CHICAGO – It was like Clay Matthews pulled the play right out of last season.
Like its last trip to Soldier Field, the Green Bay Packers' defense was again getting all it could handle from the Chicago Bears until the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker intervened in the final minutes of Sunday's regular-season opener.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had engineered a conservative, but effective offensive game plan to that point of the game. He blinked only once in the 31-23 loss to the Packers in front of 60,838, but it was more than enough for Matthews to make him pay for the error.
With the Packers clinging to a one-score lead, Matthews' interception of Cutler with a little more than 3 minutes left in regulation successfully ended a threatening Bears' drive. It dismantled their hope of an early NFC North upset, gave the Packers their fifth consecutive win in Chicago and sent Cutler to 1-11 lifetime against Green Bay.
Chicago, which actually outperformed the Packers 402-322 in total yards, was closing in on the red zone when Cutler reverted to his old form. His tendency for turnovers showed itself when his short pass intended for tight end Martellus Bennett instead hit Matthews in stride. He was gone in the blink of an eye.
"As soon as I let it go, I knew we were in trouble," Cutler said afterward.
It reminded many players in the Packers' locker room of last September's 38-17 win over Chicago, which was a shootout in the first half. It wasn't until Matthews' 40-yard pick of Cutler in the third quarter that Green Bay's defense settled in and the Packers finally blew the game open.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense did the rest after Matthews' latest pick, finishing a four-play, 48-yard drive with a 2-yard Eddie Lacy touchdown run that put the team ahead 31-16 with less than two minutes remaining.
Rodgers was again spotless in completing 18-of-23 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair to recently re-signed receiver James Jones. The Bears' new 3-4 defense under coordinator Vic Fangio also struggled to curtail running back Eddie Lacy, who squirmed free for 85 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
It might not have equated to victory if it wasn't for Matthews, whose switch to inside linebacker helped make it possible.
"We were talking about that during halftime," cornerback Casey Hayward said. "It was second half last year around the same time, we found a way to make a play. He had the interception last year and Clay was just talking about, 'This is the time I had my interception last year,' and it just so happened that it happened again.
"That's a momentum changer. That's almost a 14-point momentum changer and Dom called the right play."
The Packers had a good idea of what they were facing with new Bears coach John Fox. So it came as no surprise when he handed the keys to the offense to veteran running back Matt Forte, who sliced the Packers' run defense for 105 yards in the first half alone.
His 141 total rushing yards on 24 carries (5.9 yards per carry) set the tone for Chicago's game plan and its intention to slow down the pace of the game. The Bears executed 71 offensive plays to Green Bay's 53, punting only once the entire game.
Where they struggled was in finishing drives. Chicago was only 1-for-3 in the red zone. Three times the Bears had to settle for Robbie Gould field goals. When they finally went for it in the fourth quarter, the Packers stopped them on fourth-and-goal from the Green Bay 2.
With the Bears trailing 24-16 at the time, Cutler hit receiver Marquess Wilson on a 50-yard completion on third-and-7 after cornerback Sam Shields fell down on the play. In a microcosm of the game, the Packers' defense locked down to hold Chicago out of the end zone on the next four plays.
"That got us back into our groove," said inside linebacker Nate Palmer, who replaced Sam Barrington in the first half. "We needed that stop as a defense and as a team. For us to go out there and stop them on fourth down in the goal line like the one- or two-yard line. That was a jolt for the whole team. It got us going."
The offense went three-and-out after taking over at their own 2. Bears returner Marc Mariani returned Tim Masthay's 43-yard punt 11 yards, giving his offense the ball back at the Packers' 41-yard line with 6:05 remaining and the Bears within one score.
The Bears looked likely to pierce into Packers' territory after Cutler completed a 9-yard pass to Bennett on another third-and-7 conversion. On the next play, however, Matthews darted in front of the pass and took it back to the Chicago 48 (after Nick Perry's 10-yard penalty for illegal block in the back).
Of Matthews' six career interceptions, three have come against the Bears.
"That was a hell of a play," Palmer said. "When I was in coverage and I turned my head back and saw him pick it, I was like, 'Dang, that boy is good.' That was a great play by him."
Overall, there were too many lapses for Packers coach Mike McCarthy's liking, including 10 penalties for 74 yards. One of those came on the Bears' second scoring drive in the second quarter when Sam Shields jumped offsides on a Gould field-goal attempt and gave Chicago another opportunity to score a touchdown, which it did.
Tackling also was an issue, particularly on third downs. Some, such as safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's missed tackle of Cutler on a 12-yard scramble in the second quarter, converted a third down and led to points. Others, like Hayward whiffing on an 8-yard carry by Forte in the fourth quarter, proved harmless.
Missed opportunities played a large role in the Bears racking up 189 rushing yards. The defense knows that won't suffice with upcoming matchups against Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.
"Aside from the last drive, with all the yards they got, we still held them to one touchdown," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "We just have to figure out what we're doing better down there and make sure we do that in the open field. It's plain and simple."
The Bears got back into the end zone with 34 seconds left when Cutler hit Bennett for a 24-yard touchdown. Packers receiver Davante Adams caught the onside kick, effectively ending the game.
The Packers have now pulled within one game of the Bears in the all-time series (92-93-6), and another win on Thanksgiving at Lambeau Field would tie the rivalry. The Packers will need to patch up some of their lingering defensive issues, but the plays are still there.
Undoubtedly, Matthews' inclusion at inside linebacker adds a different dimension to the Packers' defense. While he wasn't willing to go into detail about his assignment on the pick of Cutler, one thing was certain. Whether he's rushing the quarterback or dropping into coverage, it's Matthews' job to make plays.
"Get an interception," said Matthews of his assignment on the play. "Drop into coverage, make a pick. Be the hero."
When the defense needed him Sunday, the veteran linebacker was again its Superman.
"I thought he was going to score," McCarthy said. "If he keeps cutting back like that, we might have to get him on offense. That was a big time play and a play we needed. I thought that play changed the game."