With apologies to the always-ferocious AFC North brawls between the Steelers and Ravens, I can’t help feeling that the two NFC North battles on tap this season between the Packers and Bears — Sept. 13 at Lambeau Field in Week Two and Dec. 16 at Soldier Field in Week 15 — will take the cake as far as red-hot rivalry matchups go in 2012.
I know that will definitely be the case in my neck of the woods in Vernon Hills, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago just a few miles down the road from the Bears’ headquarters in Lake Forest.
Forget about the White Sox being in first place, and the palpable buzz young Anthony Rizzo has generated at Wrigley Field. Windy City sports fans are more than ready for some football — especially against the Packers, the team that sets the high standard new Bears GM Phil Emery is so determined to duplicate and, in a perfect world, surpass.
There hasn’t been a more proactive team this offseason in free agency and in the trade market than the Bears, with WR Brandon Marshall, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell and CB Kelvin Hayden, among others, added to a team that looked like it was playoff-bound 10 games into the 2011 season before season-ending injuries to RB Matt Forté and QB Jay Cutler triggered a nightmarish 1-5 finish.
Clearly, Bears Nation is genuinely pumped, with Marshall making highlight-reel catches on a daily basis at the team’s Bourbonnais, Ill. training camp, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice offering a much more positive vibe than his predecessor, the prickly Mike Martz.
As for the Bears’ neighbors to the north, I get a strong sense that they’ve paid very close attention to Emery’s aggressive maneuvering. In my role as PFW Packers’ correspondent — as well as being addicted to a couple of terrific public golf courses just north of the border in Kenosha — I talk to a ton of Packers fans on a regular basis.
To a person, lately, the Bears always seem to come up in conversation.
With that in mind, a few days before fellow PFW editor Kevin Fishbain and I take a quick hike to check out the Packers’ training camp, I offer my early take on the five key matchups awaiting us in this season’s Packers-Bears series — presented in descending order, a la David Letterman:
(5) Packers P Tim Masthay vs. Bears RS Devin Hester
Masthay, who just signed a four-year contract extension, has come a very long way from his early struggles as the Packers’ punter. His problems were particularly glaring in the Week Three game against the Bears two seasons ago, which just happens to be the last time the Bears beat the Packers. Hester’s return for a TD in a 20-17 win was the turning point on a night when the Packers’ special teams packed it in early. Hester is still Hester, coming off a season in which he added to his NFL record for kick-return TDs (17) with three kickoff returns for scores and led the league with a 16.2-yard punt-return average. Masthay, meanwhile, has just kept getting better and better, posting a franchise-record 45.6-yard gross punting average last season while consistently landing punts inside the 20 with more backspin than a typical Luke Donald wedge shot. Masthay will have to be at his best against Hester.
(4) Packers OLBs Clay Matthews and Nick Perry vs. Bears OTs JaMarcus Webb, Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams
A worthy Pro Bowler in each of his first three seasons, Matthews is a proven commodity, as well as the Packers’ only proven pass rusher entering this season. The Packers hope the massive Perry, the team’s first-round pick who will be lined up opposite Matthews on the left side after playing right end at USC, will quickly become a productive complement. By all accounts, Perry has been rather pedestrian in the early going. He will be trying to get the best of Carimi, a fellow first-rounder who looked pretty good before knee issues took their toll very early in his rookie campaign last season. On the left side, Webb currently appears to have a leg up on Williams, yet another former first-round pick, but the situation remains fluid at that position. In any event, Matthews figures to be as relentless as usual.
(3) Packers TE Jermichael Finley vs. Bears secondary
At 6-5, 247 pounds with speed to burn, Finley was a major headache for the Bears last season, scoring four TDs in the two games vs. Chicago, including three in the first contest. But he had an uneven season marked by a team-high 11 dropped passes. After signing a two-year, $14 million deal early in the offseason, Finley says he’s feeling a lot more comfortable and is ready to establish himself as a truly top-tier tight end on a par with Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. That can’t be good news for a Bears secondary that looks solid on the corners, with Hayden offering quality depth behind Pro Bowler Charles Tillman and the scrappy but undersized Tim Jennings, but not so solid at safety, where Chris Conte and Major Wright shape up as the latest starters for now at a position that has been a turnstile for what seems like forever.
(2) Packers CB Tramon Williams vs. WR Brandon Marshall
While Finley looks like he could have a serious edge in his matchup with the Bears’ DBs, the same applies to Marshall in his matchups with Williams, who became the weak link in a disturbingly shaky Packers secondary last season after very deservedly earning a four-year contract extension for his stellar play in 2010, particularly down the stretch on the road to the Super Bowl. Williams was never the same after colliding with teammate Nick Collins in the season opener last season and suffering nerve damage in his shoulder. Unable to handle press-coverage duties, Williams became an easy mark, consistently biting on double moves. After doing a decent job defending Lions superstar WR Calvin Johnson on Thanksgiving Day, he was later torched by “Megatron” in the season finale (244 receiving yards). Will he shoulder the load any better against Marshall, who has looked like God’s gift since being reunited with former Denver teammate Jay Cutler? If he doesn’t, the Bears’ revamped offense could be hard to stop.
(1) Packers S-CB Charles Woodson vs. Bears QB Jay Cutler
It’s pretty simple. Without Cutler, who was starting to look so good before breaking his thumb while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception in Week 11, the Bears’ firepower is reduced significantly, although Campbell is a far more serviceable replacement part than Caleb Hanie. Without Woodson, who at the age of 35 remains the Packers’ key defender, the Green Bay defense’s big-play prowess takes a major hit. Coming off a season in which he tied for the league lead with seven interceptions, the eight-time Pro Bowler still shapes up as the most important chess piece in Dom Capers’ multi-look 3-4 defense, having become more of a safety than a cornerback in a secondary that is undergoing some serious tweaking with Collins no longer in the mix. Considered to have perhaps the best instincts of any defender in football, it’s quite likely Woodson's shrewd guesswork against Cutler could turn the tide in the 2012 series — for better or worse.