Rough Road Ahead For The Packers
One game. One drive. One play.
That’s all it took to change the fortunes of two teams and perhaps many more as the postseason looms.
Lambeau Field was buzzing when the rivalry with the Bears was renewed. The Packers were looking good despite a host of injuries, and had won four games to sit at 5-2. Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden mentioned all the great stats Aaron Rodgers had against the NFC North (24-7) and the Bears (six wins in a row). One of the injured Packers, receiver James Jones, was back, while Lance Briggs and Jay Cutler were still out for the Bears. The signs were all positive for Green Bay.
Rodgers led the Pack down the field easily on a great drive. Then, on third down, he went right, looking for a receiver in the end zone, and was driven to the ground onto his left shoulder. He didn’t get up right away.
The Packers had to settle for a field goal. Rodgers injured his non-throwing shoulder and didn’t return to the game. It’s not clear how serious the injury is or long he’ll be out.
Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t great either. He didn’t look very comfortable, unlike his counterpart, Josh McCown, who was effective and workmanlike, if not brilliant, in only his second full game as a starter this year. He picked apart a Packers secondary that appeared to be better this year. So much for that notion.
McCown got started right away. He spread it around to Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, mixed with runs by Matt Forte. No mistakes in a perfect drive. Marshall scored a touchdown and the Bears lead 7-3.
On the following drive, one of the less touted differences between Rodgers and his backup was manifested. The much shorter Wallace threw a pass and it was batted and intercepted by Julius Peppers, not long after the oracle of The Book of Jon had elucidated how important it was for the Bears to recover their pass rush. (The team had only nine sacks for the season before the game started.)
But this game would not be settled easily, and the Packers didn’t just pack it in. The Packers stuffed the Bears on the short field, and the Packers blocked the ensuing punt. James Starks later ran it in from the 32, so it was 10-7 Packers in the second lead change.
Against Rodgers, many teams use a cover-two with the safeties deep. Rodgers would beat that by calling an audible to a run. But the Bears would force Wallace to beat them, putting eight men in the box.
Meanwhile, McCown played well enough to make serious observers wonder if he should stay in next week when Cutler’s recovered and in line to start. He’s accurate, makes decisions quickly and throws the ball away instead of putting it up for grabs. (Hey, Cutler, you listening?) Add to that the obvious fact that the Bears offensive line is much improved, the running game is strong and the team has three great targets, Marshall, Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.
But for all that, the game was in the balance, and Green Bay pulled out all the stops. The Packers defense made some plays and forced the Bears to go for a field goal on the final drive before the half, and the Bears led at halftime 17-10.
Green Bay scored on a short field to open the second half, and showed some brass (or desperation) by kicking onsides. They recovered and ended up hitting a field goal for a 20-17 lead.
That was all they would score. Eddie Lacy had a great game rushing with 150 yards but the passing attack just wasn’t there. Worse, the Packers seemed unable to stop the Bears.
The Bears, like the Packers, ran up and down the field. Forte very nearly matched Lacy’s rushing total, and McCown had 270 yards through the air, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Chicago has had to use a backup quarterback more than Green Bay the past few seasons, and it showed. (Quick, Bears fans, tell me who’s been a backup for them. Can’t remember? Or are you just trying oh so hard to forget?) This time they’ve gotten it right. McCown also had a good game against Washington in the game before their bye; it was the defense that lost that game.
Rodgers, meanwhile, hadn’t missed a game in nearly three years. The Packers just weren’t ready for a backup at quarterback.
This was a huge game in many ways. The Packers could’ve maintained a lead in the division, and now they’re tied with the Bears and Lions, 5-3 and 2-1. I don’t like their chances against either foe without Rodgers. If you can’t stop Marshall and Jeffery, how are you going to stop Megatron?
Before this game, the Packers seemed to be getting lined up for a great postseason, at least if they could get everyone healthy. Now Rodgers is out, and the Packers added offensive lineman T.J. Lang and linebacker Andy Mulumba to an injury list that also includes Clay Matthews and Jermichael Finley.
But there’s an elephant in the room. The question I had through the whole game was: Where in the world are the two defenses? They both got pushed around. The Packers never showed the ability to stop either the pass or the run. In fact, the game probably should’ve ended up 30-20 instead of 27-20; the Bears were close to a score when offensive holding was called. Jon Gruden said, “I’ve seen a lot worse.” That’s being diplomatic. It was a bad call, which was particularly curious because so few penalties were called overall.
But the Bears defense wasn’t much better. It’s not quite clear how the Packers could rush so well when the Bears stacked the box.
These are not the Packers of Ray Nitschke or Willie Wood. These are not the Bears of Dick Butkus or Brian Urlacher.
If I were the Lions, I’d be smacking my lips thinking, “We should beat both these teams and win the division.” Packers and Lions and Bears, oh my.
The 49ers must feel a lot better, too. They’ve seen the Seahawks nearly lose at home to a winless team. Now they see the Packers vulnerable on both sides of the ball. They appear to me to be the best team in the NFC.
Still, the Packers have proved to be a resilient bunch in the past and are battle-tested. Once more unto the breach.