(Mitch Trubisky photo courtesy Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports)
This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.
Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.
When and Where: Thursday, Sept. 5, Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill., 8:20 p.m. EDT.
Lambeau. Halas. Hutson. Grange. Gregg. Nagurski. Starr. Butkus. Hornung. Ditka. Lombardi. Sayers. Kramer. Payton. Favre. Singletary. White. Urlacher. Sharpe. Dent. Rodgers. Mack.
The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears could have their own respective wings at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton they have produced so many star players, seen throughout a century of football starting with grainy images to black-and-white films to color and now, to high-definition television.
Therefore, it seems only fitting the oldest rivals in the National Football League would have the season-opening stage to themselves Thursday night to mark the beginning of the NFL’s 100th season.
Packers 2018 in Review
The Packers finished 6-9-1 last season and found themselves looking up at the Bears in the NFC North standings for the first time since 2010 and missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2005-06.
That resulted in a change at head coach, with Matt LaFleur replacing the fired Mike McCarthy. The 39-year-old LaFleur has enjoyed a meteoric rise to his first head coaching job, having served as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans in each of the last two seasons before the Packers came calling.
The primary challenge for LaFleur will be establishing a rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with the signal-caller’s frayed relationship with McCarthy over the pair’s final seasons well-chronicled throughout the offseason as people tried to project how the 35-year-old Rodgers would respond to someone just four years older calling his plays.
Rodgers, though, quickly shot down such speculation during the exhibition schedule — which he sat out — in what could be best described with using his customary aloofness.
“We have a great line of communication. I’m not sitting up here, wishing people, ‘I wish you just knew this.’ I don’t care,” he said in mid-August according to CBSSports.com. “Look, I don’t need to go out and prove to anybody how great Matt and I are getting along. Or him stand up there and say how great it’s been. Look, we’re having a great time. We’re communicating. The conjecture is for clickbait news stories you guys can put on your websites. Not you guys, I mean like most of you people in here.”
Rodgers put up his customary solid numbers with 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions in 2018, but his effectiveness at times was limited as he played virtually the entire season with a sprained MCL and fractured shinbone suffered in last year’s season-opener versus Chicago.
Rodgers will again look Davante Adams’ way plenty after he had a breakout 2018 with career highs of 111 receptions, 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns. LaFleur’s arrival could mean more passes thrown Jimmy Graham’s way after the veteran tight end totaled 55 receptions and 636 yards in his first season with the Packers.
The Packers defense has the potential to be good, but Mike Pettine’s group had trouble preventing big plays in 2018 as they allowed 25 points per game and ranked tied for 29th with 15 takeaways. Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels anchor the defensive line, and the Packers added edge rusher Za’Darius Smith from Baltimore, where he had a career-best 8.5 sacks for the Ravens.
Bears 2018 in Review
And with those two thuds of the ball off the left goalpost and crossbar — after it was tipped at the line of scrimmage — Chicago’s first playoff appearance in eight years came to an anti-climactic ending almost too comical to be believed with a 16-15 loss to the then-defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round.
But lost in the uproar of the missed field goal were a slew of positives as the Bears went 12-4 for their most wins since going 13-3 in 2006 and reaching Super Bowl XLI. Second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky made huge strides of progress in his first full season as starter with 3,223 passing yards and 24 touchdowns while completing 66.2 percent of his attempts.
“We’re just on the same page,” Trubisky told the Bears’ official website about his rapport with coach Matt Nagy. “We’re very similar as far as wanting to throw the ball down the field, aggressive mindset mentality and taking care of the football. I’m speaking his terminology and just being on the same page. It’s all that kind of stuff.”
“He’s been doing it recently, where I’m calling the play in practice,” Nagy added, “and he’s cutting me off because he knows the formation and he knows, ‘I got it.’ He just cuts me off. I kind of like it.”
The backfield will look slightly different following the offseason trade of leading rusher Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles despite gaining 935 yards last season and 3,370 yards in his three years in Chicago. Howard did not fit within the scheme of coach Matt Nagy’s offense, which is more width-based as opposed to between the tackles.
