Chicago – One deadly heave, one cold-blooded catch, one clutch kick.
From Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson to Mason Crosby, the Green Bay Packers sustained their playoff hopes in the final minute Sunday at icy Soldier Field with an enthralling 30-27 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Crosby’s 32-yard field goal as time expired was preceded by Rodgers’ thunderbolt of 60 yards through the 11-degree air (wind chill -4) on third and 11 when it was starting to look like the Packers were destined to blow a fourth-quarter lead of 27-10.
Instead, for the first time, the Packers control their post-season chances. Defeat Minnesota (7-7) Saturday at Lambeau Field and Detroit (9-5) Jan. 1 at Ford Field and Green Bay (8-6) would win the NFC North Division and reach the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
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BOX SCORE: Packers 30, Bears 27
“That’s all you can ask for at this time of the year,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “We knew we were going to come down here and get their best shot. This is a game we needed, and we got it done.”
The border rivals, little Green Bay and gigantic Chicago, have played 194 games since 1921. Now, for the first time since October 1933, the Packers have drawn even at 94-94-6.
“In respect to this great series, that’s the way it should have been,” McCarthy said. “That was a hell of a football game to coach and play in.”
The Packers, a 5 ½-point favorite, have owned the Bears under McCarthy (16-7, including 12-2 in the last 14) and in Illinois (20-4 since 1994). But the Bears (3-11), playing without nine starters because of injury or suspension, threw a colossal scare at their archrival.
Despite all the missing personnel, it was one of the better Bears teams to face the Packers in several years.
Matt Barkley, in effect the Bears’ fourth-string quarterback, rifled two third-quarter passes deep down the middle that were intercepted by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That set up two scores, giving Green Bay a 17-point lead.
At that point, some in the late-arriving crowd of 44,601 trudged in their parkas through the snow-covered seats and headed for home. There were 16,536 no-shows of the 61,137 who paid, but 10 minutes before the noon kickoff there were only about 10,000 fans in the stands.
Those that stayed were treated to one of the better fourth quarters in this and many other Packers seasons.
Suffice it to say that Barkley was magnificent in leading touchdown drives of 75 and 78 yards. Alshon Jeffery, held without a catch for three quarters, beat Damarious Randall badly and, after Randall was benched, he torched Quinten Rollins.
At the same time, rookie Jordan Howard began to get his big shoulders square after being bottled up for 2 ½ quarters. He surged over what looked like discouraged tacklers on a 9-yard touchdown that made it 27-24 with 7 ½ minutes remaining.
“Just because they’re 3-10 and he’s the backup quarterback, we knew what he was capable of doing,” said nickel back Micah Hyde. “That fourth quarter tells you a lot about him. He made plays, and that’s all you can ask of a guy without that much experience.”
It was the fourth start in a four-year career for Barkley, but were it not for untimely dropped passes his record probably would be 3-1 instead of 1-3.
The Packers followed with a second straight three-and-out. On a rare miscalculation, Rodgers figured he could make it scrambling on third and 6 but instead was thrown down hard by linebacker John Timu after a gain of only 4.
Chicago kept marching, this time from its 21 to first-and-goal at the 3 with 1:50 showing.
On first down, tight end Logan Paulsen was called for holding. Cameron Meredith, one of the Bears’ two 100-yard receivers, got nine back on a first-down screen.
By this point, McCarthy was expending his three timeouts almost instantaneously. After his second, safety Kentrell Brice blitzed through the B gap, stacking up Howard for no gain.
“Nobody blocked me,” Brice said. “I saw the handoff and I just went after him.”
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McCarthy used his third timeout, but in an inexcusable sideline snafu the Packers came out of the stoppage with 10 defenders on the field. Nose tackle Letroy Guion, the 11th man, rushed down the sidelines and then onto the field not long after the ball was snapped.
“It wasn’t a distraction,” said Hyde, who was in press-man coverage against Meredith from the slot on that side of the field. “I saw it out of my peripheral. It was pretty crazy.”
Hyde then broke hard on Meredith’s somewhat sloppy out cut and knocked the ball away, setting up fourth down from the 4.
