GREEN BAY - In and around Lambeau Field, members of the Green Bay Packers have grown fond of downplaying any influence the media exerts on what takes place inside the facility. Their jobs involve playing, coaching or scouting football, and anything written about those jobs can only hinder the task at hand.
Such a position was repeated ad nauseum in the 11 days between an unglamorous win over the New York Giants, a humbling loss to the Dallas Cowboys and, on Thursday night, a redemptive division victory against the Chicago Bears, 26-10.
The headlines were as proliferate as they were stunning, and outlets across the country chimed in on the fundamental question surrounding the Packers: What is ailing quarterback Aaron Rodgers?
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A few examples:
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But what Rodgers did in response Thursday was among the most unique performances of his nine years as the starter. Besieged by injuries to their top running backs, the Packers transfigured their offense into a short-passing machine. Rodgers set a franchise record with 39 completions in a single game — the old record of 36 belonged to Brett Favre — and peppered the Bears with chunks of yardage that, at the end of four quarters, totaled 326 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception; his passer rating was 102.2.
“It was pretty impressive to watch,” tight end Richard Rodgers said. “I really don’t even know what to say. That’s just very impressive.”
The strategy unfurled against the Bears was born of injury and adaptation. With tailbacks Eddie Lacy (ankle) and James Starks (knee) unavailable, the remaining options to establish a running game were undrafted free agent Don Jackson, wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb or tailback Knile Davis, who arrived via trade Tuesday morning.
BOX SCORE: Packers 26, Bears 10
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Instead, coach Mike McCarthy turned to his own version of an air-raid offense, with four- and five-receiver sets becoming the norm and a reliance on short passes to neutralize the defensive strategy employed by the Giants, Cowboys and Bears in successive weeks: All three teams blitzed infrequently while asking Rodgers and his receivers to dice a bevy of dense coverages.
The response was a steady diet of short passes with shorter release times. Rodgers, who was flanked most commonly by Cobb or Montgomery, unloaded the football with urgency to targets within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. Of his 39 completions, more than 30 gained 12 yards or fewer. Cobb and Davante Adams, who starred with 13 catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns, were the only players with receptions in excess of 13 yards.
They dinked and dunked their way to 406 yards of total offense.
“The short passing game is like an extension of the run game,” Rodgers said.
Added Richard Rodgers: “That’s the main goal is to make the defense tired and let them stay on the field that long, minimal subs. It wears on defenses, obviously, helps our offensive line; their pass rushers slow down a little bit. We just are conditioned to run no-huddle (offense) like we’ve been running, and whatever way Coach Mike wants to do it, that’s what we’ll do.”
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When it finally ended, the Packers had thrashed the Bears in time of position, 39:36 to 20:24. They’d mounted five scoring drives in total, and four of them melted at least 4 minutes and 40 seconds off the clock. They had nearly twice as many first downs (32) as the Bears did rushing plays (18).
“I think we’re going to look at this film and be pretty happy with our execution,” Rodgers said.
After the game, happiness bathed the Packers’ locker room as two weeks of criticism washed away. Smiles replaced agitation; laughter replaced contention.
The lasting image took place near the entrance as McCarthy approached his quarterback’s locker. Coach and player shook hands as they shared a brief embrace. Their trying week had ended with a franchise record.
“Congratulations,” McCarthy said.
Headlines be damned.