Fields' return vs. Packers can be seminal moment in rivalry


LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- No one has ever questioned Justin Fields' toughness. This is a quarterback who played through cracked ribs and a partially torn hip muscle in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Alabama.

If he can go, he will play.

So it's no surprise that after spending one week on the sidelines with a separated left shoulder, Fields is preparing to return for a 3-9 Bears team that desperately needs his talent, energy, and leadership Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

“It's great," head coach Matt Eberflus said Friday of Fields' expected return. "Obviously, when you get your starting quarterback back, a guy that’s electric like that and makes a lot of plays for our football team, it’s obviously a big boost in the arm to the whole football team. And guys are excited out there, not only on the offensive guys, but the defense and special teams, everybody’s excited that he’s out there moving around and being himself. And certainly missed him last week. So, yeah, exciting.”

Fields' return would be important in any week. The Bears had no chance against the New York Jets without him.

But it's imperative this week. It is, after all, Packers week.

Despite a broken thumb and a ribs issue, Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers plans to play Sunday in Chicago. Rodgers has won seven straight games against the Bears, including last season's clowning when he made sure Bears fans knew he "owned" them.

Rodgers has already forecasted a "big win" for the Packers this week.

That prediction seemed vanilla when Fields was limited in practice on Wednesday, and his status was up in the air. But with Fields back in the equation, the Bears, bad defense and all, at least have a fighting chance Sunday to plunge a stake into the Packers' slim playoff hopes.

“For me, it’s no surprise," cornerback Jaylon Johnson said Thursday of Fields pushing to play. "I feel like he’s a soldier. I feel like he’s going to be out there whenever he can. I feel like he feels good enough to be out there, he looks good at practice and being back to himself. I look forward to him at [Aaron Rodgers] going at it.”

On the surface, an early December game pitting the 3-9 Bears against the 4-8 Packers is about as inconsequential as it gets for anyone outside the Chicago and Green Bay bubbles.

But there's a chance that this game becomes a seminal one in the rivalry years down the line.

Rodgers is 39, and each offseason brings questions about his NFL future. Fields is 23 and quickly ascending the quarterback ladder.

Last December, Rodgers praised Fields for his "star qualities," something the Packers star knows all about. On Sunday, Fields will display another quality essential to being a franchise quarterback -- grit.

"When you get a quarterback that is tough, that performs well, that’s always a big boost in the arm for our whole football team," Eberflus said of Fields. "I think that going through the, you look at the league, it’s that way. The team rises up with the quarterback. When he performs well, you rise up."

The Bears' defense has been arguably the worst in the NFL over the past month. Without safeties Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Kyler Gordon, Rodgers and the Packers likely will move the ball at will Sunday at Soldier Field.

Fields matching Rodgers blow for blow is the only chance the Bears have against the aging legend.

It might be enough.

Fields had the Bears in the game through two-and-a-half quarters in Dallas against one of the NFL's best defenses. A week later, he gave the Bears a chance to win a shootout with the Miami Dolphins.

He's the great equalizer for this Bears team.

Returning from a separated shoulder to outduel Rodgers could be the start of an exorcism desperately needed.

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For decades, a great defense was considered the antidote to a star quarterback. That's no longer the case. Rodgers has diced up great and terrible Bears defenses all the same. The only surefire way to compete with and defeat a guy like Rodgers is by having one of your own.

The Bears believe they do.

Fields and Rodgers will meet Sunday, both battered and bruised, like two gunslingers dueling for pride and nothing else.

But perhaps Sunday's game can mean more. Perhaps it can be the start and end of something all at once. The vanquishing of demons and a turning of the page. A sign that the Bears' have finally found what the Packers have had for almost three decades.

That the times may indeed be changing in the NFC North.

Perhaps Fields will outduel Rodgers on Sunday. Maybe he'll come up short.

Either way, the old face of the NFC North and the new will meet at midfield after the game like two ships passing in the night.

That's what I'll be watching.

It could be a meaningless handshake after another Bears loss to Rodgers. Or perhaps Justin Fields, bum shoulder and all, can make it be remembered as something more.

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