The deal likely gives elusive dual-threat Tarik Cohen more snaps after he led the team with 71 catches for 725 yards, while the Bears also added depth behind him in free agency with Mike Davis and third-round pick David Montgomery — both backs with dependable pass-catching hands.
Trubisky was able to grow into the quarterback spot because Chicago’s defense terrorized opponents all season. The acquisition of Khalil Mack right before the start of the season energized the unit as the edge rusher was seemingly everywhere and finished with a team-high 12.5 sacks and another 10 for losses to go with 18 quarterback hurries.
His impact filtered throughout the defense as the Bears finished with an NFL-best 27 interceptions — six more than the second-best team — and a league-high 36 takeaways. Linebacker Roquan Smith could be tipped for stardom in his second year as a contract holdout did little to slow him down — the eighth overall pick finished with a team-high 121 tackles and was third with five sacks.
As for the kicker position… the Bears are going with Eddy Pineiro, who booted 8 of 9 field goals in the preseason, highlighted by a 58-yarder, and converted three of his four PATs.
Green Bay Packers offense vs. Chicago Bears defense
The Packers went a fourth straight year without a 1,000-yard rusher, with Aaron Jones showing promise in his second season with 728 yards in 12 games, missing the first two through suspension and the last two through injury.
With a new coach in LaFleur, the plan is to have Rodgers line up under center — a distinct change from seasons past when he operated out of the shotgun. That should result in more run-play calls by design in which the Packers operate with two running backs behind Rodgers in a bid to try and establish the ground game and take some of the pressure off their star quarterback.
Jones had only one 100-yard game in 2018 — a 145-yard effort against Miami that included a 67-yard scamper — but until he wore down in the second half of the season, his calling card was his effectiveness. In a three-week stretch that included games against Super Bowl participants Los Angeles and New England, Jones rushed for 306 yards while averaging 7.5 yards per carry, and 11 of those 41 carries went for 10 or more yards.
“We’ve been working for a long time now, since April, with this group,” wide receiver Davante Adams told the Packers’ official website. “Definitely excited to unleash what we’ve been working on. It’s been kind of rated G a little bit so far throughout preseason, just so we don’t give away all of the goods. But we have a chance here to open it up pretty soon. So it’s definitely a good feeling.
“Hopefully we come like we’re shot out of a cannon, Week 1. But as you go, things definitely tend to get better.”
The Bears were the most stout team against the run in 2018, limiting opponents to 80.0 yards per game, and only four teams were able to crack the century mark. While Mack rightfully gets praise for being a disruptive presence wherever he lines up, it was Smith and fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan who finished the work Mack started as both of them finished with over 100 tackles.
The defense will have some tweaks since coordinator Vic Fangio has taken over the Denver Broncos, but another well-experienced coach steps into his place in Chuck Pagano. He spent 2018 out of football after coaching the Indianapolis Colts for six seasons and will serve as defensive coordinator for the first time since being in charge of the Baltimore Ravens ‘D’ in 2011.
The big difference between the Fangio and Pagano will likely be at safety, where Fangio used a single-deep cover and Pagano has yet to tip his hand regarding holdover Eddie Jackson and newcomer Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The latter brings a wealth of information on the Packers’ offensive tendencies after playing in Green Bay for the first four-plus seasons of his career before being dealt to Washington midway through 2018. Both Jackson and Clinton-Dix are at their best playing deep, but Jackson may be the one who ranges closer to the line of scrimmage since Clinton-Dix was merely adequate as a run-stopper.
“Anytime you come in, you’ve got to look at, ‘Here’s what the expectations are and I’ve gotta prove myself,'” Pagano told NFL.com. “I think it’s a challenge we all face and address and embrace. It’s not the thing that keeps you up at night, but I understand what the expectations are.
“And we’ve got a bunch of really good football players and assistant coaches, and if we keep working like we’ve been working, get lucky and stay healthy, things’ll work out.”
For all the ink spilled regarding Rodgers and McCarthy’s relationship, it is worth reminding that 35-year-old Aaron Rodgers can still make these kind of throws:
There is no doubt Rodgers has a chip on his shoulder the size of Green Bay after his reputation took a hit this summer. At the same time, he remains one of the best students of the game and a master of nuance. That is why the feeling is LaFleur can bring him to a higher level — Rodgers is learning something new, which to him, is exciting.
