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Oldest rivalry renewed

Re-armed with Rodgers, Packers invade Chicago for winner-take-all

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Aaron Rodgers is coming back, a huge boost for the Green Bay Packers.

Is it enough to lift them into the playoffs? The Chicago Bears hope not.

The NFL's oldest rivalry gets a little extra kick with a playoffs-or-bust season finale and the return of the Packers' superstar quarterback from a left collarbone injury at Soldier Field on Monday.

The winner captures the NFC North and goes to the post-season, with a tie also doing the trick for Chicago (8-7). The loser can make vacation plans.

"Wouldn't want it any other way," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is what you fight for, an opportunity to be in the playoffs. That's what's in front of us. Everybody's well aware of the great history between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears."

And everyone knows the Packers (7-7-1) will have their most important piece when they try for their third straight division title and fifth consecutive playoff berth.

Rodgers has missed seven straight games and hasn't played since Green Bay's loss to Chicago on Nov. 4. He was injured on an early sack by Shea McClellin, and the Packers are 2-5-1 since he went down.

The Bears could have wrapped up the race and clinched their first playoff appearance since the 2010 team won the division had they not gotten shredded at Philadelphia last Sunday night. With the Packers losing Pittsburgh and Detroit falling to the New York Giants, a win would have sealed it for Chicago. Instead, the Bears got blown out 54-11.

Here are four things to look for as the Bears and Packers fight for playoff spots when they meet for the 188th time:

RODGERS' RUST: Rodgers might have to shake off some rust in the early going, given his layoff.

"Obviously he's missed a few weeks, but I think he'll be fine, he's been able to practice the last couple," Jordy Nelson said. "I think he'll give us a big boost and we'll still have to go out and play good football."

That's something the Packers haven't done since he went down. They used three starters at quarterback and endured a five-game winless stretch that included a tie with Minnesota.

That the rest of the roster has been riddled with injuries hasn't helped, either. Linebacker Clay Matthews is out again because of a right thumb injury and running back Eddie Lacy is hobbled by an ankle issue, although McCarthy is optimistic about his chances to play on Sunday.

PLAYOFFS WITH TRESTMAN? For the Bears, a victory this week would be a nice little ribbon on Marc Trestman's first season as coach.

They hired him to replace the fired Lovie Smith, hoping he would revitalize the offence and lead them to the post-season after they missed out for the fifth time in six years. Will the outcome this week determine if Trestman's first season is a success?

"I wouldn't even begin to think about that right now," he said. "To me, success is what you do on that day and the work you put into it on a day-by-day basis. That's how I evaluate it. When we get done with the season, we'll look back and we'll assess it."

NOT CUT-ING IT: The Bears won at Green Bay with Josh McCown filling in for the injured Jay Cutler, and now, they'll have their starter behind centre. That is a good thing for Chicago, right? Given Cutler's history against the Packers, maybe not.

He's 1-8 against them, including a loss with Denver in 2007 and the NFC title game at Soldier Field three years ago, with a 59.9 rating to go with 17 interceptions and nine touchdown passes. The lone win was with Chicago at home in 2010, and the Packers more than made up for it at the end of that season.

They beat the Bears in the finale at Lambeau Field to make the playoffs, with Chicago playing its starters, and knocked off their biggest rival in the NFC title game on the way to the championship.

Cutler missed most of the second half with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and came under siege on Twitter, with former and active players at the time questioning his toughness.

MAKING STOPS: How bad was last week's loss for Chicago?

The 54 points allowed were one shy of the record for a Bears opponent, and that wasn't the only jaw-dropping number. They gave up 514 yards overall and 289 on the ground -- both season highs. That must change.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2013 B12

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