A two-month run of success has the Green Bay Packers in position to claim their second straight NFC North title.
That scenario still seemed unlikely until recently, as the now-reeling Chicago Bears spent most of the season controlling the division.
The surging Packers look to clinch the North with a sixth consecutive victory over the archrival Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Until last week, Chicago (8-5) held either sole possession or a share of the North lead. After Week 5, the Bears were 4-1 while Green Bay was 2-3.
The Packers, though, have won seven of eight while the Bears have dropped four of five since their outstanding first half. Green Bay took the outright division lead with a 27-20 win over Detroit and Chicago's 21-14 loss at Minnesota last weekend.
The Packers, winners of two straight at Soldier Field, have outscored the Bears 116-65 in the last five meetings. Green Bay last won consecutive division championships during a three-year run from 2002-04.
"The division is the first goal," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We can wrap things up (Sunday). It's a tough opponent, a tough place to play, a lot on the line."
The Bears hope facing their biggest rival will provide them with enough of a spark to avoid a third straight loss and strengthen their postseason chances. Chicago holds the conference's final wild-card spot, but Washington, Dallas and Minnesota are one game back.
"If you need a game coming up to really motivate you to play your best football, it should be your rival with Green Bay coming in," coach Lovie Smith told the Bears' official website.
With a roster ravaged by injuries, Smith knows the challenge that awaits against a Packers team that has found ways to win despite trailing in five of its last seven victories.
Green Bay has been able to do so thanks in large part to outstanding fourth-quarter defense. The Packers, who fell behind 14-0 to the Lions on Sunday, have given up 21.0 points per game over the last eight but yielded three total field goals in the fourth quarter of the past six.
Aaron Rodgers has averaged a modest 228.5 yards while throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions in the last four games, but his 27-yard TD run gave the Packers their first lead Sunday.
"I don't get caught up in statistics," McCarthy said. "We've got nine wins. That's the only statistic I worry about."
Green Bay has succeeded while playing without defensive back Charles Woodson for the last six games and star linebacker Clay Matthews the last four. While Woodson has been ruled out along with wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring) and defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee), Matthews is expected to return after recovering from a nagging hamstring problem.
"I thought he looked good all week," McCarthy said of Matthews. "I look for Clay to play and make an impact in the game."
Injuries at running back also have plagued Green Bay, but Alex Green has rushed for 127 yards on 25 carries in the last two games. Former practice squad member DuJuan Harris recorded 31 yards and a TD on seven rushes versus Detroit.
Chicago hasn't been nearly as effective in overcoming its health issues. With linebacker Brian Urlacher out for the regular season, the Bears lost kicker Robbie Gould this week to a season-ending calf injury. Veteran Olindo Mare will take his place.
Cornerback Tim Jennings, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions, has been ruled out for the second straight week along with receiver Earl Bennett. Chicago also has lost key special-teams contributors Craig Steltz and Sherrick McManis for the season.
Quarterback Jay Cutler is expected to play after suffering a neck injury last week.
Despite the mounting injuries and current slide, the Bears remain optimistic even though they might need to win their final three games to make the playoffs.
"The confidence is not wavering," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We're fully confident that we can do that."
The offense will likely need to improve for Chicago to have a chance to win out. The Bears have totaled 72 points in five games since a 51-20 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 4.
Also, a once-opportunistic defense that scored seven touchdowns in the first eight games has none in the last five. Chicago allowed an average 71.0 rushing yards in the first six games and 141.0 in the last seven.
"The pressure we're feeling right now is on our performances," Smith said. "Improving, it's on us."
Cutler has thrown four TDs and five INTs in his last four games. He has seven touchdowns and 16 interceptions while posting a 53.1 passer rating in going 1-6 against the Packers as a Bear.
Cutler threw four picks in a 23-10 loss to Green Bay on Sept. 13.
Brandon Marshall leads the NFL with 101 receptions and is second with 1,342 yards, but was held to two for 24 in the loss at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers has thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three games versus Chicago.
The Associated Press News Service
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