“He comes over talking to us about different things, … small, small things that may come up. But you can just see the wheels turning in his head,” Adams noted. “It’s a big computer in there, so he’s reaching for things from 2012, 2015, whatever. Just talking about different looks from different teams that the D-coordinator has been on.
“So you start seeing that Aaron, you know it’s time.”
The biggest X-factor regarding Green Bay’s passing game is Jimmy Graham. His numbers in his first season with the Packers — 55 catches, 636 yards and two TDs — were serviceable, but he never became the red zone target everyone thought the 6-foot-7 tight end would be.
Graham, though, is confident he can flourish in LaFleur’s system.
“This is an offense where they match up a lot of formations, and the run to the pass. And for me, that’s all good,” Graham told the Wisconsin State Journal. “And, they like to use the tight end quite a bit. I think we’ve got a dynamic group of tight ends and we’ve got a good mix of veterans and young kids. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do this year. I really am.
The Packers took a hit at wide receiver depth with the decision to put Equanimeous St. Brown on injured reserve before the season, ruling him out for all of 2019. Brown had 21 catches for 328 yards as a sixth-round draft pick last season, which means Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison will line up opposite Adams.
Allison showed promise early in 2018 with 19 catches for 289 yards in the first four games before a series of injuries limited him to one more contest over the final 12.
The good news is that Rodgers rarely makes mistakes and set an NFL single-season record by attempting 402 passes without an interception. The two that were picked off came on deflections — with one of them coming against the Bears.
Green Bay’s offensive line, though, must improve its protection for this new passing offense to take off. While the 49 sacks Rodgers absorbed last year was roughly in line with his injury-shortened 2017 campaign, it was also substantially higher than the 36 in 2016.
Here is why the Chicago Bears were willing to part with first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, a sixth-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2020 for Mack:
Simply put, opposing offenses must take notice where Mack is at all times, starting at pre-snap. An elite pass-rusher, he will draw double-teams on virtually every snap and has a relentless motor to the whistle. And after a preseason without much contact, Mack is eager to create some Thursday night.
“So. (Bleeping). Ready,” Mack told the Chicago Tribune about Thursday night, adding, “It’s been so long, I feel like. I’m looking forward to going out there Thursday and getting to the grind with my brothers.”
Mack’s impact can be felt on all three levels, and Pagano is not reinventing the wheel when it comes to using him all over the line of scrimmage. Mack’s biggest asset on a play-to-play basis is speeding up an opposing quarterback’s internal clock on when to get rid of the ball, and cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara were the biggest beneficiaries.
Fuller earned an All-Pro nod after recording 21 pass breakups to go with seven interceptions, tying him for the NFL lead in 2018. Amukamara may see more action his way with Fuller’s quality, and the Bears added a slot corner in free agency via Buster Skrine from the New York Jets. If Pagano can figure out which safeties belong where with Clinton-Dix and Jackson — also an All-Pro — the Bears defense can go from very good to great.
Chicago Bears offense vs Green Bay Packers defense
The Bears dealt leading rusher Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles for a sixth-round pick in 2020 not because he was unproductive — Howard had 935 yards last season and 3,370 in his three years in Chicago — but because he did not fit in an offensive scheme that puts a premium on speed to get to the edge.
Stepping into the No. 1 spot will be diminutive Tarik Cohen, whose speed and elusiveness resulted in a bigger role in his first season with Nagy. The 5-foot-6 Cohen had 444 rushing yards but his impact was far more noticeable catching the ball out of the backfield with a team-high 71 receptions for 725 yards and five touchdowns.
Cohen put together those numbers while playing less than half of Chicago’s offensive snaps in 2018, which means there is still more upside to the third-year running back for Nagy to tap.
“He’s exciting with the things that he can do,” Nagy told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s shown that, and nothing’s really changed. We just like where he’s at, and you put all these other pieces around him, it only makes him better.”
