GREEN BAY—The Bears began the season 7-1 before losing four of their last five.
That one loss early on was to the Packers, who are 7-1 in their last eight clashes with their archrivals from Chicago.
An explanation for it all could start with turnovers.
In getting off to that fast start in 2012, the Bears were reliant on their defense taking the ball away. They did so 28 times in their first eight games, returning seven interceptions for touchdowns, and there was talk the dominant Bears defense of 1985 had returned.
Not so fast.
In their last five games, the Bears have generated just seven takeaways. As the turnovers have dried up, so have the wins. The Bears still lead the league in takeaways, but it's no surprise that Head Coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week he's emphasizing that his team has to get back to its takeaway ways.
"It's a staple of their defense," Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
The Bears have collected their share of takeaways against the Packers, too, but the key in Green Bay's current run of success in the rivalry is that the Packers have been coming out ahead in the turnover battle.
Only twice in the last eight meetings, dating back to the season-opener in 2009, has Green Bay actually played turnover-free against Chicago. The Packers have turned the ball over twice in each of the other six contests.
But the only time the Packers have lost is when their own defense didn't match or surpass the Bears in takeaways. That was in Week 3 of 2010, when the Packers were minus-1. Three times the turnover ratio has been even, and the Packers won all three.
Translation: Don't lose the turnover battle and you shouldn't lose to the Bears.
"It's a big emphasis every week – ball security, ball security, ball security," receiver James Jones said. "Ball security is all Mike preaches all week, all our position coaches preach all week."
Jones and his receiving mates have to be on guard the most, because Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (pictured) is unparalleled at stripping the ball from the opponent.
Jones, who was victimized twice by Tillman on back-to-back possessions as a rookie in 2007, confessed that Tillman is the best in the league at it. He leads the NFL this season with nine forced fumbles, including one against Packers tight end Jermichael Finley in Week 2.
Since coming into the league in 2003, Tillman leads all NFL defensive backs with a ridiculous 38 forced fumbles. That's nearly twice as many as the next closest DB over the last decade, safety Brian Dawkins with 21. Green Bay's Charles Woodson, who is the best the Packers have had in that category, has only half as many as Tillman since '03, 19.
"Tillman, leave us alone, man, please," Greg Jennings pleaded, tongue-in-cheek, before explaining that a receiver's approach does change against a ball hawk like that. "I catch the ball and tuck. I don't worry about anything after that. If it happens, it happens. But I catch and tuck."
Should the Packers protect the ball, they should be able to clinch their second straight NFC North title on Sunday at Soldier Field. The Packers haven't won consecutive division crowns since winning three in a row from 2002-04.
Injury-ravaged Green Bay is starting to get healthier, with linebacker Clay Matthews and offensive lineman T.J. Lang returning to the lineup this week. Defensive back Charles Woodson could be next, along with receiver Jordy Nelson and defensive end C.J. Wilson down the line.
The Bears, plenty beat up themselves without linebacker Brian Urlacher, cornerback Tim Jennings, kicker Robbie Gould and others, could be playing for their season, but don't try to tell Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers the Bears have more motivation.
Rodgers shepherded an injury-plagued team to a last-minute wild-card berth two years ago, and the chance to clinch a playoff spot two weeks early and put the 2012 team in even better position following a trying regular season, could mean a ton going forward.
"We're coming in hungry," Rodgers said. "It's been a challenging stretch. We've had a lot of different guys fill in and play, but I think it's been pretty rewarding as well. We're not done yet.
"It's been a season where I think we've all learned a lot about the kind of guys we've got in the locker room, and that's exciting. We feel like we're kind of in the middle of this story and, hopefully, there's a great ending to it."
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