(Sports Network) - The team to be cast in the role of NFC North hunted will emerge on Monday night, when the Chicago Bears play host to the arch rival Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field.
Both teams have started the year at 2-0, but only one of those marks is a surprise.
The Bears' early season success, which included wins over the Lions (19-14) and Cowboys (27-20), was of the unexpected variety. A Chicago team that entered the 2010 season fresh off a 7-9 campaign, and with a new and complex offensive scheme designed by coordinator Mike Martz, was expected to have some trouble finding its footing.
A less-than-stellar preseason showing, in which the Bears went 0-4 and struggled to find consistency on either side of the football, did not seem to indicate a team on the verge of a breakthrough.
But Chicago has shouted down its skeptics through two weeks, with quarterback Jay Cutler showing comfort in the new-look offense during the pair of victories. Cutler led the NFL in passer rating (121.2) heading into Week 3, after completing 44-of-64 (68.8 percent) of his pass attempts over the first two weeks for 649 yards, five touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, just one interception.
Also re-born in the Mike Martz offense has been running back Matt Forte', who leads the Bears in receptions (12), receiving yards (188) and touchdowns (3) through two games.
Defensively, the Bears lead the NFL in rushing defense (28.0 yards per game) and yards allowed per carry (1.4) heading into Week 3.
With a win, Chicago would move to 3-0 for the first time since 2006, when it won its first seven games en route to a 13-3 finish and eventual Super Bowl appearance
The Packers, meanwhile, are an unsurprising 2-0, and have done little to relinquish their status as an NFC Super Bowl favorite in opening wins over the Eagles (27-20) and Bills (34-7).
Green Bay's most jaw-dropping work has probably been done on the defensive side of the ball, where pass rusher Clay Matthews has posted an NFL-best six sacks through the season's first two weeks, and Green Bay has been credited with an NFL-high-tying 10 sacks overall. Matthews last week became the first player in Packers history to notch three sacks in consecutive games.
The Packers have also received typically effective play from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has a 94.4 passer rating and has completed 63.3 percent of his passes thus far.
Green Bay is seeking its first 3-0 start since 2007, when it won its first four en route to a 13-3 finish and eventual NFC Championship appearance.
Monday's game will mark the 180th all-time battle between the Packers and Bears since the series began in 1921. It is the NFL's most-played rivalry.
The Bears are 20-33 (.377) all-time on Monday night, but are 4-1 under head coach Lovie Smith. The Packers are 27-28-1 (.491) on Mondays, including 3-8 since the 2005 season.
Chicago holds a 90-82-6 advantage in the NFL's most-played series, which as mentioned dates back to the 1921 season, but was swept in last year's home-and- home with Green Bay. The Bears were 21-15 road losers when the teams met in Week 1, and dropped a 21-14 decision when the clubs faced off at Lambeau Field in Week 14. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split in 2008, including a Bears' 20-17 overtime victory at Soldier Field.
For all their storied history together, the teams have met just once in the postseason, a 33-14 Bears victory in a 1941 NFL Playoff.
Smith is 7-5 versus the Packers as a head coach, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 4-4 against both Smith and Chicago as a head man.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
If there is a concerning element for the Packers right now, it is a running game that did not exactly bounce back strong from a Week 1 season-ending injury to Ryan Grant in last week's win against the Bills. New starter Brandon Jackson (92 rushing yards, 1 TD) mustered just 29 yards on 11 carries for the day, and though he did score a touchdown, Jackson was outplayed by utility back John Kuhn (51 rushing yards, 1 TD). Kuhn, who logged 36 yards on nine carries, could be in line for a larger role on Monday night along with the emerging Dimitri Nance. The passing game will remain the preferred mode of travel, with Greg Jennings (8 receptions, 1 TD), Donald Driver (9 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Jermichael Finley (8 receptions) the main targets for Rodgers (443 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT). Finley led the way with 103 receiving yards against the Bills last week, while Driver and James Jones (5 receptions, 1 TD) both caught TDs. Rodgers could be dealing with a change in his protection on Monday, as Green Bay is expected to start first-round rookie Bryan Bulaga (Iowa) at left tackle in place of the injured and struggling Chad Clifton (knees).
