Green Bay Packers linebackers Clay Matthews (52) and Brad Jones (59) stuff Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22) during the second quarter of Sunday's game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
NFC playoff picture
1. Atlanta Falcons 12-2
At Lions (4-10)
2. San Francisco 49ers 10-3-1
At Seahawks (9-5)
3. Green Bay Packers 10-4
At Vikings (8-6)
4. Washington Redskins 8-6
At Eagles (4-10)
5. Seattle Seahawks 9-5
6. Minnesota Vikings 8-6
At Texans (12-2)
7. Chicago Bears 8-6
At Cardinals (5-9)
At Lions (4-10)
8. Dallas Cowboys 8-6
At Redskins (8-6)
9. New York Giants 8-6
At Ravens (9-5)
CHICAGO — The Green Bay Packers’ satisfaction was thick in the visitors’ locker room at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon.
They had just clinched back-to-back NFC North Division titles by vanquishing their oldest rival, the Chicago Bears, 21-13. They’d done it to cap a Packers-Bears week that was more eventful than usual after Bears receiver Brandon Marshall had called out the Packers and their secondary.
Coming to Chicago’s lakefront and clinching the division title over the second-place Bears had to be one of those moments of supreme professional satisfaction.
“This game always means so much to our players, our organization, our fans,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We did not disappoint today.”
But the NFL is about far more than division championships, which are nice but not necessary. The Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season as a wild card. So McCarthy spoke even closer to his heart later in his press conference, when he turned to the coming weeks.
“It’s great that we won the (division) championship today,” McCarthy said. “I feel good about it. I’m not trying to diminish anything here, but we’re just getting started. We feel that way as a football team. I’m not trying to be arrogant. We feel we have a lot better football in front of us. This is an extremely important game for everybody involved today, but we fully expected to come in here and win this thing.”
With their 11th divisional title wrapped up, the Packers (10-4) are looking to upgrade from their No. 3 seeding in the NFC to the No. 2 spot, which carries a first-round playoff bye. The San Francisco’ 49ers still hold that spot with a 10-3-1 record after defeating the New England Patriots on Sunday night.
The Packers have won eight of their last nine games and turned around a 2-3 start to be in prime position for the playoffs, though the Atlanta Falcons’ shocking 34-0 blowout of the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon was an eye-opener around the NFL.
The Packers still have a shot at overtaking Atlanta (12-2) for the No. 1 seed, though it’s a long one. They’d have to win their final two games; San Francisco would have to lose at least once; and the Falcons would have to lose their final two games, at Detroit and at home against Tampa Bay.
“We’re sitting great,” Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “Now we want to go for home field. That’s our goal, that’s what we talked about here. We’ve got this one step, let’s try the next step. Win these next two games and see where the chips fall.”
The Bears (8-6) came into this game more undermanned than the Packers. Injuries deprived them of two of their best defensive players (defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings) plus their leader on defense, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
But with hopes of beating out the Packers for the division title, the Bears clearly were looking to win this game by being physically stronger and tougher. For about the first quarter, they were.
Their game plan was to hammer the run at the Packers, and they did, with halfback Matt Forte carrying on nine of the Bears’ first 14 plays for 43 yards.
The game was scoreless in the middle of the second quarter when the imposing Marshall backed up his mid-week talk with a 15-yard touchdown reception that included a stunning stiff-arm to Packers cornerback Casey Hayward’s helmet. It pinned the rookie to the ground before he could take a shot at the tackle. The Bears had a 7-0 lead with 8:03 to play, and this had the makings of an alley fight.
“He caught the ball and started coming outside,” Hayward said of Marshall’s touchdown. “I thought I’d be able to tackle him. Long arms, he’s long. I wasn’t able to get to his body. It was a strong stiff-arm.”
But that was the Bears’ high point, and from then on the Packers controlled the game.
In fact, the Bears’ determination to be the physical aggressor ended up costing them. They were looking for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall and rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 216) to defeat the Packers’ secondary with their size and strength, but Jeffery was called for three critical penalties for offensive interference while battling cornerback Sam Shields in the second half.
One of those calls negated a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass from the 1, which meant the Bears ended the drive with a field goal instead of a touchdown. Another wiped out a 36-yard gain with less than 3 minutes to play and the Bears only a touchdown and two-point conversion from tying the game at 21.
“I’m very, very surprised, but also very happy the defensive back got those calls,” said Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, who missed his seventh straight game with a broken collarbone. “Because we never get those calls.
"For Sam to have coverage the way he had today, for the blatant push-offs those guys get away with, to have those calls, that meant a lot to me. I don’t know what it means to Sam, I’m sure it meant a lot to him, too. But I don’t think I’ve gotten three offensive pass interference (calls) in a year. To get three of those today in a crucial game where — yeah, they could have called it either way, they could have not made the call.”
As has become routine since 2009, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers outplayed his counterpart, Jay Cutler. The difference in the two, and in part the Bears’ weak offensive line, were reflected in the Packers more than doubling the Bears in total yards, 391 to 190. Rodgers’ passer rating (116.8) was more than 40 points higher than Cutler’s (72.5).
Rodgers’ only chattering of note was a relatively benign back-and-forth with Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, whereas Cutler had another mini-meltdown on the sideline after his interception. On that late second-quarter play, Cutler appeared to expect receiver Devin Hester to break off his seam route in front of Hayward instead of going behind. Hayward’s easy interception set up the Packers for a short, 23-yard touchdown drive and 14-7 lead at the end of the first half.
Rodgers also combined with receiver Randall Cobb twice to turn seemingly ruined plays into big third-down conversions, something Cutler never was able to do.
One kept alive the Packers’ first touchdown drive, when Rodgers converted a third-and-6 by avoiding untouched blitzing linebacker Nick Roach and while on the run throwing a 31-yard strike to Cobb, who made a spectacular catch along the sideline. The other was the conversion of a third-and-10 in the third quarter when Rodgers spun away from a sack, stepped up and hit Cobb for a 27-yard gain.
“That’s the kind of thing that swings football games,” Packers center Jeff Saturday said.