LAKE FOREST, ILL. – Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers welcome the soaring expectations. Maybe someday soon, the Chicago Bears will, too.
The league's oldest rivals meet Sunday in a season opener that matches two teams that are in far different places, with the Packers eyeing a championship run and the Bears essentially starting over under new coach John Fox and General Manager Ryan Pace.
"Expectations are always high from the fans, from you guys, from the fantasy football owners, from the pundits out there, we like it like that," Rodgers said. "We don't get too high, too low from the hype outside. We just try to focus on things we can control, and that's the preparation and the cohesiveness we have in this locker room and go out on the field and try to put together a good product."
The Packers are a model of cohesion with four straight NFC North titles and an appearance in last year's conference championship game. The Bears, on the other hand, were anything but a model of cohesion in a five-win nightmare last season.
Along with the changes at the top, they are going from a 4-3 to 3-4 scheme to try to revive a defense that ranked among the worst in franchise history the past two years. They're also seeking more balance on offense after relying heavily on the pass.
More than anything, they're trying to establish a foundation, with a coach who led Carolina and Denver to the Super Bowl. And they will be tested right from the start.
The Packers outscored the Bears 93-31 over two games last season — a 38-17 victory at Soldier Field for the franchise's 700th win and a 55-14 takedown at Lambeau Field that was historic on several levels.
Not only did Rodgers throw for six TDs to match a franchise game record, he did it in the first half. All those scoring passes tied the NFL mark for a half.
The Monsters of the Midway joined the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons as the only teams to give up 50 points in back-to-back games.
It's not hard to see why coach Mike McCarthy vowed the Packers would beat the Bears badly at a Green Bay Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. Or, why Fox would not argue the point.
"Well I looked at the tape. They should be confident," Fox said.
Welcome back, James
There was probably no better last-minute fit for the Packers offense than receiver James Jones, the veteran who was signed on Monday after he was cut by the New York Giants. Jones played seven seasons in Green Bay before leaving for Oakland for a season in 2014. He turned into one of quarterback Rodgers' favorite targets during his first stint with the Packers, and with Jordy Nelson suffering a season-ending right knee injury in the preseason, Green Bay brought him back.
Two big questions for Chicago this week were whether Alshon Jeffery would play and where Kyle Long would play. Fox was not about to provide answers. Jeffery, the No. 1 receiver, practiced Wednesday for the first time in nearly a month after being sidelined by a left calf injury. As for Long, a two-time Pro Bowl right guard, there was speculation he would move to right tackle after Jordan Mills was released over the weekend.
Clay Matthews is listed at his natural position of outside linebacker on the Packers' Week 1 depth chart. But he's still expected to see heavy time on the inside judging by the way Matthews saw snaps in the preseason. It was during that 55-14 win over Chicago when Matthews debuted at inside linebacker on early downs. The successful shift helped shore up Green Bay's run defense.
What about Jay?
With a new regime in place, quarterback Jay Cutler's future with the Bears has never been more in doubt. He led the league with 24 turnovers last season, and Pace and Fox did not declare him the starter until March. But if he cuts down on the mistakes, the Bears could face a difficult decision at the end of the season.
Bears fans seeking some glimmer of hope for the opener might cling to the fact that new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was 4-0 against Rodgers in four seasons in San Francisco. Then again, Rodgers completed 64.4 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. And Fangio does not have Aldon Smith or Patrick Willis.