And just like in this most mediocre of divisions, the Green Bay Packers are back in the NFC North title chase.
In an impressive rebound performance, the Packers decked the Chicago Bears 37-3 on Sunday at Lambeau Field and forged a three-way tie with the Minnesota Vikings, who lost at Tampa Bay 19-13. The Packers, Bears and Vikings are 5-5.
Just about everything that went wrong in last week's loss at the Metrodome was cured on Sunday against the rival Bears. That starts with the play of the offensive line, which allowed Rodgers to take a beating against the Vikings and took out their frustration against Chicago.
Ryan Grant had 100 rushing yards by halftime and finished with 145 of the Packers' 200. Grant's 18-yard run set up the Packers' second touchdown, and his 22-yard run on the Packers' second possession of the third quarter set up a touchdown that put Green Bay in command at 24-3. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers generally had time and threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Packers' defense held a potent Bears offense without a touchdown. Green Bay, with the league's 28th-ranked rushing defense anchored by new middle linebacker A.J. Hawk, held gifted rookie runner Matt Forte to merely 64 yards after Minnesota and Tennessee combined for 398 the previous two weeks.
What a difference a week makes after crushing and error-plagued last-play losses to the Titans and Vikings.
"We really played some very good football throughout the season, and today we were able to put it all together for four quarters," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a credit to the staff, to the players. They just stayed the course. We had an excellent week of practice, and we've really been practicing extremely well the last couple weeks. It carries over to Sundays. We believe in that. We played at a high level, and I was proud of the guys."
The story of the game was the dominating effort by the Packers' offense. The Packers made plenty of hay on runs behind left tackle Chad Clifton and left guard Daryn Colledge, and used that left-heavy attack to set up misdirection runs to the right. Grant, who hadn't had a run longer than 17 yards since Week 1, ripped off runs longer than that in each of the first three quarters.
Rodgers, sacked four times apiece by the Vikings and Titans, watched most of Sunday's game from his feet. The Packers relied on quick passes against a Bears secondary apparently afraid of getting beat deep, and that allowed Rodgers to hit Greg Jennings and Donald Driver for a bunch of easy completions.
On the Packers' first touchdown drive, Rodgers completed 6-of-6 passes for 61 yards, including completions of 16 and 14 yards to Driver and an easy 3-yard scoring strike to Jennings on a slant against Corey Graham.
The Bears answered with a field goal, then thwarted a potential scoring drive when Brian Urlacher stayed with Driver on a deep route down the middle and made an interception at the 10-yard line. But the Packers' maligned run defense stuffed Forte on third-and-1.
For the first time this season, Rodgers led a touchdown drive to end a half. Taking over at their 35 with 4:22 remaining in the second quarter, the Packers marched 65 yards to lead 14-3. Rodgers converted a third-and-4 with an 18-yard completion to James Jones, and Grant carried the ball six times. His 18-yard run around left end – keyed on blocks by Clifton, Driver and fullback Korey Hall -- set up a first-and-goal at the 4, and Grant scored on the next play as center Scott Wells and right guard Jason Spitz overpowered the Bears' defensive line.
"They should be very proud of the way they played," Grant said of his blockers.
Bears coach Lovie Smith's bungled management of the clock at the end of the first half handed the Packers a 17-3 halftime lead, and the rout was on in the second half.
Grant's 22-yard run around left end behind a superior block by rookie receiver Jordy Nelson set up Rodgers' 4-yard touchdown pass to Donald Lee off of a great play-action fake to make it 24-3. The Packers' defense added the coup de grace when, on fourth-and-10, Bears quarterback Kyle Orton dropped a shotgun snap and Jason Hunter scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 54 yards for a touchdown to make it 34-3. The score was the team-record seventh on a return by Green Bay's defense this season.
"If there was ever a model for a football game at Lambeau Field," McCarthy said, "we'd like to use this one every week."
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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