“Absolutely not,” linebacker Julius Peppers, who played eight years under John Fox when he was in Carolina, said when asked whether Fox should have gone for the touchdown rather than send out Connor Barth for a tying 22-yard field goal.
“Why would you go for it? You fought that hard to get back in the game. You tie it up.”
With the score tied at 27, the Packers started from their 27 with 1:19 remaining.
Rodgers’ first pass fell incomplete when Jared Cook fell down on his route and his second lost a yard when inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski smelled out a screen and crushed Ty Montgomery.
On the play, right guard T.J. Lang crashed into the hip of left guard Lane Taylor. Lang jarred his back in the collision, and both players went off as Don Barclay and Jason Spriggs came on.
“I told Spriggs when he came in, ‘Hey, man, let’s just block it up, block it up and see what happens,’ ” said tackle Bryan Bulaga.
With Taylor down, the Packers out of timeouts and :54 left, Fox had the option of taking 10 seconds off the clock. He declined, and in the end it made no difference because Nelson made his phenomenal reception at the :30 mark.
“It didn’t really have much to do … we didn’t really forecast a 60-yard play down the middle there and actually letting the clock run,” said Fox, obviously hoping his defense would force a punt and the extra 10 seconds would enable the Bears’ to win it in regulation. “That wasn’t exactly a play we were looking for.”
On third down, the Bears rushed four while Cook chipped on linebacker Leonard Floyd before becoming the fifth receiver in the pattern. With defensive end Akiem Hicks loose on a stunt and beginning to bear down, Rodgers took about three steps to his left and set up between the hash marks at the 17.
Finally, 3.85 seconds after taking the snap from Corey Linsley, Rodgers released a pass that carried 61 yards and took 3.2 seconds before falling into the hands of Nelson.
“The ball (looked) like it was up there forever,” Hyde recalled as he watched from the sideline. “Jordy would run and look up. Put his head down and run again and look up. He’s just trying to gain speed and he caught it.”
Trying to prevent a first down, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio played “quarters” coverage without a safety in the middle of the field. When Nelson took it deep, Fangio was left with Cre’Von LeBlanc, a rookie cornerback with mere 4.67 speed in the 40-yard dash, in deep man coverage that isn’t suited to his ability.
“Cre’Von was in good position being on top of the receiver in the coverage we were playing,” said cornerback Tracy Porter. “It’s just that he had an entire field and Aaron was able to throw the ball away from him. Jordy just made an adjustment on the ball.”
It was Nelson’s longest reception of the season. Crosby’s kick gave Rodgers’ the 15th game-winning drive of his nine-year career as a starter.
Thirty seconds were left when LeBlanc touched down Nelson at the 14. In what Rodgers described as “a little bit of chaos,” Lang was running onto the field. When the Packers finally lined up at the :12 mark, Rodgers calmly ran the clock down to 4 before spiking the ball.
“I told Aaron give me 32 to 35 (yard-line) and we’ll try it,” said Crosby. “I saw Jordy, then I ran to the net and made sure I got a couple kicks so I was loose and ready to go. I’ve only had three or four game-winners, and I’ve only had eight attempts.”
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Crosby drilled the kick a split-second after Fox attempted to freeze him with a timeout. The 10-year veteran lined up again and was dead-center perfect.
“The wind was blowing pretty hard right to left,” said Crosby. “But from that distance I just said I’d hit it hard right down the middle.”
The frantic finish overshadowed the marvelous performance by Montgomery, who averaged an astounding 10.1 yards per carry in his 16-carry, 162-yard day. The last Packers back to gain more than that in a regular-season game was Samkon Gado (171) in 2005.
“He’s a hard take-down,” Taylor said. “He’s jacked up, athletic. He’s just one of those guys. He’s a playmaker.”
It was a horrendous day for two of the team’s other playmakers. Davante Adams dropped what should have been two routine TD passes. Randall was awful tackling and covering.
Yet, in the winter chill on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Packers did enough and improved to 8-6. As many will remember, they had that same record six years ago before catching fire and winning the Super Bowl.
“We haven’t reached any of our goals yet but we’re on our way,” said Lang. “We’ve got a lot of belief we’ll get the job done.”