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Rodgers finally shows he can finish

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This might sound like a bit of a reach, but hang with me for a minute while I make the case that this one was far more valuable than just any old season-opening win to the Green Bay Packers. This one, as ugly as it was for most of the night on offense, was exactly what Aaron Rodgers needed, and by extension, what his team needed.

Rodgers and the Packers proved something Sunday night that a blow-out win and a continuation of the cruise control football that Green Bay played for most of the preseason wouldn't have. In beating the Chicago Bears 21-15 (RECAP | BOX) on the strength of a Rodgers-led two-minute drive, with a 50-yard scoring strike to receiver Greg Jennings providing the game-winning points with just 1:11 remaining, the Packers and their young starting quarterback cleared a critical hurdle that eluded them all of last season.

They learned to finish.

In 2008, as well as Rodgers played in his first season as Brett Favre's replacement, those 4,000-plus passing yards of his couldn't disguise the fact the Packers lost a whopping eight games in which they led or were tied with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Time and time again, when Green Bay needed a clutch scoring drive in the two or four-minute offense, Rodgers and the Packers self-destructed in those situations. The 6-10 record that resulted told the story.

Improving his fourth-quarter performance wasn't just a point of emphasis for Rodgers this offseason, it was the point of emphasis. It remained his No. 1 focus from the minute last season ended, until tonight.

"Last year we had chances to win and got ourselves in position to win, but we didn't finish off those drives,'' Rodgers told me this summer at Green Bay's training camp. "It's disappointing, but it definitely has been something we've worked on this offseason. Hopefully we get those opportunities again this year, and then get the job done.''

Lo and behold, opportunity No. 1 came right off the bat, in a game that was billed as a shootout between the NFC North's two brightest young quarterbacks, Rodgers and Chicago's Jay Cutler, but instead conjured up memories of the Black and Blue division's rich history of low-scoring, defensive-dominated football.

But this time, with the Packers trailing 15-13 and facing a Bears defense that had given up virtually nothing all night, failure was not Green Bay's fate. Rodgers and the Packers answered in clutch fashion, driving 72 yards in five plays and 1:24, with Jennings scoring the game-winner on a perfectly thrown play-action bomb by Rodgers on third-and-1 from the 50.

It's the kind of win that could just keep on paying dividends all season.

"You hit it right on the head,'' said Jennings, who beat Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher badly on the deciding touchdown, streaking wide open on a post pattern after Vasher bit on Rodgers' play fake. "This is definitely more valuable of a win to us, because we were able to see where we're at and what we'd do when it's down to nut-crunching time. That's where this game was at, and Aaron came through, and we came through. As a team we really got it done tonight.''

By his own admission, Rodgers looked off for most of the game, and out of sync with the receivers he had locked onto all preseason. Some of it had to do with a ferocious Bears pass rush that sacked him four times, once for a safety, and consistently hurried and harried all night long. Rodgers finished 17 of 28 for 184 yards, with the one touchdown and no interceptions. But the Packers had just 137 yards of total offense through three quarters, and they didn't add to that number substantially until their final drive.

"They got after us up front,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy conceded afterward, standing outside the Green Bay locker room. "(Rodgers) took a lot of hits. You don't want to see your quarterback take a lot of hits. But this will definitely pay dividends in the future for us. That's exactly what I told (him). This kind of win is going to help us down the road. It was definitely rewarding to win this way.''

Rodgers talked this summer about learning to not rush the game in a two-minute situation, but instead taking what the defense gives and fighting the urge to get over-anxious. He did just that against the Bears, staying calm and cool on the game-winning drive, even though Chicago's defense had frustrated him and the Packers play-makers for much of the night.

Originally, Green Bay had a run called for their third-and-1 situation, but Jennings lined up on the wrong side on the play, and Rodgers was forced to call the Packers first timeout with 1:18 remaining. During the timeout, Green Bay changed the play to the pass call that wound up winning the game. The first option was to tight end Donald Lee on the right side, but Rodgers looked him off and went back to Jennings, who had left Vasher far behind on a post pattern down the left side.

"It gives me confidence, obviously,'' Rodgers said of his game-winning drive. "It's good to start a season out in a situation where you're called upon and expected to perform late in the game, and to be able to do it in crunch time when it was needed.

"I was thinking we're due. Due for a good drive. I just told the guys, 'Hey, give me one drive.' I went to the linemen and said, 'Hey, just protect us one drive. Give us some time. We're going to go down and score.' As frustrating as it was at points in the game, and we weren't playing well, I think inside we all felt like we could put together one drive when we needed it.''

The Packers needed this one, and this kind of win, more than any other type of victory. If they are to fulfill the sizable expectations that have suddenly sprung up around them, as they rolled through the preseason looking almost unstoppable, Rodgers had to show himself capable of making plays when the pressure was on. Beating the Bears is never mundane around Green Bay, but how the Packers beat them this time could wind up being more meaningful in the long run than anyone can yet measure.

"This team has more of a swagger (than last year's team),'' Rodgers aid. "A confidence about itself. Our defense played incredibly tonight, and came up with big plays and kept us in the game. With the swagger the defense has, they expect to stop them. Even against a very good quarterback and a talented running back (like Chicago has). But their confidence and swagger has really carried over to the offense.''

The confidence would have been lacking had the Packers failed once again in the fourth quarter of a close game. But with one big play against the Bears on this night, maybe Rodgers and Green Bay has finally learned to finish.

• The story of Rodgers' night obviously wasn't the only fascinating quarterback drama that played out at Lambeau. Chicago's Cutler threw a career-worst four interceptions in his first regular season game as a Bear, which for the time being makes a mockery of his savior status. The last of the picks ended any chance of Chicago staging its own fantastic finish, with Cutler throwing it right to Packers cornerback Al Harris on the first play after Jennings' touchdown.

I don't know about you, but I thought Cutler's play was positively Rex Grossman-esque at times Sunday night, with the Bears quarterback showing an alarming lack of field awareness with his throws. He threw four picks and could have had six if the Packers defenders had better hands.

"It's tough,'' said Cutler, who finished 17 of 36, for 277 yards, but those four interceptions to go with just one touchdown pass and a 43.2 quarterback rating. "I'm sure the city of Chicago is disappointed. I'm disappointed and we have 90 people in the locker room who are disappointed. But we have 15 more (games) to play, and I think we'll ultimately overcome this one and we'll be fine.''

For now, I guess we can cool it a bit on the notion that it's an all-new NFC North, a division suddenly rife with big-name quarterbacks, passing games and the potential to play those point-a-minute scoring fests that are so popular around the rest of the NFL.

As it turns out, reports of the death of the Black and Blue division were greatly exaggerated.

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