GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Jay Cutler can't catch a break this season.
Clay Matthews was back at practice Wednesday for the first time since pulling his hamstring last month, and he's eager to terrorize the Bears quarterback again Sunday when the Green Bay Packers (9-4) travel to Chicago. The Packers can clinch the NFC North title with a victory over their biggest rivals.
"When you have a good day rushing the passer — it might not equal sacks directly, but if you feel good as a pass rusher you get into a routine, a rhythm and a groove," Matthews said. "I definitely felt that was the case the first time we played them. I want to break out a little bit of the rust, obviously, sitting out a few games, but there shouldn't be a drop-off.
"Hopefully, there isn't."
Tormenting Cutler has become one of Matthews' favorite activities. He has six sacks in seven games against the Bear, and Cutler probably still has some bruises from their meeting in September. Matthews had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks, seven tackles — six of them solo — and also batted down a pass. The Bears managed just 168 yards in that game, a 23-10 Green Bay win that was even more lopsided than the score indicated.
Despite missing the last four games, Matthews still leads the Packers — and is tied for sixth in the NFC — with nine sacks.
"He's practicing today? That's good to know. We could use all the help we can get," Bears coach Lovie Smith said in a conference call with Packers media. "He's one of the best players in the league. That'll definitely give them a boost. They're a better football team with him on the football field."
The Packers would be even better if Charles Woodson was ready to go, but coach Mike McCarthy said doctors decided the perennial Pro Bowler needs to give his broken collarbone another week to heal. Woodson practiced last week, and was hoping he'd be able to play against Chicago.
The Packers-Bears rivalry is the oldest in the NFL and, no question, its fiercest. Curly Lambeau and George Halas used to refuse to shake hands after games, and Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said Wednesday he's never disliked a team as much as the Packers.
That the Packers can clinch the division title has only added to the hype.
"Very frustrating day. Charles was ready to play, he's ready to go," McCarthy said. "It's the judgment of our medical staff, in particular Dr. McKenzie. He does not feel it's in Charles' best interest to play in this game. Trust me, that's not easy. He's been preparing himself. He practiced last week. I know he's extremely frustrated."
Matthews is anxious to get back on the field, too, but he knows he has to be smart about it. This is his third hamstring injury, and there's no sense getting back on the field if he's only going to have to come right back off a week or two later.
Especially with where the Packers are in the season.
Green Bay has been one of the hottest teams in the NFL after its 2-3 start, winning seven of its last eight. Not only are the Packers closing in on the division title, they still have a shot at the NFC's No. 2 seed — and the first-round bye that goes with it.
"I'm not going to put myself in an older category, but maybe a younger Clay might have pushed it a little too much in trying to get back out there," said Matthews, who is in his fourth season. "But you have to realize the bigger picture here. ... With a few games left and an opportunity to clinch this thing, with an opportunity to get into the playoffs, ultimately that's the big picture. It's to get healthy and go into the last part of the season and playoffs full-strength and full-speed. Hopefully that's the case. Today was a good step."
McCarthy said they'll see how Matthews responds the rest of the week. The Packers aren't practicing in pads at all this week, but they will be in shells Thursday and it will be their longest and hardest practice.
"The plan is for him to play in the game," McCarthy said. "But that's why you practice. It's important to go through the process physically, mentally. ... We'll do our best to get him ready."
Cutler might want to do the same.
Notes: OL T.J. Lang practiced after missing last week's game with an ankle injury. At his old left guard position, no less. Lang was shifted to right tackle after Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending hip injury Nov. 4 against Arizona. "Today was the first day I really got to run around and plant on it, put weight on it," Lang said. "I'm definitely feeling better each day. If I continue to make the improvements I'm making the past week, I feel pretty good about Sunday." ... McCarthy said WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring) is a "longshot" for Sunday's game. ... Jeff Saturday remains the starter though Evan Dietrich-Smith took snaps at center during practice.