GREEN BAY – Not that the Packers didn’t know so already with the Bears leading the NFC North, but Chicago’s home win on Sunday night over the previously once-beaten Rams crystallized Green Bay’s task this week.
“We know we’re going to have to play an awfully good football game on Sunday at noon in Chicago,” interim head coach Joe Philbin said on Monday. “We’ll have to play as well as we’ve played for sure, if not better.”
The Bears’ impressive 15-6 triumph over the Rams improved Chicago’s record to 9-4 and narrowed down the NFC North race to two teams – the Bears and Vikings. Should Minnesota (6-5-1) lose Monday night at Seattle, Chicago would be looking to clinch its first division title since 2010 next Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Bears are doing it with defense, and particularly with turnovers. Chicago has a league-best 34 takeaways on the season, six more than second-place Cleveland and nine more than anyone else.
Overall, Chicago’s defense ranks second in rushing yards, ninth in passing yards and third in total yards, third-down conversions and points allowed. Philbin noted all the single-digit rankings jump off the NFL’s weekly stat sheet and indicate there are not a lot of weaknesses to attack in coordinator Vic Fangio’s heralded unit.
“They’re very well-coached, both in the front seven and back end,” Philbin said. “They’re well-coordinated in that regard, and they’re talented. They’ve got good players at every level of the defense.”
Green Bay’s defense doesn’t match up to Chicago’s statistically, but it is coming off of one of its better performances, holding Atlanta’s offense to just seven points through the first three quarters of Sunday’s 34-20 victory.
After allowing the Falcons to score a touchdown on the game’s first possession, the Packers clamped down and did not allow any points over a six-possession stretch. A fumble by quarterback Matt Ryan led to a missed field goal, ending a promising second drive for Atlanta, but after that the Falcons managed just two first downs and 36 total yards on their next five drives.
“There was no panic,” Philbin said of his defense settling in after the first possession. “It was an opening drive, a good offensive football team. There were some mistakes and we could have done some things better.
“But I don’t know if it was anything revolutionary. We knew we had a good opponent, knew they were a good offense, and knew if we executed better we’d make some stops and get a chance to make some plays.”
The biggest play came midway through the second quarter, when cornerback Bashaud Breeland stepped in front of tight end Austin Hooper, picked off Ryan’s third-down pass, and waltzed 22 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Packers a 17-7 lead.
It provided the Packers their first defensive touchdown of the season (the team’s other non-offensive score was a blocked punt for a TD vs. Minnesota in Week 2), and Philbin referred to it as a “spark” for the entire team.
It’s the kind of play the Bears have been making regularly this season, though just two games ago when the Giants scored an early pick-six against the Bears, it helped New York control much of the game before winning in overtime.
The Packers had two notable big plays on offense against the Falcons – a 24-yard TD pass on third down to Randall Cobb, and a 29-yard TD run by Aaron Jones – and hitting the Bears on at least a couple of those is almost imperative against a defense that counts on forcing a mistake the longer a drive lasts.
But any momentum-changing plays in the other phases of the game would go a long way, too.
“We need to make some big plays up there to win the game,” said Philbin, who is not entertaining any thoughts of the Packers’ fringe playoff chances and is focusing all of his energy on Chicago.
“It’s not going to be easy to get 30 first downs against the Chicago Bears and score 30 points. Not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy. If we can get an impact play on special teams or an impact play on defense, that’ll be big. We’re going to need them.”