s clear this season will require the Bears to overtake the Packers once again if they want to repeat as division champs.