There's no deeper history in the National Football League than the Green Bay Packers playing at the Chicago Bears. Soldier Field may be new and improved for the game, but the ghosts of the past still ring loud and clear. The teams have played each other 164 times, but the Packers are 16-2 in the last 18 meetings against the Monsters of the Midway.
The Bears have been without a home since 2001-- they called Memorial Stadium at Champaign, Ill., their home during the 2002 season. They'll need that home-field advantage, along with better players, to get back on course. The Packers are off to a slow start and are looking forward to the lights and national TV audience on Monday Night Football to jump-start their season. On paper the game shouldn't be close, but with traditions on the line, it should be.
When Chicago has the ball, there's not much offensive production to get excited about. The offense is ranked last in the league in almost all offensive categories, most notably points per game. Quarterback Kordell Stewart was brought over from Pittsburgh to 'create' some offense, but he might be finding his way to the bench for lack of production.
Look for the Packers defense to blitz Stewart and frustrate him in passing situations. But it's not all Stewart's fault when you study how dismantled the offensive line is due to injuries, age and salary cap issues. The reduced effectiveness of running back Anthony Thomas doesn't help either. In 2001, Thomas rushed for 1,183 yards and last year he fell off, rushing for just 721 yards. After two games this year, Thomas has touched the ball only 16 times.
The Packers haven't fully developed their 2003 defense yet, and with a weak inside run defensive group, the Bears must explore running the ball 20 to 25 times against this unit. If nothing else, it will keep the game close until the fourth quarter. The Bears had two weeks to prepare for this opening game at the newly renovated Soldier Field and the Packers are coming off an embarrassing loss to the Cardinals.
There are more intriguing stories surrounding the other side of the ball. Does Packers quarterback Brett Favre still have the desire to play the game? Can the Packers run the ball well enough and reduce the turnovers -- nine in three games -- to win? Favre talked about retirement last year, then it disappeared. But there are people close to the situation who wonder if he still has the passion for the game.
Not a lot of his old friends are still on the team. There are questions as to whether the talent that's left is enough to win. I expect playing on Monday night will rekindle his old competitive spirit. People doubted Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb after two games and they now doubt Favre. I would not make that mistake against the Bears or anyone else.
Favre can work on Chicago cornerbacks Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters and have reasonable success with his wide receivers. I also expect Favre to look for his tight ends in the red zone, which has been a staple of the Packers offense. Tight ends Bubba Franks and Wesley Walls can do wonders to get Favre's numbers back to where they should be.
Favre is at his best in the two-minute environment, maybe because it's still fun or maybe because the pressure to come from behind gives him that spark. Look at Favre's third-down percentage and you'll notice almost a 42 percent success rate. I assure you he can still make the plays when he has to. He's going up against a Bears team that is converting third downs at half that rate. The third-down situations could be a lot of third-and-short if the Packers use Ahman Green as a runner or receiver more often, especially against a Bears defense that gives up 4.5 yards per carry.
In 2000, the Packers lost two of their first three games, only to bounce back and finish the season 9-7. They are currently in a similar position at 1-2, but this is a good place to start turning things around against this struggling Bears team. I like the Packers in this matchup, but if Chicago ewins this one, then all the talk will turn to Favre and retirement.