Finally, the No. 1 Green Bay Packers division matchup to watch in 2012 is another chapter of the classic rivalry between reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the heart and soul of the Chicago Bears' defense, Brian Urlacher.
Brett Favre had a playful back-and-forth with Urlacher when he was still playing and that type of relationship with the Bears' linebacker has kind of been passed on to Rodgers. There is a great deal of mutual respect between Rodgers and Urlacher, just as there was between Favre and No. 54.
But the fact that A-Rod and Urlacher are friendly only makes them more competitive with one another. And they are going to want to out-perform each other just as much, if not more so, this year because Rodgers is going to feel pressure to live up to his billing as the greatest player in the game (he ranked No. 1 on NFL Network's top 100 NFL players of 2012) and Urlacher knows that at his age (34) and with the talent the Bears have on their roster right now, these next couple of seasons may be his last great shots at getting a ring.
To get a sense of what the Rodgers/Urlacher relationship is really like you don't have to look much further than a Jim Rome interview with A-Rod conducted on Sept. 16, 2011, when last season was just getting underway:
Jim Rome: "I talked to Brian Urlacher not long ago and usually he's not, well not only is he not effusive in praise of opposing quarterbacks, he's looking to kill the opposing quarterback. But I did say to him, 'seeing Aaron Rodgers in week one, is he now the guy, is he the best quarterback in the NFL' and Aaron he said you are. He said that 'yah I think he is the best quarterback in the NFL.' Hearing something like that from a guy like that, a guy that you go so hard against, how'd that make you feel?"
Aaron Rodgers: "I'm flattered by that first of all. I think that was probably before he may have watched Tom Brady play Monday night - that was quite a show. But Brian and I have had a real good relationship - a lot of respect on both sides I think. He's probably my favorite player in the NFL to play against just because I really respect the way he plays and know he prepares like a quarterback does. He's the quarterback of their defense and a great player, been doing it for a long time, and he's their team leader and a guy, like I said, I really enjoy playing with."
As you can see, there's not a lot of hatred between Rodgers and Urlacher; that's just not the way their rivalry has played out. They are far from the only athletes in professional sports who are classy with each other despite being on bitter rivals, but it's still sort of ironic to see big, mean and intimidating Brian Urlacher getting along with the quarterback who most stands in the way of his goals. Football fans are probably okay with it as long as Rodgers and Urlacher keep providing great entertainment and Packer fans are probably okay with it as long as A-Rod keeps coming out on top in the matchup.
Aaron is 7-2 in his career against the Bears and 6-2 against Urlacher. That's including the 2010 NFC championship game where Urlacher picked Rodgers off and Aaron famously tripped up the 258-pounder to save a touchdown en route to a Packer victory.
Urlacher's career against the Packers has been a roller coaster. A Bear his whole career, he won his first ever game against Green Bay, 27-24 on Oct. 1, 2000 at Lambeau. However, he went on to lose his next seven contests against the Pack from Dec. 3, 2000 to Dec. 7, 2003. This was followed by a 6-1 stretch for Urlacher against the Packers from Sept. 19, 2004 to Dec. 23, 2007 to close out the Favre era in Green Bay.
Since then, Rodgers has taken over the helm and while I wouldn't say the Packers have dominated the Bears (three of those seven wins have needed clutch interceptions with under two minutes remaining to prevent Chicago from tying or winning), they've definitely presented a challenge to Urlacher. He has reason to respect Rodgers, who owns the series lead against him, something Favre, one of the greatest ever, can't say thanks to two loses to Urlacher in a Viking uniform that just tipped the balance in favor of the Bear linebacker, 9-8.
Although Rodgers has led his team to victory in the matchup, he hasn't exactly put up gaudy stats, aside from his completion percentage, which is 68.5 percent against Urlacher, and a five-touchdown performance last Christmas, which marked a career best for A-Rod.
Outside of that, his passing yards per game against Urlacher (255) is less than his overall regular season passing yards per game as starter (274.8). In addition, he throws an interception on 2.6 percent of his passes against Urlacher, versus just 1.8 percent typically.
Urlacher himself has hauled in three of the seven picks Rodgers has thrown in games against him, which is impressive for a middle linebacker. Urlacher has also sacked Aaron 1.5 times.
Another thing to keep in mind with this matchup is Aaron Rodgers' mobility. It's not out of the question to see Urlacher chasing Rodgers down to try and prevent a quick scramble for a first down. The Bear linebacker (4.59 NFL combine 40 time) is actually faster than A-Rod (4.71 NFL combine 40 time), despite having 35 pounds on him. However, we also know that Rodgers is one of the better scrambling QBs in the league and is probably capable of getting around Urlacher, despite the slower 40 time. Because of Aaron's athleticism, this matchup isn't just about play calling and the mental aspects of the game: it could also get physical.
And right now, Rodgers has a leg up in terms of being physically healthy, because Urlacher is not 100 percent. He ended last season with a knee injury, which is still bothering him now.
Urlacher reportedly had surgery on Aug. 14, and seems dead set on playing Week 1 for the Bears against the Colts. He feels this way even though, as Chris Mortensen pointed out on an episode of NFL32, it might make sense for him to skip Andrew Luck's NFL debut and save himself for the team you know he and Lovie Smith really want to beat: the Packers in Week 2.
Regardless of which week Urlacher starts his season, here's the bad news for Bear fans:
Brian Urlacher on his knee: "I don't see it getting any better during the season. We have to manage it, my reps in practice, and then get through Sunday."
That sounds bad for Chicago, but remember, with a great player like Urlacher, even if you have him at less than 100 percent, you're still probably going to have a solid football player. This is guy who in his prime was arguably the best defensive player in the game (2005 Defensive Player of the Year) and is still among the best (he ranked No. 51 on NFL Network's top 100 NFL players of 2012 and eighth out of all linebackers). He may not be vintage Brian Urlacher this year, but he should still present a challenge to Rodgers. As long as he's on the field, I can't envision him not having at least some impact on the game, even if just from a leadership perspective.
The Week 2 Packers/Bears match up will be at Lambeau, where Rodgers has never lost to Urlacher. The pair have split at Soldier Field, 2-2, and that is where they will meet Week 15, potentially with a division crown on the line. And when you think about the storied history of the Packers and Bears and the admirable way Rodgers and Urlacher have represented those franchises, you realize that it's only fitting if their matchup is what the NFC North comes down to.
Greg Jennings vs. Charles Tillman | A.J. Hawk vs. Matthew Stafford | T.J. Lang vs. Ndomukong Suh |Sam Shields vs. Devin Hester | Marshall Newhouse vs. Julius Peppers | Charles Woodson vs. Brandon Marshall | Tramon Williams vs. Calvin Johnson | Marshall Newhouse vs. Jared Allen
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