The Bears showed a commitment to Cohen’s type of player in the draft with their third-round selection of David Montgomery. The Iowa State product topped 1,100 yards in each of his final two seasons and has plenty of promise as a pass-catcher, totaling 58 receptions for 453 yards in his last two years with the Cyclones.
Though Father Time remained undefeated and caught up with Clay Matthews, who moved onto the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers are optimistic about their run defense despite a middling status for 2018.
Blake Martinez sets the tone in the front seven against the run in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 alignment, and the fourth-year pro cleared 140 combined tackles for the second straight year. Green Bay is thin at inside linebacker for this game with only Martinez and Ty Summers, but the Packers did acquire B.J. Goodson from the New York Giants for an undisclosed draft pick on Tuesday and will try to bring him up to speed for this contest.
Goodson started 20 games over the past two seasons and finished fifth on the Giants in 2018 with 60 tackles. He also had a pair of interceptions and four pass breakups. The most important addition, though is at outside linebacker, where Za’Darius Smith arrives from Baltimore and Preston Smith from Washington to help on the edge, with the former taking first-round pick Rashaan Gary under his wing.
“He’ll tell me small things, what to look at, and it be crazy,” said Gary, the 12th overall pick, to The Athletic. “I might not get that play today, but I might get it tomorrow, and I’ll remember what he said. … That’s what I get from him.”
Green Bay’s defensive line has a chance to take big steps forward this year if Montravious Adams can build on his strong finish from last year and be consistent on a game-to-game basis with fellow starters Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark.
Let’s be clear about the Bears and their Super Bowl hopes. For as good as their defense is, and it is plenty good, their championship aspirations mean Trubisky must make the leap to elite quarterback in his third season. There have been plenty of signs along the way, but as the competition got tougher down the stretch, he struggled to lead the offense to points.
In their second season together, Nagy should be giving Trubisky more slack in terms of play-calling and audibles at the line of scrimmage. There is also continuity in the passing attack — the Bears return players who accounted for 85 percent of his completions, 88 percent of his yards and 96 percent of his touchdown passes.
The issue for the Bears will be if any of their receivers reach the next level. The Bears have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since Alshon Jeffery in 2014, and Allen Robinson could be posed to be that guy. He had 55 catches for a team-high 754 yards in his first season in Chicago, and that was without a proper training camp as he was rehabbing a knee injury.
He had 10 catches for 143 yards in the wild-card loss to the Eagles and spent a portion of the spring with Trubisky and the receivers in southern California refining pass routes and building chemistry.
‘‘For us, being able to touch base on things before we even get back, I think that’s always a big thing,’’ Robinson told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Being able to not only get more familiar with the offense but to build that camaraderie, as far as going out there with each other. Just trying to pick back up where we left off.’’
he Packers pass defense was upgraded with the additions of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith at the outside linebackers along with their first-round pick Gary. The other issue for Green Bay’s secondary is to become more of a ball-hawking unit.
The seven interceptions recorded were tied for the second-worst mark in the NFL and ahead of only San Francisco, and their 15 total takeaways were the third-fewest.
Replacing Clinton-Dix at safety will be ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos, who had four solid yet unspectacular seasons in Chicago’s secondary. Amos was the odd man out on the Bears when it came to contract extensions, but the Packers stepped up with a 4-year, $36 million deal that included a $14 million signing bonus in hopes he can raise the takeaway total after being part of a Bears defense that led the NFL with 27 interceptions and 36 forced turnovers.
“Of course you feel [disrespected], but it’s not hard feelings. I don’t hold any grudges or anything,” Amos said, via the Sun-Times. “There’s feeling there. But when it’s all said and done, none of that matters. It’s not like I’m going to [stick it to] Pace or anything like that.”
“It’s all about how we get guys lined up and how we get them playing fast,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine added in talking to the team’s official website. “If you can concentrate the thinking and the calls and the checks with just certain key players in key spots, then that frees everybody else up to play fast.
“Our theme is the two Ts – tackling and takeaways. That’s going to be a big part of our emphasis.”
