Despite losing to the Giants and Buccaneers in rather embarrassing fashion, the Green Bay Packers have managed to make it easy on themselves going into Week 18: Win a home game and make the playoffs. The Packers can technically still slip in with some pretty significant help, but a loss would give them just a 23% chance, per the New York Times simulator. Win and it’s a certainty. It is fitting that this season started with a win at Soldier Field and that Green Bay has a chance to bookend its regular season with another win against the Bears to clinch itself a playoff spot. This is not the same Bears team that they faced in week one, though.
The story for the Bears in the second half of the season is their defense. Their defensive weighted DVOA, which weighs recent games more than games from early in the season, ranks 5th. It is worth noting that they have not faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks during this stretch, which DVOA can only partially account for since it takes the offense’s full season DVOA, and which may not properly account for a backup quarterback playing. During this stretch, the Bears have faced Derek Carr, Jared Goff twice, Josh Dobbs, Joe Flacco, Kyler Murray, and Taylor Heinicke. That’s three backups, one starter who is routinely being booed by his own fans (Carr), a quarterback opposing fans cannot wait to get a big extension (Goff), and Kyler Murray coming off his ACL injury. Facing Jordan Love on Sunday will be the best quarterback they have faced since Justin Herbert on October 29th and gave up 30 points in a blowout loss.
The defense’s ascension has coincided with the arrival of Montez Sweat at the trade deadline. In his eight games with Chicago, Sweat has racked up eight sacks to go along with 36 total pressures. He has been held in check a bit the past two weeks, but the acquisition has already paid immediate dividends to the defense, and he will be one to watch matched up against Green Bay’s tackles. Another star of the defense is cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who is enjoying a career year allowing under four yards per target. Former Wisconsin Badger TJ Edwards has been very solid for Chicago in the middle, ranking fourth in the NFL in run stops while remaining a competent pass defender.
This is the battle for Green Bay, that improved defense against their white-hot offense. Over the past nine weeks, only Brock Purdy and Dak Prescott have been more efficient on a per-play basis than Jordan Love. Despite a rotating cast of characters at receiver, including practice squad elevation Bo Melton being the team’s first 100-yard receiver, Love has continued to produce at borderline MVP levels for the past two months. Rookies Dontayvion Wicks and Jayden Reed have been quite productive as rookies, with Reed setting the franchise record for receptions by a rookie, surpassing the great Sterling Sharpe. Perhaps the biggest breakout player has been tight-end Tucker Kraft. Despite only playing a fraction of the snaps of most tight-ends in the league, Kraft is 16th in total EPA generated. He ranks third amongst tight-ends in DVOA, and his 7.6 YAC/reception ranks fifth in the NFL. He is an absolute bully with the ball in his hands, and he has unlocked this offense in a material way, allowing for chunk plays to happen even through passes underneath the coverage.
The major benefit of the Packers passing game is how decentralized the targets are. The Bears have a star corner, but they only have one of them. The Packers are more than happy to get the ball into almost anyone’s hands. There are a lot of availability questions this week across the entire receiving corps, but if they can even get a few of them on the field, the Packers should have the weapons outside for Love to continue his explosive performances.
The much bigger question for Green Bay is if the defense can do enough to secure them a playoff spot. That unit had a nice bounceback this past week, but that largely came against an uncompetitive Vikings offense helmed by Jaren Hall. While Justin Fields is not a good quarterback, he is at least an NFL quarterback. Over the past two months, Fields ranks 20th in EPA-per-play, which has been enough to allow the Bears to go on a nice run with their defensive performances. The Bear passing game primarily flows through DJ Moore, who ranks an outstanding fifth in adjusted yards per route run this season. Moore is dangerous both down the field and in the short game, as he has a very solid +1.6 YAC over expected per reception. With the Packers' secondary dealing with a variety of different issues, shutting down Moore is the key to shutting down the Bears' passing attack. No other qualifying Bears receiver has generated positive EPA this season. Cole Kmet is the defacto WR2 for this unit, ranking second both in targets with 70 and in total EPA generated.
On the ground, the Bears are splitting carries between starter Khalil Herbert and rookie backup Roschon Johnson. For basically his entire career, Herbert has rated as a good back and this year is no different. He ranks seventh in RYOE-per-carry this season and fourth in the percentage of carries where he earns more than expected. Despite pretty good play from the runningbacks themselves, the Bears running game hasn’t been anything more than a bit above average. Depending on the status of Isaiah McDuffie, who has been very good in run support this season, above average may be enough to cause major problems, especially if the Bears ever fully weaponize Justin Fields' rushing ability.
The Packers enter the final week controlling their own destiny and are favored at home on DraftKings, a familiar place. While everything that happens from this point going forward is gravy given the rebuilding nature of the season, securing a playoff spot in a victory over the Bears is exactly how this season deserves to end. Green Bay has their quarterback of the future in Jordan Love. It’s time for him to put the ultimate stamp on that on Sunday.