Five things we learned from watching the Bears pull out a rather-improbable win over the error-prone Packers at Solider Field ...
1. I'm still not sure how the Bears have found their way to 3-0 for the first time since 2006, but I do know they're the last and most unlikely team to be perfect in the NFC. This Chicago team is living something of a charmed existence so far in 2010; and in its own way, this game deserves to be right there alongside the Week 1 win over the Lions, in terms of winning with good fortune. It's true that Chicago hasn't played a complete game yet, but it's also true the Bears haven't lost yet, either. Would you rather be lucky or good?
Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler was his team's poster child for this peculiar game. He threw one interception against Green Bay, but it could have easily been five. The Packers dropped two passes that were right in their hands (Nick Collins and Charles Woodson) and penalties wiped out two other Green Bay picks. When you add in Green Bay's team-record 18 penalties for 152 yards (breaking a record set in 1945), and the Packers' special-team lapses, this had the feel of a self-inflicted Green Bay loss more than an impressive Chicago victory.
Relax, Bears fans. I applaud Chicago's resiliency and its opportunistic style of play against the more talented Packers. The Bears made the most of what they had to work with Monday night. But I still can't see Chicago keeping this kind of mojo going throughout the season, looking downright outmatched in some parts of every game, but still finding a way to win. It happened against Detroit, in Chicago's shaky second half. It happened at Dallas, where the Bears started the game looking overmatched on the offensive line. And it happened against Green Bay, a team that dominated Chicago statistically for most of the night.
But at 3-0, the Bears look to be in pretty good shape for turning this streak into an even longer run. In the next six weeks, Chicago plays at the Giants, at Carolina, Seattle, Washington and at Buffalo, with a bye thrown in, as well. That's the makings of a 7-1 first half, maybe 6-2 in a worst-case scenario. The Bears don't face another NFC North foe until Week 10, when Minnesota visits. Lucky may be prevailing over good right now in Chicago, but I have a feeling the Bears will take it and offer no apologies.
2. If Green Bay's Super Bowl dreams are to come true this season, Monday night's showing simply can't happen again. I'm still convinced the Packers are the class of the NFC North and their dominance will show over the course of a 16-game season. But Green Bay self-destructed in so many ways against the Bears, and maybe getting this kind of early season wake-up call will wind up ensuring that overconfidence doesn't seep into the Packers' locker room.
On top of all the penalties and missed interceptions, Green Bay's special teams contributed mightily to the loss. Chicago blocked one Packers field goal attempt, and both Bears touchdowns were either set up by or scored by punt returner Devin Hester. Throw in the critical fourth-quarter fumble by Packers receiver James Jones, and Green Bay seemingly did everything in its power to make this NFC North showdown a down-to-the-wire thriller.
I'm not sure why Green Bay even gambled and kicked to Hester, but he burned the club, big time, twice. His 28-yard return in the second quarter seemed to rejuvenate the struggling Bears, and set up a 9-yard Cutler scoring pass to tight end Greg Olsen. Later, Hester's 62-yard punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter electrified the Soldier Field crowd and gave Chicago its first lead of the night, at 14-10. It was Hester's first score on a punt return since the final game of 2007, the eighth punt-return TD of his career and 12th return touchdown (kickoffs or punts) since breaking into the league in 2006.
"(Eighteen) penalties, that doesn't cut it,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said in his postgame press conference. "You can't play football like that.''
Not winning football, at least. If the Packers are to fulfill their potential this season, Monday night's meltdown has to provide a reminder their own mistakes might be the greatest enemy they'll face this year.
3. The "new and improved'' Jay Cutler looked a lot like the old Jay Cutler to me at times. I listened and watched all last week as many of my fellow NFL analysts lined up to hail the job Cutler was doing with the surprising 2-0 Bears, identifying him as the biggest reason for Chicago's success. And he was the league's leading passer, entering Week 3.
But that sure looked like the old, careless Cutler against Green Bay. The Bears quarterback sailed some passes, missed some easy throws and took several unnecessary risks. By his own admission, he didn't play anywhere near his best game in finishing 16 of 27 for 221 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
But thanks to the sloppy Packers, Cutler didn't wind up paying for most of his mistakes. Cutler had some very pretty throws -- his 21-yard completion to Olsen on 2nd-and-20 in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty -- and made some big plays when in clutch moments. But you can't live that dangerously every week in the NFL and survive. At the minimum, he threw three passes that should have resulted in Green Bay interceptions, and that would have been enough to get him beat on most nights. It was last season, when he led the NFL with 26 interceptions.
Despite some obvious strides at making better decisions, Cutler remains a work in progress in new coordinator Mike Martz's offense. He still trusts his strong right arm too much, throws off his back foot almost habitually and has too much of a gunslinger's mentality to consistently succeed.
4. Julius Peppers makes an almost obscene amount of money, but he earned it against Green Bay. The stat sheet said the Bears' handsomely paid defensive end finished with just two tackles, no sacks, and that block of a Mason Crosby field goal attempt. But if you watched the game, you know that really doesn't begin to tell the story.
Green Bay knew Peppers had to be accounted for on every play, and he gave Packers tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton fits throughout the game. Tauscher held him twice, once wiping a Jermichael Finley touchdown catch off the board. And the Packers offensive line had so many pre-snap movement penalties, owing to the presence of Peppers, his pass-rush skills and the crowd noise.
Entering Week 3, Peppers had totaled just one tackle, one sack (of Detroit's Matthew Stafford in the opener), with a forced fumble and a couple passes defensed. That doesn't look like much return on Chicago's huge investment, but Peppers clearly influences the game even when he's not showing up on the stat sheet. Both the Packers and the rest of us got another vivid reminder of that Monday night.
5. Neither of these teams can run the ball worthy of the NFC's Black and Blue division. You know it's not a rushing-dominated game when the respective quarterbacks are the best runners. Cutler paced the Bears with three scrambles for 37 yards, running for gains of 16, 11 and 10 yards, some in key situations. Aaron Rodgers wasn't the Packers' leading rusher, but he had two carries for 20 yards (10.0 yard average), with a 17-yard jaunt and a tough, 3-yard touchdown run to the right front pylon midway through the fourth quarter.
Other than that, the running games were mostly an afterthought. Green Bay, clearly missing the injured Ryan Grant, had just four rushing first downs and 63 yards on 15 carries. The lumbering John Kuhn led the way for the Packers with 31 tough yards on six carries, but Brandon Jackson continues to be a near non-factor, gaining just 12 yards on seven rushes.
The Bears got just 29 yards on 11 carries from Matt Forte, who for once, didn't make much of an impact in the passing game either (2 catches, 14 yards). And as much fanfare as the Chester Taylor signing got in the offseason, the Bears' No. 2 back ran just three times for nine yards against the Packers, giving him a paltry 44 yards on 16 carries through his first three games in Chicago.
On offense, both the Packers and Bears will apparently go as far as their passing games this season. Neither team has threatened anyone on the ground so far in 2010.