Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb hauls in the winning touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette Media
CHICAGO — This was the moment Randall Cobb spent the past two months working toward.
With the game on the line and the Green Bay Packers’ playoff chances hanging in the balance, returning quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit a returning Cobb on a 48-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-8 to turn back Chicago 33-28 and launch Green Bay into the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
Activated from temporary injured reserve on Saturday, it couldn’t have been a better welcome back present for Cobb.
Prior to Sunday, the 23-year-old receiver hadn’t played in a game since breaking his tibia in a 19-17 win over Baltimore. The Packers were cautious in his first game back, but Cobb turned his only two targets into 55 receiving yards and the Packers' only two passing touchdowns, including the dramatic finale.
“Oh my gosh, it was in the air for so long,” said Cobb, who missed a total of 10 games. “I had so many thoughts going through my head, you better not drop it, if you drop it they’re going to kill you, everybody. You better catch it, just catch the ball, body catch it if you have to, do whatever you have to do and I was able to make the catch.”
The offense was noticeably different with Rodgers, back from a broken collarbone, and Cobb on the field.
The two also connected for the team’s first passing touchdown in the third quarter off a 7-yard strike to take a 20-14 lead. On the game-winning score, Cobb saw the safety come flat-footed and peeled off his hook route into a wide-open vertical route in the seam.
The return of Cobb, even on a situational basis, enabled the offense to move Jordy Nelson back onto the perimeter, aiding him in registering a season-high 161 receiving yards on 10 catches.
“Randall’s worked extremely hard in the training room trying to get back,” Nelson said. “With his injury, it was one of those that was still up in the air, didn’t know, and obviously we were in a situation not even knowing if we were going to have an opportunity to continue to play. So to get both of those guys back and obviously play a huge part says a lot about them and the way they prepare and stayed into the team and into the offense and knowing what to do and just making plays.”
The road back to the field had plenty of frustrating moments. Cobb recalled a conversation with the training staff and team doctor Patrick McKenzie a few weeks ago when he told them to just shut him down if he wasn’t going to come back.
The Packers didn’t do that. On Sunday, it paid the ultimate dividends.
“I couldn’t write a better script for that,” Cobb said. “It was a rough ten weeks for me and just to be back on the field was the most gratifying thing for me. To be in that moment at the end of the game and have that opportunity, it’s a blessing. I have to take it that way. I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am.”
A season already littered with the bizarre saw another strange occurrence unfold with 3 minutes, 28 seconds left in the second quarter.
On a first-and-10 play from the Chicago 17, Rodgers was hit in midst of his throw by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, causing the ball to feebly fly forward.
Most assumed it was an incomplete pass, but not Rodgers.
With the sideline yelling furiously and Rodgers nudging him along, second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin picked the ball up and ran it in for a 15-yard touchdown.
The Bears challenged the play, but the officials ruled the ball was coming free before Rodgers’ hand was moving forward to throw it.
“I knew right away that it was an open-end for me,” Rodgers said. “After the Bears linebacker wasn’t able to scoop it up, I kind of; I wasn’t sure whether they were going to wave it off, either way I was going to go and pick up the ball and make sure no one on their team did. When Boykin picked it up, I looked back at (official) Clete (Blakeman) and he was looking at us. I think myself and everyone on the sidelines was telling Boykin to start running. One of the crazier plays I’ve been a part of.”
Boykin didn’t know what was going on but did what he was told. Fullback John Kuhn immediately noticed the referees toss their beanie down, indicating the play was a fumble.
“I haven’t,” said running back Eddie Lacy when asked if he’s seen anything like that before. “Everybody was just standing around, and I was one of them, and he picks it up and runs it in. I’m like, ‘that’s a cool way to score.’”
Lacy’s sprained ankle limited what he could do against the NFL’s worst-ranked run defense, but James Starks was up to the task.
The fourth-year veteran had 11 carries for 88 yards against the Bears, including a 41-yard breakaway that set up Cobb’s third-quarter touchdown pass.
“I was tired. I couldn’t catch my legs,” said Starks, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 89 attempts behind Lacy this season. “I broke one tackle and the offensive line did a great job of setting guys up and I saw the cutback. I saw the safety and made him miss.”
The Packers rushed for 160 yards with Lacy's 21 carries for 66 yards, but the rookie struggled to push off his right ankle. It forced the Packers to split Lacy and Starks’ carries more evenly than they have all season.
Lacy's first NFL regular season still couldn't have been much more impressive. He finished with a franchise-record for rookie rushing yards (1,178 yards) with 11 touchdowns.
“Eddie is just a tough, all-natural football player,” fullback John Kuhn said. “I’m going to nickname him ‘the natural’ because he just goes out there, he doesn’t practice much during the week, but when you get him on game day the guy is an animal.”
■ Mason Crosby earned back every penny of his $2.4 million salary for 2013 after making two more field goals on Sunday and finishing the regular season with career-high efficiency of 89.2 percent.
As part of his August contract restructure, Crosby needed to make 85 percent of his field goals to hit his final benchmark for an additional $800,000.
That wasn’t his focus on Sunday, though. Against Chicago’s dangerous return man Devin Hester, it was Crosby’s responsibility on kickoffs to pin him in the corner of Chicago’s end zone.
Hester had a 49-yard punt return, but managed a relatively harmless 25.4-yard average on five kickoffs. Crosby also nailed two field goals from 27 and 33 yards, but the incentives weren't on his mind.
“It’s not about that. I’m not thinking about what those dollar amounts are,” Crosby said. “It’s more I’m really happy with the percentage and how I finished this year. To finish off with two makes in Chicago and get the win, there’s nothing better than that.”
Crosby's 89.3 percent conversion rate for the season is the second highest in Packers' history behind Jan Stenerud's 91.67 in 1981.
■ Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall combined for 10 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown, but it was the Packers’ secondary that got the final laugh.
It started when Jeffery dropped a critical third-and-17 pass from Jay Cutler deep in Packers’ territory with the Bears leading 28-27 at the time.
The Bears had 38 seconds to answer after Green Bay took a 33-28 lead, but Morgan Burnett deflected an end zone pass for Jeffery, and then Sam Shields picked off Cutler on a Hail Mary to end the game.
“Get the ball on the ground or come up with the ball,” said cornerback Tramon Williams of the instructions on the final play. “Every play they came up with – I think Morgan knocked the ball out and Sam came up with the game-winning play so we did what we had to do.”
■ Inside linebacker Brad Jones was a surprise scratch after originally being listed as probable to play through a sprained ankle that’s been bothering him for the past month.
Jamari Lattimore had four tackles starting in his place. Andy Mulumba started in place of an injured Clay Matthews, who was out after re-breaking his right thumb against Pittsburgh last week.
The Packers’ other inactives were receiver Chris Harper, cornerback Jumal Rolle, offensive linemen Lane Taylor and JC Tretter, and defensive lineman C.J. Wilson.
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