The biggest problem for both Rodgers and his possibly altered offensive line on Monday night will wear number 90, and go by the name of Julius Peppers. One week after posting his first sack as a Bear against the Lions, Peppers knocked down two passes to add value versus the Cowboys. His presence also seems to be having a positive effect on the secondary, which got two interceptions from safety D.J. Moore (3 tackles) last week and a forced fumble for No. 1 corner Charles Tillman (12 tackles, 1 INT). Chicago should not have much trouble in continuing its exploits against the run on Monday, against a limited Packers running game. Brian Urlacher (16 tackles, 1 sack), who had eight tackles and a fumble recovery in the Dallas win, appears to be rounding back into form alongside Lance Briggs (16 tackles). Briggs has been bothered by an ankle problem and his status is in question for Monday. Israel Idonije (4 tackles), who is dealing with a foot problem, has been among the team's most active interior linemen through two weeks.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler may be off to a blazing start in 2010, but he'll still have to get past a dubious history against the Packers. Including a loss while he was at the controls of the Broncos, Cutler is 0-3 with four touchdown passes and six interceptions in his career against the Packers. Complicating matters for the former first-rounder on Monday could be the makeup of the offensive line, as Frank Omiyale might be forced to start in place of ailing left tackle Chris Williams (hamstring). If the line can give Cutler some time to look downfield, he'll be targeting the likes of Johnny Knox (7 receptions, 138 yards), Devin Hester (5 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (5 receptions, 1 TD), among others. Hester caught an acrobatic TD in the win over the Cowboys, and Olsen made his only grab of the day stand up for a 39-yard touchdown. Though Forte' (27 carries, 79 yards) has been a big part of the offense, the running game has yet to get going in the traditional sense. Forte' is averaging just 2.9 yards per rush, and Chester Taylor (13 carries, 35 yards) a mere 2.7. The inconsistent offensive line has allowed five sacks of Cutler thus far.
The main concern for Cutler and the Bears offense will necessarily be Matthews (12 tackles) and the pass rush, both because of the injury issues on the line and Green Bay's furious play in that realm over the past two weeks. If the Packers can apply pressure to Cutler, a secondary led by cornerback Charles Woodson (10 tackles) and safety Nick Collins (10 tackles) will have things easier against the Bears' fleet of receivers. Collins ranked among team leaders with seven tackles against the Bills. A run defense that was listed just No. 20 in the league as Week 3 began will also have to be on its game, an effort that will start in the trenches with nose tackle B.J. Raji (4 tackles, 1 sack) and ends Cullen Jenkins (4 tackles, 2 sacks) and Ryan Pickett (5 tackles), and extend to inside linebacker Nick Barnett (13 tackles) and A.J. Hawk (9 tackles). Hawk posted nine tackles against the Bills after not playing a single snap on defense versus the Eagles in Week 1.
This game will settle a lot of Week 3 contests around fantasy nation, with the work of Green Bay's passing game principles taking up a large part of that spotlight. Owners of Rodgers, Jennings, Driver and Finley should not hesitate to use them against a Bears defense that has given up its share of aerial yards through the first two weeks. Jackson is a possibility due to his probable use near the goal line, but it will be surprising if he approaches 20 carries. The Packers defense and kicker Mason Crosby are must-plays.
On the Chicago side, Cutler has moved into many starting lineups thanks to his efforts of the past couple of weeks, but owners should take note of his dubious numbers against Green Bay before locking him into this week's lineup. Knox and Forte' have been Cutler's most consistent targets and are worthy of starting assignments. Even with a bunch of turnovers forced and good numbers versus the run, the Bears defense is not an attractive play on Monday. Kicker Robbie Gould should contribute something, though.
Though the Bears are a surprise 2-0 and come off a very nice win on the road against a talented Cowboys team, this could be a week where they look more like that out-of-sync group we saw in the preseason. The Packers pass rush will have a good opportunity to punish Cutler on Monday, or at least force him into the kind of mistakes he's managed to stay out of over the first two weeks. On the other side, as long as Rodgers can mostly steer clear of Peppers, he should find lots of open receivers against a Bears secondary that has shown some holes thus far. The Soldier Field crowd will be boisterous, but this game will find these two teams drifting toward their natural poles in the NFC North.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 30, Bears 17