1st-and-10: Bears should expect Packers’ best in Week 17

Playing for the first time in three weeks, Aaron Rodgers (12) was oddly off target in the 15-1 Packers’ playoff opener against the Giants on Jan. 15, 2012 — 26-of-46 for 264 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 78.5 passer rating in a 37-20 loss to the Giants at Lambeau Field. | Darron Cummings/AP

If the Bears need to beat the Packers for a shot at the playoffs, they’ll likely have to earn it. Even if the Packers clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC this week, Aaron Rodgers knows the pitfalls of resting in Week 17 with a playoff bye. Does anyone really think Aaron Rodgers is going to pass up a chance to beat the Bears — and knock them out of the playoffs?

If the Bears’ playoff hopes come down to Week 17, they probably shouldn’t expect to face a Packers team coasting into the playoffs. While there’s always risk in playing your starters in a “meaningless” regular-season finale, history has proven there’s similar risk — maybe a greater risk — in resting your starters with the bye and having them open the playoffs with three weeks rest.

Rodgers knows all too well. In 2011, the defending Super Bowl champion Packers went 15-1 in the regular season and locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Coach Mike McCarthy rested Rodgers and several key starters in the season-finale against the Lions. Two weeks later, Rodgers and the Packers were noticeably flat in a 37-20 loss to the Giants at Lambeau Field — not only short-circuiting a magnificent season, but providing the fuel for the Giants’ second Super Bowl championship run.

Rodgers has played in Week 17 prior to a playoff game every year since then, but the Packers always had something to play for. So it remains to be seen what Matt LaFleur will do. Last year Rodgers played in Week 17, but the Packers were playing for a playoff bye.

But while there are arguments for both sides of the rest vs. rust debate, there’s plenty of evidence that teams with the bye are better off playing their starters in Week 17.

Just last season, the Ravens were the only playoff-bye team to coast in Week 17 — and the only playoff-bye team to lose its playoff opener. Coach John Harbaugh rested quarterback Lamar Jackson and key starters in the season-finale against the Steelers — and the Ravens crapped out in a 28-12 loss to the Titans in their playoff opener. Just like Rodgers in 2011, Jackson was oddly off-target — 31-of-59 (52.5%) against the Titans after completing 66.1% of his passes in the regular season.

In 2017, the Chiefs lost their playoff opener against the Titans after Andy Reid rested Alex Smith, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in Week 17. Last year, Reid played Patrick Mahomes, Kelce and Hill in Week 17 to clinch a bye — and then won the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s a coincidence. But maybe it isn’t.

That could be the big decision for LaFleur if the Packers clinch the No. 1 seed this week. Rodgers likely will relish the chance to eliminate the Bears. He won his only Super Bowl after the Bears failed to eliminate the Packers from playoff contention in Week 17 in 2010. The Packers survived 10-3 at frigid Lambeau Field, came back to haunt the Bears in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, and won it all. There’s something to be said for momentum.

2. And yes, that scenario assumes the Bears will beat the Jaguars on Sunday at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville. Not only are the Bears 7 1/2-point favorites on the road, but the Jaguars are the front-runners for the No. 1 pick and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence after the Jets beat the Rams last week.
The notion they should put winning a game ahead of drafting a generational talent — if indeed Lawrence proves to be that — is admirable, but foolhardy.

3. Speaking of that, in 1997 the Bears were 1-10 and tied with the Colts for the No. 1 pick in the draft with five games to go — and coach Dave Wannstedt was on the hot seat with a third consecutive non-playoff season.

The Bears won three of their next four games to presumably save Wannstedt’s job, but also fall to the fifth pick in the draft. The Colts finished 3-13 and drafted Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning. The Bears finished 4-12 and drafted Penn State running back Curtis Enis. And the rest … is history.

4. Linebacker Roquan Smith is the Bears’ biggest Pro Bowl snub since Lance Briggs was denied an eighth-consecutive Pro Bowl berth in 2012 — despite 118 tackles and two touchdowns on interception returns.

Briggs’ misfortune was being an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense — losing out to 3-4 outside linebackers with double-digit sack totals — the 49ers’ Aldon Smith (19.5), the Packers’ Clay Matthews (12) and the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware (11.5).

Smith losing out to the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner and the 49ers’ Fred Warner despite having more tackles (128), more tackles-for-loss (17 — 10 more than Wagner and 13 more than Warner) and four sacks is a little mystifying. But Wagner and Warner are outstanding and deserving.

The roster set-up also was a factor. With six NFC teams running a 3-4 defense, there probably should be a third inside linebacker on the Pro Bowl team.

5. Timing is Everything Dept.: The expanded playoff format is keeping the Bears’ hopes alive. In the old six-team format, the Bears would not only need to finish 9-7, but hope the Buccaneers lose their final two games (to the Lions on the road and the Falcons at home) and the Cardinals lose once (to the 49ers at home or the Rams on the road).

With the extra wild-card team, if the Bears finish 9-7, all they need is for the Cardinals to lose once — a much more likely “help” scenario. They can even make it at 8-8 if the Cardinals lose twice.

6. The Bears’ 33-27 victory over the Vikings marked the third consecutive game the Bears’ offense scored 30 or more points — after scoring 30 against the Lions and 34 against the Texans. It’s the first time the Bears have done that since — are you sitting down? — 1995, when they beat the expansion Panthers (31-27) and Jaguars (30-27) and the Oilers (35-32). (The Panthers actually had the eighth-best scoring defense in the NFL in their first season, under head coach Dom Capers and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.)

So the last time the Bears scored 30 or more points on offense in three consecutive games against all non-playoff teams was in 1965, when they actually did it four consecutive times in Gale Sayers’ rookie season.

7. The legend of Sam Mustipher just keep on growing. The second-year undrafted free agent center not only has played a key role in the resurgence of the Bears’ running game, but has not committed a penalty in his first 357 snaps in the NFL.

Cody Whitehair, who moved from center to left guard to make room for Mustipher, also has not committed a penalty this season — in 751 snaps.

8. Did You Know … Mitch Trubisky’s interception in the end zone on his 21st and final pass against the Vikings ended a career-long streak of 112 passes without an interception? It’s true. His previous best streak was 84 passes in 2019.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Kudos to 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, whose 31-yard field goal against the Cowboys on Sunday was the 400th of his career.

Gould is 400-for-460 (87.0%) in his 16-year career — the fifth-highest career percentage in NFL history and the highest among the 32 kickers with 400 or more attempts. He made 276-of-323 attempts (85.4%) in 11 seasons with the Bears (2005-15) — the second-best percentage in franchise history behind Cairo Santos (26-of-29, 89.7%).

For the record, Gould has made 124-of-137 field goal attempts (90.5%) since the Bears cut him in 2016. Bears kickers are 105-of-130 (80.8%) in that span.

10. Bear-ometer: 8-8 — at Jaguars (W); vs. Packers (L).

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