High-flying Packers prove a point vs. Chicago
For a brief instant in the second quarter Sunday night, the Packers' playoff lives flashed before their eyes. After completing a little dump-off pass in the flat, all-world QB Aaron Rodgers came up shaking his throwing hand, after he smacked it on the helmet of a rushing Chicago lineman.
Rodgers shot a quick glance at the sideline and waved to the trainers as if to say, "I'm fine."
Yea, I guess so.
This was a clicking-on-all-cylinders performance for the Packers, thanks to Rodgers and a wounded offensive line that dominated Chicago's strong pass rush. With it Green Bay wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC -- an inevitability, despite a Week 15 letdown against the Chiefs.
The nature of the NFL's 16-game race to the finish is that each week's results usually are met with some level of overreaction. Such was the case with Green Bay's loss in Kansas City last week.
Did the Chiefs come up with a great defensive game plan? Absolutely.
But did they unlock the key to beating Green Bay, laying the foundation for other Packers opponents to build upon? It sure didn't look like it Sunday night.
Kansas City's defensive strategy -- relying on the defensive line to generate a pass rush, pressing Green Bay's receivers in man coverage and dropping two safeties deep -- can work against the Packers. It requires, however, a defense to turn in a near-flawless performance, with some help from a few Packers mistakes here and there.
Chicago has some pieces that can -- and in the past have -- stifle Green Bay's offense. When Rodgers locks in like he did Sunday, though, it doesn't matter.
Rodgers completed passes to eight different receivers, with his best effort (by far) coming on a 55-yard scoring strike to Jordy Nelson in the third quarter. As the Bears tried to pressure Rodgers, the Green Bay QB rolled right, then flipped a perfect spiral downfield to a wide-open Nelson, who caught it in stride and streaked into the end zone.
We can't go any further, either, without showing a little more love to the aforementioned offensive line. Already down starting tackle Chad Clifton, the Packers then lost Bryan Bulaga in last week's game at Kansas City. Bulaga's replacement, Derek Sherrod, lasted just a few minutes against the Chiefs before suffering a season-ending broken leg.
So, Sunday, the Packers shifted T.J. Lang to right tackle and dropped Evan Dietrich-Smith in at left guard. One week after Kansas City destroyed Green Bay's offense on the strength of Tamba Hali's pass rush, the Packers gave up absolutely nothing to Julius Peppers and Chicago's rush.
They came into Lambeau Field losers of four straight and saw their slim playoff hopes disappear on Christmas night. Josh McCown, replacing Caleb Hanie at QB, provided a little spark for the offense, while Khalil Bell rushed for 121 yards. Those were inconsequential bright spots on a disappointing night.
Still, it's hard to fault the Bears for this one. The Packers had something to prove after last week -- especially the offense, which had been downright silly for a full year or so, until running into Kansas City.
Is that all it takes to dent a team's reputation? One subpar game?
The Packers had won 19 in a row, including a Super Bowl, between its last loss (Dec. 19, 2010 at New England) and last Sunday's. And last week, even as the offense flopped, Green Bay was one late defensive stop away from getting the ball back with a chance to win.
It is true that Green Bay has some questions heading into the postseason -- namely, if the defense can hold up if it cannot force a turnover and how the offensive line might deal with a physical team like San Francisco.
There simply are not any guarantees in the NFL. Could the Packers lose before repeating as Super Bowl champions? No doubt.
But it is hard to imagine it happening when you see Green Bay's offense play like it did Sunday night. When Rodgers finds a groove and the Packers are focused, there are a very tiny group of teams capable of hanging with them.