Mason Crosby returns as Packers kicker for his 13th season, but there were some concerns after he missed 4 of 15 field goal attempts from 40-49 yards while finishing with 30 field goals and 124 points in 2018. Punter JK Scott put 19 of his 71 boots inside the opposing 20, but coverage was lacking at times as returners averaged 10.3 yards on 20 runbacks.
As for as coaching, the expectation is for LaFleur to be aggressive. He has a Hall of Fame quarterback who has been there and done that with relationship to this rivalry, and LaFleur may actually lean on Rodgers in certain instances because he has faced them twice a year for the past decade-plus.
The Packers are relatively healthy, though inside linebacker is a concern as Goodson will be flying by the seat of his pants after coming on board in January, but otherwise, it should be all-systems go for LaFleur in his head coaching debut.
Soldier Field will be rife with tension whenever Pineiro lines up for his first attempt, whether it be an extra point or a field goal. And the sooner it gets taken, the better, because the agita and unease in Chicago after Parkey’s epic miss is real and it is spectacular.
Bears kickers have gone 60 for 79 since letting Robbie Gould go, the worst mark in the NFL. And to pour a heaping serving of salt into that wound, Gould has missed exactly three field goals in 85 attempts over the past four seasons since leaving. To put that in more agonizing perspective, recall Parkey hit FOUR uprights in a regular-season game last season before the double-doink.
All that said, Nagy has done everything possible to get his team to move on from that loss. Yes, the kicker competitions were unorthodox all preseason long — to the point where it became a national storyline — but this season is about the Bears embracing the role of favorites.
They are the favorites to win the NFC North. They are among the favorites to win the NFC. They are, perhaps with a little bit of luck and a little bit of grit, a potential Super Bowl team. Everyone learned lessons in winning the division title and losing in heartbreaking fashion, and how they start applying them — against an archrival they have historically struggled against for more than a decade — will go a long way in determining their success.
ALTRUDA’S ANALYSIS AND ADDED PLAYS
The continuity the Bears should have both offensively and defensively will be a key reason they emerge victorious in their season-opener. Though the Packers have upgraded their pass rush with the Smiths, it feels like too big an ask for them to swing this game Green Bay’s way.
Additionally, the victory last season at home matters. It showed Rodgers was not invincible, something that almost took on a life of its own in the Week 1 Green Bay victory when he shook off what turned out to be a season-long knee injury to rally the Packers to a victory.
It is a game that should stay within single digits for most of the contest, with the Bears getting a late score to put the game out of reach. The spread pick is with the Bears -3 and under 46.5 points with the expectation Chicago will keep Green Bay between 17-20 points and post a victory between 4 to 7 points.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Bears 24, Packers 20
The only significant player on the injury report is Bears tight end Trey Burton, who was listed as questionable Wednesday with a groin injury. His potential absence would be a blow to the passing game since backups Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker caught a combined eight passes compared to Burton’s 54 in 2018.
Here is where we look at the potential prop bets for the game, and since it is the opener for the league, there are plenty. All lines are courtesy PointsBet.com, but closely examine the ones being offered by your sports book of choice.
Three prop plays we like:
Tarik Cohen OVER 31.5 receiving yards (-114)
Mitch Trubisky UNDER 245.5 passing yards (-114)
Aaron Jones OVER 54.5 rushing yards (-114)
Of the three, Cohen looks to be a near-lock considering he should be on the field at least 60 percent of the time and perhaps as much as 75 percent. That should allow for plenty of opportunities for Trubisky to find him on shallow crosses, angle routes, and flares out of the backfield.
Jones is probably the second-best pick of the three considering LaFleur moving Rodgers under center, which implies more straightforward running plays. Trubisky cleared this number five times last season, and one of them came by a half-yard. The Bears are the team more likely to be playing with a lead in this game, which means a more balanced offense in terms of run-pass selection.
Bears -2.5 (-115)
UNDER 23 points (-106)
Packers UNDER 10 points (-105)
The under looks to be the best play as the teams combined for 34 first-half points in the two meetings last year. Additionally, the New England Patriots were the only visiting team to reach double figures in the first half at Soldier Field as the Bears led the league with a plus-127 point differential in the first two quarters in 2018.
Green Bay led just twice at halftime on the road last year and its minus-53 differential was fourth-worst.