In the NFC North, longtime rivals Chicago and Green Bay are both striving for first place.
The Bears look to at least keep a share of the division lead, while the Packers try to tighten up the race by avoiding their third straight loss when the teams meet for the 175th time Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Chicago (5-4) is tied atop the North with Minnesota, while Green Bay (4-5) is one game back. The Bears had a one-game lead in the division going into last Sunday, but they lost 21-14 to Tennessee while the Vikings rallied for a 28-27 win over the Packers, who have lost two straight and five of seven.
“It’s all about Chicago for us right now,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Everybody knows what the standings are and everybody knows everybody else’s record, so there is a lot of football left. We’ve got to keep working to get better.”
Either Green Bay or Chicago has won the NFC North since it was created in 2002 when the NFL switched to eight divisions.
Despite taking the title last season after the Bears won the previous two, Green Bay lost both meetings with Chicago in 2007. The Bears have won six of the last eight games versus the Packers, including four straight at Lambeau Field. This is Chicago’s longest winning streak at Green Bay since winning five in a row there from 1984-88.
“This is what you play for: To play Green Bay, to play your division rivals in November,” Chicago quarterback Kyle Orton said. “We’re in first place, and these are huge games from here on out. This is what I put the effort in for, so I can do everything I can to be out there.”
Orton missed last week’s loss with a sprained ankle suffered in the Bears’ 27-23 win over Detroit on Nov. 2, but could return for this game.
If Orton remains sidelined, backup Rex Grossman will look to improve upon his uneven performance in his first start of the season.
He led Chicago on a 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession, but got picked off on the next one, and the Bears punted on their following eight drives. Grossman was 11-of-14 for 120 yards with one touchdown passing and one rushing on Chicago’s two scoring drives, but was 9-for-23 for 53 yards and an interception on the other 11 series.
The Bears averaged 27.9 points in their first eight games with Orton, who would have played last week if he had told coach Lovie Smith he was near 100 percent.
“I can’t wait for the day when Kyle says he is ready,” Smith said.
Green Bay’s pass defense could provide trouble for Chicago, as it is third in the league against the pass (179.1 yards per game), and has an NFL-best 16 interceptions. The Packers picked off three passes last Sunday, and Nick Collins returned one 59 yards for a touchdown - Green Bay’s sixth interception return for a score on the season.
While Chicago hopes for better production from its quarterback, it also needs a better performance from its pass defense.
The Bears held the Titans to a franchise-low 20 rushing yards on 29 attempts, but allowed 14-year veteran Kerry Collins to pick apart the secondary for 289 yards.
Chicago’s rush defense is fourth in the league (74.9 ypg), but the pass defense is 30th (251.8 ypg).
“They way we played the run was encouraging,” Smith said. “The way we played the pass was not good enough for our standard of play.
“We have to execute better. It’s kind of as simple as that.”
Considering Collins, Detroit’s Dan Orlovsky and Minnesota’s Gus Frerotte have combined to throw for 879 yards and six touchdowns in the Bears’ last three games, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers should be able to bounce back from a mediocre performance last week.
Rodgers completed 15 of 26 passes for 142 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions against the Vikings. He has completed 55.2 percent of his passes with one TD and one interception in Green Bay’s losses the last two weeks after completing 70.5 percent with six scores and one pick in the previous three games.
“He can definitely play better,” McCarthy said of the first-year starter. “It’s a learning experience for him.”
The Packers suffered another setback last week to their already susceptible front seven, losing middle linebacker Nick Barnett for the season to a torn knee ligament.
“Whoever we put in the middle is going to have to be good enough to get it done,” Packers linebackers coach Winston Moss said.
Barnett’s absence only makes things worse for a Green Bay run defense which ranks 28th in the league (154.6 ypg), and now has to face NFL rookie rushing leader Matt Forte (713 yards).
The Packers have yielded at least 115 yards rushing six times this season and have won just one of those contests.