With Bears coach Lovie Smith living up to his word, Chicago came to play and pushed Green Bay to the limit, but the Packers saved their season for a second consecutive week. Behind a defensive masterpiece, the Packers beat the Bears 10-3 on a cold Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.
Up next for the Packers (10-6): A wild-card date at Philadelphia that is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. (Central) on Sunday. The Bears (11-5), the NFC North champions, have a first-round bye.
While Aaron Rodgers struggled against the Bears' continual pressure, the defense piled up six sacks against Chicago's Jay Cutler and dominated the entire second half to give the Packers a chance to finally put some points on the scoreboard.
The Packers led 10-3 on a 1-yard touchdown reception by Donald Lee with 12:42 remaining. Chicago's last possession started at its 2-yard line after another great punt by Tim Masthay with 4:49 to go. The Bears reached the Packers' 32 but Nick Collins picked off Cutler in the final seconds to wrap up the game.
With their playoff hopes slowly spiraling toward the drain, the Packers got a shocking spark. All week, the talk was about the Bears' advantage on special teams but Tramon Williams' 41-yard punt return set up the Packers at the Chicago 44 with 6:05 to go in the third quarter. Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a 33-yard catch-and-run to set up first-and-goal at the 1 but the drive stalled.
In the T-formation, John Kuhn was stuffed. On second down, coach Mike McCarthy went to some trickery, with Rodgers faking a sneak and throwing a lateral to a streaking Brandon Jackson, but the ball was low and Jackson did well to make the grab but lost 2 yards. On third-and-goal, Rodgers got uneasy in the pocket and was sacked by Tommie Harris just before he could unload the ball to an open Kuhn. So, it was a chip-shot field goal and a 3-3 tie.
Chicago's next drive went nowhere, with sacks by Howard Green and Erik Walden. Then the Packers finally struck.
On third-and-3, Rodgers hit Donald Driver for 21 yards. On the next snap, Rodgers hit Jennings for 46 yards to the 1 off a play-action fake to Kuhn. This time, the Packers didn't mess around, with Lee wide open after a fake to Kuhn, with the touchdown giving Green Bay a 10-3 lead.
From there, the defense slammed the door. Chicago's ensuing possession was a three-and-out punt. Its next drive got a first down but ended with back-to-back sacks by Walden and Clay Matthews. Then came the final drive, which Collins ended with his interception.
All told, Chicago managed 227 yards and went three-and-out seven times.
With Tampa Bay's victory over New Orleans in the noon games eliminating the possibility of backing into the playoffs, it was do-or-die for the Packers. And they proceeded to drop the ball on the moment for most of the first three quarters.
On the Packers' opening possession, Jackson dropped a dump-off pass that would have converted a third-and-2 and moved the ball inside the Bears' 40. On the next drive, Driver fumbled at the Bears' 35. And on their final possession before halftime, Jennings toasted cornerback Tim Jennings with a post-corner route but dropped what almost certainly would have been a 50-yard touchdown pass, and James Jones followed suit by dropping a third-and-3 pass that Rodgers probably threw too hard considering the short distance the ball traveled.
So, while the Packers had the edge in yards (142-130), they trailed 3-0 at halftime because the Bears had four plays of 20-plus yards, including a 27-yard reception by Matt Forte after Cutler barely escaped a sack by Clay Matthews.
While the Packers couldn't catch anything, the Bears certainly did. On the Packers' first drive after intermission, Charles Tillman made a brilliant diving interception and wove through traffic to return the ball to the Packers' 15. But Green Bay's defense rose to the occasion, forcing a holding and stopping the next two plays in their tracks. On third-and-19, Charlie Peprah picked off Cutler in the end zone.
Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson celebrate after the game. Morry Gash/AP Images
As good as the Packers' defense played, the offense had to score to win the game. Jennings, who dropped a touchdown pass in the first half, beat cornerback Zack Bowman on a wheel route and Rodgers fit the ball between Bowman and safety Danieal Manning up the right sideline. The result was a 46-yard gain to the 1 that set up the Rodgers-to-Lee touchdown.
Erik Walden in a way personifies the season. On a team riddled with injuries, Walden was unemployed when the Packers came calling after season-ending injuries to outside linebackers Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga. Walden wound up with two sacks and spied Cutler to limit his scrambling ability.
Seven: The number of three-and-out punts forced by the Packers' defense.
Charles Woodson, on the playoffs: "I like our chances. We feel good about our team. We've had some down moments this year, we've had a lot of injuries, but if you look at this team, we just kept fightin' and now we find ourselves with a chance to get into the playoffs and make some noise. We feel good about our chances."
In the other NFC North game, Brett Favre spent the final game of his prolific career on the bench as the Detroit Lions beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-13 at Ford Field. The teams finished tied for the cellar at 6-10, but the Lions closed with a four-game winning streak. "I would have liked to have played," said Favre, who had passed his post-concussion testing. "The wise choice was not to play. I was OK with it."
The other things you might have missed
-- The Bears were playing to win, just like coach Lovie Smith said on Wednesday. Even after Cutler was slow to get up after being sacked by Clay Matthews midway through the fourth quarter, Smith said he never considered changing his plan. "Why would we do that? I mean, there's a game on the line, we're trying to win a football game. No, that was never part of the mind-set at all. We have a week off and we saw it like that. Last time we were in the position, we had a lot of guys banged up and we kept some guys out and we didn't play the entire club. But for us, we didn't have any injuries. Great time for us to get some work in and try to improve."
-- Cullen Jenkins was inactive for a fourth consecutive game because of a calf strain but was hopeful he'd practice on Wednesday and play against Philadelphia on Sunday. The other inactives: Graham Harrell (third quarterback), Atari Bigby, John Kuhn, Josh Gordy, Frank Zombo, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Nick McDonald.
-- The Packers finished 7-1 at home to run their home mark to 11-1 in the last 12 games and an NFC-best 26-8 over the last 34.
-- With its third touchdown-free performance of the season, the defense allowed a second-ranked 15.0 points per game. Pittsburgh (14.5) won the scoring title. It's the Packers' best defensive ranking since the Super Bowl XXXI champions yielded merely 13.1 per game in 1996.
-- Remember that 18-penalty debacle at Chicago in Week 3? Green Bay's 78 accepted penalties were the fewest by the team since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
-- Greg Jennings (76), James Jones (51) and Donald Driver (50) all reached 50 catches, marking the first time in team history that three receivers hit that mark.
-- Aaron Rodgers finished with a passer rating of 101.2, becoming the first quarterback in franchise history to top a 100 rating in back-to-back seasons. Also, his 65.7 completion percentage is the second-best in team history behind Brett Favre's 66.5 in 2007, and his 12,394 passing yards are the second-most in NFL history by a quarterback in his first three seasons as a starter, trailing only Kurt Warner's 12,612. However, with 3,922 yards for the season, Rodgers failed to become the first player to top 4,000 yards in his first three seasons as a starter.
-- The Packers rushed 23 times for 60 yards, a 2.6-yard average, with a long of just 8 yards. Rodgers led the way with 21 on seven carries. The Bears were prepared for John Kuhn, who gained 0 yards on four attempts.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.