Updated: January 30, 2014 6:37AM
Bears versus Packers. A frigid Soldier Field. Last game of the regular season. For all the marbles in the NFC North. And, of course, a playoff berth at home. You can’t beat that, huh?
But there are so many plotlines to watch in only a 60-minute game of football.
Can Jay Cutler (who’s 1-7 against the Pack) finally find his game against his newfound nemesis? Will Brandon Marshall finally make it into the long-promised land of the playoffs? Will the Bears’ defense finally rise to the occasion, or will it fall again as it did last week against the Eagles?
Will Aaron Rodgers (who’s 9-3 against the Bears) return to form without any rust and dissect the Bears’ often out-of-position safeties? Will one of Rodgers’ other bones get broken by Shea McClellin, emulating the sole highlight of his fleeting career? Will Marc Trestman pull Cutler if he’s having another bad game, again relying on super-sub Josh McCown?
These are just a few of the sub-plots of the Big Game that casual fans can look for amid the X’s and O’s of professional football. I’m guessing most fans couldn’t care less about, say, using the Cover-2 scheme on defense or using an extra offensive lineman on running plays.
For these fans, here are some things to ponder during this pigskin playoff-like game.
Kicker-extraordinaire Robbie Gould just signed a four-year contract extension, something general manager Phil Emery said before the season that he wouldn’t do. (Reportedly, it’s for $9 million guaranteed, a record for a kicker.)
But Emery indeed extended his contract, proving that Gould is truly gold when it comes to clutch kicks. However, will he be up to the challenge today if it comes to it? Remember, Gould missed that 47-yard field goal against the Vikings in overtime earlier this month.
Roughly half of the players on the Bears roster are in the final year of their contracts, meaning today’s game could be their last as a Chicago Bear. That’s another reason why this game means more than just another Bears-Packers game in the teams’ — say it with me — “storied rivalry.” Ugh.
Trestman, who I like as a head coach and a level-headed guy, has made some bone-headed decisions in previous games. Such as opting for that 47-yard field goal in overtime on (what?) second down, or not pulling an obviously lame Cutler for a healthy and capable McCown. Will he make another stupidly stubborn decision again today?
Will the Pro Bowl-bound Marshall, a truly likeable NFL player these days, do whatever it takes to earn his first playoff berth? Even if it means allowing fellow wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to be the star of the game, if not of the season?
Speaking of Jeffery, will the second-year budding superstar with the vice-grip hands play with a chip on his shoulder over not being voted into the Pro Bowl? Or will it quietly deflate his enthusiasm for the biggest game of his young career?
On the other side of the ball, does perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers have anything left in his proverbial tank? He’s been running on fumes since the first game of the season, and there’s no way he’s returning as a Bear next season, big contract or not. Can he make at least one game-changing play today?
Is Lance Briggs enough to bolster the ugliest Bears defense in decades? Will any Bears defensive players take a few purposeful shots directly at Rodgers’ healing collarbone? (Can Doug Plank play in this game? Or Wilbur Marshall?) Can someone on this year’s team please make a tackle in the backfield? Or — gasp! — a meaningful sack?
Also, can the once “ridiculous” return-man Devin Hester stop resting on his heyday laurels and actually return one to the house again? I’m tired of hearing about him as a potential threat instead of being a legitimate playmaker like in his younger days.
On a broader level, today’s game will symbolize the Bears’ topsy-turvy season in many ways.
If the Bears win, it will show their perseverance, team chemistry and scrappiness to overachieve their obvious deficits. It also could lead to the return of a few players whose contracts are being considered for next season and beyond. Plus, a victory will validate Trestman’s inaugural year as an NFL head coach, regardless of what he does in the playoffs.
If the Bears lose, it will painfully reveal the team’s shortcomings, the coaches’ poor decisions, and the glaring lack of bona fide NFL players. It also will prompt Emery and company to cut ties with a few players who are on the bubble of perennial potential. Plus, Trestman’s first year will be viewed as a failure despite him being the “guru” behind the team’s most exciting and productive offense in its history (including 442 total yards against the Pack in Week 9).
Like I said, it’s the sub-plots beyond the game itself that can add intrigue, even if the Bears get blown out by their rivals from the north.
My prediction for today’s game (with a gambling line of the Pack by 3 points)? Well, before Rodgers’ return, it was Bears 31, Packers 24. But now it’s Packers 34, Bears 24. Call me a poor Bears fan or call me a realist. In other words, pick ’em.
Back in July, on the day that Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte left for training camp, I had the opportunity to talk with him at his home. After 90 minutes of chatting about his life, his wife, his new baby and his career, my last question was simple: Do you think this year’s Bears team can make it to the Super Bowl?
He laughed and then thought about it, without giving me his typical canned response to the sportswriters who ask him that question ad nauseam.
“You know, I really think we have a legitimate chance, I seriously do,” he said.
Today is that chance. Seriously.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.