Monday September 26th, 2011

CHICAGO -- Dispatches from the Packers' more-impressive-than-it-sounds 27-17 win over the befuddling Bears at Soldier Field ...

• The scary part, at least for the rest of the NFC, is that Green Bay is 3-0, and yet things have gone far from perfectly for the defending Super Bowl champions. The Packers can play much better than they have in September wins over New Orleans, Carolina and Chicago, and they know it.

"That's the thing, man, I think all the players know that,'' Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley said after the Packers beat the Bears for the third time in a row this calendar year. "Our best football is in front of us. People say we're playing like we're in midseason form, but at the same time, the people inside the locker room don't think we're in midseason form right now. Our best football is ahead.''

The Packers have beaten the Saints by eight, the Panthers by seven and the Bears by 10. That's the good news. The bad news is that Green Bay seems to be letting teams hang around all day against it, as the Bears managed to do even though it was 27-10 early in the fourth quarter and Chicago fans were starting to stream for the exits. The win over the Saints took until the game's final play to secure, and Green Bay had to rally out of an early 13-0 hole to win 30-23 last week at Carolina.

"Well, the big picture is that we have three ugly wins, but they're wins, so thank God,'' said Packers veteran cornerback Charles Woodson. "It's easier to build off of wins than to lose. I think what we've been able to do is have some close games that have come down to the wire, and we've been able to make plays that we needed to make to win the game. What we take from it is that no matter where we are in the game, with what's going on, we can pull it out. The season is only going to get tougher for us. So I feel that we're building the kind of team that can stand the test of a hard season and just continue to stack wins.''

The Packers never really needed to pull this one out, given they raced out to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and never let the Bears get closer than seven points. But there is a certain confidence that can be gained from winning with less than your "A'' game some weeks, and the Packers seem to be coping well with the reality that every team they face this season will be supremely motivated to give them their best shot in an attempt to knock off the champs. The Packers and Lions are tied for the division lead, two full games ahead of the third-place Bears (1-2), and Green Bay and Detroit won't meet until Thanksgiving Day in Motown. If Washington loses at Dallas on Monday night, only the Packers and Lions will be undefeated in the NFC.

"It's exciting. We're still not clicking on both sides of the ball and on special teams,'' said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, after Sunday's rematch of last season's NFC title game, which was also won by Green Bay at Soldier Field. "I think we have the potential to get better. I don't know how many wins that means or playoffs, but I know we can play better football. And the standard we have set around Green Bay is excellence.''

Nothing could have made Rodgers and the Packers happier on Sunday than the performance of Finley, the fourth-year tight end who missed all but the first five games of Green Bay's Super Bowl run with a season-ending knee injury. Finley came into the Bears game not having gotten a sniff of the end zone in almost a full year, since catching a touchdown in a Week 4 win at home against Detroit last season.

Finely was a scoring machine Sunday, burning the Cover-2-loving Bears for all three of Green Bay's touchdowns. Elite tight ends are supposed to devour the gap in the middle of the field that Cover-2 schemes leave exposed, and Finley didn't miss his opportunity, scoring on catches of 6, 7 and 10 yards, the last of which came early in the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach at 27-10.

"It feels great, man,'' said Finley, who finished with seven catches for 85 yards. "I put the work in in the offseason, and I guess it's paying off right now. But this is just the beginning, and I'm pretty happy about the season. My goal was go out there and catch every ball thrown to me, and I guess, look at the film, that's what I did.''

Finley no doubt made a lot of fantasy owners giddy on Sunday, even Packers Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, who as he was leaving Green Bay's locker room quipped that the tight end earned his fantasy squad "34 or 35'' points. I think he was kidding, but who knows? Finley knew this much: It was the best day he had ever had in a football uniform. No matter the color.

"I've never gotten this is my career, Little League, Pop Warner, anything,'' he said. "This is my first three touchdown game. It feels awesome.''

For Green Bay, awesome seems like just the start of things this season. The Packers haven't lost a meaningful game since Week 15 of last year, and the winning streak is up to nine. Rodgers and Co. seem like they're getting used to this, and even winning ugly can turn contagious.

• Packers cornerback Sam Shields and Bears receiver Devin Hester tangled in the fourth quarter, with Hester earning a costly unnecessary roughness penalty that hurt Chicago's chances of mounting a comeback from a 27-17 deficit. The irony is that Shields and Hester are friends and former University of Miami alumni who often hang out together in the offseason.

