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4 storylines to watch: Bears-Packers

Posted Dec 17, 2016

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch Sunday when the Bears host the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field.

The Bears (3-10) will look to rebound from last weekend's loss to the Lions Sunday when they host the Packers (7-6) at frigid Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:

(1) How much of an impact will Alshon Jeffery make in his return after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances?

Jeffery picked up in practice this week where he left off before his suspension, not showing any rust from a month away from football. "It's kind of been business as usual with him," said coach John Fox. "He plugged right back in. I haven't really noticed any difference since before he left."

Jordan Howard
Running back Jordan Howard is approaching 1,000 rushing yards on the season needing just 31 yards in Week 15 to reach the mark.

The Bears went 1-3 without Jeffery. In all three losses, they had a chance to take the lead on their final drive but failed to do so. In defeats to the Titans and Lions, they turned the ball over on downs in the last minute after their young receivers dropped passes.

Jeffery will give new Bears quarterback Matt Barkley a playmaking option on the outside he didn't have in his first three starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler. Jeffery and Barkley first met as high school stars and were nearly part of the same USC recruiting class. But having only played sparingly together this season in a Week 7 loss in Green Bay, they spent extra time working together after practice this week to try to build a better rapport.

(2) Will the Bears be able to contain Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers?

It certainly won't be an easy assignment. The two-time NFL MVP has won 11 of the last 12 games he's started and finished against the Bears, including six straight at Soldier Field beginning with the 2010 NFC Championship Game. In his last seven starts versus the Bears, Rodgers has thrown for 17 touchdowns with just one interception.

Rodgers has a big arm, he's extremely accurate and he excels at extending plays with his feet. He actually looked human earlier in the season but has since rebounded, throwing 10 TD passes with no interceptions over the last four games. His favorite targets are receivers Jordy Nelson (76 catches for 913 yards and 12 TDs), Davante Adams. (63-898-9) and Randall Cobb (60-610-4).

An improved pass rush will try to contain Rodgers and keep him in the pocket. The Bears are one of only two NFL teams that have three players with at least seven sacks: Willie Young (7.5), Akiem Hicks (7) and Leonard Floyd (7). In the first meeting between the teams in Green Bay Oct. 20, the Bears held the Packers without a touchdown in the first half before Floyd opened the third quarter with a strip/sack of Rodgers, recovering the fumble for a touchdown.

(3) Which team will do a better job of handling the Arctic-like conditions?

With temperatures expected to be in the single digits at kickoff, Sunday's game figures to be one of the coldest in Soldier Field history. The Bears prepared for the contest by practicing outdoors in similar conditions Thursday and Friday at Halas Hall.

"You don't get used to it; you just deal with it," Fox said. "We've had the guys out there a couple days in it just to prepare, what they're going to wear as far as footwear, upper wear, just so it's not a shock for them even in pregame. I've been in situations where you're only able to deal with it in pregame, when you're the road team and you're going from warm weather to cold weather. But it comes down to mental toughness and you do your best to be weather-proof."

The Bears have defeated the Packers in the two coldest games at Soldier Field since they moved there in 1971, winning 20-17 in overtime on Dec. 22, 2008 when the temperature was two degrees at kickoff and 23-21 on Dec. 18, 1983 when it was three degrees.

(4) Will the Bears maintain their all-time series lead over the Packers?

The Bears have led the series with their long-time rivals since 1933, the year that Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States and prohibition ended. But that edge is in jeopardy Sunday.

The Bears are still ahead 94-93-6 but have lost 11 of the last 13. The Packers haven't held a lead in the rivalry since they had an 11-10 series advantage entering the 1933 season. The Bears followed by winning five straight and have not trailed since.

The Bears climbed as high as 24 games over .500 in 1960 (50-26) before the Packers closed the gap to 57-47 in 1974. Thanks in part to an eight-game winning streak from 1985-88, the Bears eventually reached a high-water mark of 25 games over in 1992 (81-56). But the Packers have whittled that lead all the way down to 94-93-6 by winning 37 of 50 meetings since 1992.