Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb (18) is picked up by teammate John Kuhn after Cobb scored on a 48-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Aaron Rodgers (background) Sunday against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
Packers' 2014 opponents
New York Jets
NFC East winner (Philadelphia or Dallas)
CHICAGO — Aaron Rodgers has a signature play, and the 2013 Green Bay Packers have new life.
This will be one of and maybe even the image of the Rodgers’ era, similar to Brett Favre’s whirling dervish 40-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe that won the Packers a playoff game in Detroit nearly 20 years ago.
There’s Rodgers, on fourth-and-eight, less than a minute to play, evading Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears’ seven-man blitz. Now Rodgers is outside the pocket, lofting a throw to wide open Randall Cobb, who’d streaked behind a Bears secondary that was guarding against a quick throw.
And there’s the pandemonium on the Packers’ sideline, celebrating a 33-28 victory that stunned the crowd at Soldier Field, won the NFC North Division title and sends the Packers into the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
“It’s one of those games we’ll all remember,” fullback John Kuhn said. “We’ll all remember hugging each other. We’ll all remember that last completion. This is what you live to play the game for.”
So now the Packers, despite a difficult 8-7-1 season, find themselves hosting the San Francisco 49ers in a wild card playoff game Sunday at Lambeau Field. Theirs is the worst record of all the teams that qualified for the postseason, but with Rodgers back this week from the broken collarbone that sidelined him the previous seven games, the Packers don’t have the vibe of a team that squeaked into the playoffs.
“That’s all we play for, we play to get in and then all the records, you’re 0-0,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “We get a chance to play for our goal. We want to win another Super Bowl. We get to continue our journey. But I like our chances. I like this team. I think this team is mentally tough. We’re wired to play 60 minutes. I feel good about our chances.”
The 49ers will present a much tougher challenge than Chicago, which saw its season-long problems on defense cost it a division title. San Francisco is seeded only No. 5 of the six NFC qualifiers, but at 12-4 it has to be one of the Super Bowl favorites.
These are the same 49ers who have beaten the Packers three times in the last 15 months, including a 45-31 blowout in a first-round playoff game last season, and again 34-28 in San Francisco in the opener this year. The 49ers have the NFL’s third-ranked defense and a running quarterback in Colin Kaepernick whom the Packers have been unable to solve. He gashed them for 181 yards rushing in the playoffs last season, and when the Packers took away the running and scrambling lanes in the opener this year, he sat in the pocket and put up 412 yards passing and a 129.4 rating.
“I love it,” Pickett said of facing the 49ers. “I wouldn’t pick anyone else. They give us an opportunity to right some of our wrongs in the past. It’s a great opportunity. They’re one of the better teams, and we’ve got an opportunity, and we’ve got them at home, so I love it.”
Said cornerback Tramon Williams: “(Kaepernick) has been (a problem), but it will be a new year when we play them. We’re going to go back to work, see what we need to do to play them better. Only time will tell.”
To get there, though, the Packers had to defeat the Bears in a playoff setting where the winner would host a playoff game, and the loser would go home for the offseason.
Despite a cold day with the wind chill at 14 degrees, the game turned into a shootout in the second half, with the Packers relying mainly on Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson to carry their offense, and the Bears turning to all-purpose halfback Matt Forte (157 yards rushing and receiving) to carry theirs.
In his first game in two months, Rodgers put up 318 yards passing and threw several on-the-move darts that separate him from just about any quarterback in the league. Rodgers’ rating was mediocre (85.2) because of two first-half interceptions, but by the second half he was running the Packers’ no-huddle offense like he hadn’t missed a snap this year.
When Rodgers needed a play he usually went to Nelson, who finished with a game-high 10 catches (on 15 targets) for 161 yards. That included a six-yard stop route that converted a fourth-and-one on the game-winning drive. Rodgers also converted a third-and-three on that drive with a five-yard scramble of his own.
“I was throwing the ball the way I wanted to,” Rodgers said. “I missed some, but I think the weather and the cold and the wind had something to do with that. It’s a tough place to play in December here. I didn’t feel any of the rust. I just missed a couple passes and unfortunately they went for interceptions. But it was a tough environment. I’m going to get better, I think, as the weeks go on and I continue to get back into the swing of things, but that (third-down) run was just reactionary there.”
Rodgers, in fact, said he wanted to go to Nelson on fourth-and-eight from the Bears’ 48. When he saw the Bears line up with seven men at the line of scrimmage, he figured Nelson would be his best shot on a slant from the slot if the Bears sent all seven rushers.
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker rushed all seven but brought up a safety to cut off the quick throw to Nelson. And the all-out blitz caused confusion on the Packers’ line, which had only six blockers to protect against seven rushers.
Kuhn made a protection call that Rodgers and at least some of the offensive linemen didn’t hear. But when Peppers came off the edge unblocked, Kuhn made one of the plays of the game by diving at the 6-foot-7 defensive end’s left leg. He got just enough of Peppers to give Rodgers the chance to jump to his left, outside the pocket.
At the same time, Cobb ran past safety Chris Conte, who bit on a possible short pass. Rodgers pounced when he saw the wide open receiver, and the Packers had the game.
“Obviously Aaron (was the difference),” Williams said. “He had the chance to make the last play for us. He knew they were coming with an all-out blitz. He knew what move he had to make. He made Julius Peppers miss, one of the best guys out there.
“Once you make a guy miss against an all-out blitz and you’re able to buy time, the coverage is going to break down fast on the back end. Most (defensive backs) are taught to play to the first move when you come with an all-out blitz, because the ball supposedly has to come out fast. Once he broke the pocket I think somebody came out of coverage. Randall was streaking wide open and he laid out there to him.”