When asked if he was ticked off at Hester, Shields said: "I am, but that's what goes on all the time in football. Hey, at UM, we fight all the time like that. So it's nothing new. He pushed me during a route, and he kept pushing me in the face, and I pushed back. He kept pushing and he just got caught.''

I asked Shields if he was surprised things got that chippy with his friend and fellow 'Cane? "I was, because I thought Devin wasn't that kind of player,'' he said. "Today he was kind of playing dirty, and not just to me, [Packers cornerback] Tramon [Williams] too. But that's football. That's going to happen in football. It's a sport, and we're still buddies.''

• Maybe Hester got frustrated because Green Bay did a better job on pass defense that it had in its first two games of the season. The Packers had averaged a league-worst 400 yards per game allowed through the air in wins against New Orleans and Drew Brees, and Carolina and rookie Cam Newton (who threw for 432 yards last week).

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler finished 21-of-37 for a respectable 302 yards, but the Packers picked him off twice (second-year safety Morgan Burnett got both), sacked him three times and held him to just a pair of touchdown passes and a 78.9 rating.

"Taking nothing away from the previous quarterbacks, but I think we did a better job with our assignments today,'' Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "We made the [Bears offense] really one-dimensional, and they were a little predictable with the play-calling.''

A little predictable? How so? "I mean, when you only have [13] yards rushing, it's pretty obvious what you're going to try to do,'' Raji said.

• That is not a misprint. The Chicago Bears, the club Lovie Smith once said gets off the team bus running the ball, rushed 12 times for 13 yards against Green Bay, a 1.1 yard average. According to the Bears public relations staff, that's the lowest one-game rushing total in Chicago since at least 1960. Cutler led the team with 11 yards on three scrambles, including a meaningless nine-yard run when the outcome was no longer in doubt, while Matt Forte somehow carried nine times for two yards (0.2), with a long gain of five.

Offensive balance, anyone? In their 30-13 loss at New Orleans in Week 2, the Bears ran just 12 times for 60 yards, with two rushing first downs. They threw the ball 45 times against the Saints with Cutler taking six sacks and scrambling once (52 pass play calls), so the pass-heavy imbalance that Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has been known for throughout his career has again surfaced. Cutler threw 37 passes, was sacked three times and ran three times against Green Bay.

Cutler was asked if the game plan called for so few runs, or if he audibled out of the runs to pass plays?

"I don't audible, so no,'' Cutler said, quite revealingly. "You're going to have to ask someone else about that. I don't do the game plan.''

Someone asked Cutler if the Bears could win with this pass-heavy approach? "We are 0-2 doing this, so it's not looking very good,'' he said. "Until we put together a full game and we're consistent and we're balanced, it's going to be tough for us to win, even though the defense is playing lights out.''

Forte led the Bears with seven catches for 80 yards, but it's almost as if the Bears stopped trying to run once the schedule matched them up with the prolific passing attacks featured by the Saints and Packers. And next week brings a visit from Carolina and rookie quarterback Newton, he of the two 400-yard passing games this season.

"We didn't run the ball because we weren't able to,'' Forte said. "We just played bad out there. Obviously, when they shut the run down, you're going to try to throw the ball a little more. So it just didn't happen. We came out pretty well in the first game, but the last two weeks we haven't played well as an offense at all.''

• The Packers punt coverage team was victimized -- sort of -- by one of the more bizarre plays any one could ever remember seeing. With Green Bay up 27-17 and just over a minute remaining, the Bears seemed to have scored a touchdown on an 89-yard Johnny Knox punt return. The play was so strange looking because while Green Bay's coverage men all ran toward the dangerous Hester over on the right side of the field, Knox fielded the Tim Masthay punt on the other side of the field and ran straight down the sideline with a couple of blockers in front.

The big special teams play was negated by a controversial holding call on Bears cornerback Corey Graham, but no one was quite sure why the Packers coverage team failed to follow the flight of the ball and instead rushed toward Hester.

"We were punting left [toward Knox] -- that was the call in the huddle,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Frankly, it was poor awareness by our coverage unit.''

Frankly it was a brain cramp that could have cost Green Bay, could have made it a three-point game and could have forced the Packers to defend a last-minute onside kick for the second week in a row.

"That was the most incredible play I've ever seen in seven years [in the NFL], and being a sports fan in that situation,'' Rodgers said. "I think everyone on the sideline was wondering what the heck just happened as [Knox] was running down the sideline with two blockers in front of him. Everybody went with Devin, and I think fell off Johnny. It was incredible.''

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