Tables Turned As Rivals Meet Again


DE Aaron Kampman tries to sack Chicago QB Kyle Orton during last season's game at Soldier Field in Chicago.

It isn't quite a complete reversal of roles, but it's close enough. For a rivalry game anyway.

Last year, heading into the season's 15th game, the Packers had locked up a first-round playoff bye and were in the fight for the NFC's No. 1 seed when they headed to Chicago, where the Bears were out of the playoff hunt and playing for next year.

As Green Bay fans remember all too bitterly, the Bears bested the frigid cold and arctic winds in a 35-7 blowout at Soldier Field, a win that helped Chicago build some momentum for 2008 and solidify Kyle Orton as the team's starting quarterback.

Fast-forward 364 days to this coming Monday night, and it's the Packers who aren't playoff-bound but who could play a bit of the spoiler role. The Bears sit one game behind the Vikings for first place in the NFC North, and even though Minnesota could clinch the division title with a win over Atlanta on Sunday, Chicago would still be in the hunt for at least a wild-card spot on Monday as long as the Cowboys, Buccaneers or Eagles lose this week.

The chance to put an end to your arch-rival's playoff hopes doesn't beat going to the playoffs yourself, but it's at least something.

"It's definitely a motivational tool that we can use," receiver Greg Jennings said. "A good Christmas gift for them? I don't know. But for us? Maybe yes. And for our fans, yes."

Truthfully, though, the more valuable element at this stage is building for the future, and that starts by having something positive to carry into the offseason. The Packers know all about that, having won four straight to close out Mike McCarthy's first season as head coach in 2006.

The Bears did something similar a year ago when, coming off a Super Bowl appearance, they struggled to a 5-9 record through 14 games. But Head Coach Lovie Smith decided to find out if Orton was his quarterback of the future, and after beating the Packers they also beat the Saints to finish 7-9 and set the stage for another playoff run this year.

The fact that a big victory came against a division rival only added to its value as a building block for the following season.

"For us, we were out of the playoffs, but it was a game we wanted to finish up on a high note," Smith said. "I'm sure Mike is telling his crew the same thing. It's the Bears and Packers, that's enough in itself to get up for a football game. I think that will be the case. I'm expecting a great game by both teams."

It's difficult to say at this stage which players for the Packers might be playing for future starting jobs, or even spots on the team next season, but that's definitely a factor because players know teams don't remain fully intact from year to year, especially after a losing season.

"This is the NFL, and you're playing for your job, you're playing for your starting position, you're playing for pride," Orton said. "I don't think you make this level if you're not a competitive person, so there's a lot of factors going into games where there's quote-unquote 'nothing to play for.'"

To add to the similarities from a year ago, the early Chicago forecast for Monday calls for temperatures in the single digits with winds pushing perhaps as high as 20 miles per hour.

It's hard to imagine anything as bad as the swirling, gusty winds and the minus-18 wind chill from last year, but the conditions will be a factor nonetheless.

The Packers didn't deal with them well last year, bumbling through turnovers and blocked punts in taking their most lopsided loss to Chicago since 1980. So while the Bears, if the rivalry truly means something, will no doubt have their 37-3 loss to the Packers in Green Bay from last month to avenge, the Packers will have something to prove regarding their "toughness" on frozen enemy turf.

{sportsad300}"It's going to be, what, negative-30 with 50-mile-an-hour winds?" linebacker Brady Poppinga said. "It's going to be great. This is what you want going into the Windy City. Last year we didn't handle it as well as we would have liked to, and this year is an opportunity to redeem ourselves in some ways in those circumstances."

It's also an opportunity for the Packers to internalize just how badly they don't want to be in these circumstances again. No one enjoys being out of the playoff hunt, and a month ago no one would have imagined the Packers in this position.

Back on Nov. 16, they had just whitewashed their rivals to the south to improve to 5-5 and forge a three-way tie atop the NFC North. Four games later and all that's left is to start the climb back somehow, somewhere.

"We'll take great pride in trying to go get a win," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "Not for being a Bears spoiler or anything like that, but just for our team, going and getting a win and getting ourselves out of this hole."

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