CHICAGO – Before completing a pass that might have saved the Green Bay Packers' season, Aaron Rodgers deliberately milked clock.
There were 54 seconds left when the Packers broke their huddle for the final time Sunday. Forty-six when the offense set at the line of scrimmage. Thirty-six when Rodgers finally signaled the snap.
The two-time MVP knew these odds weren’t good. The Packers were at their 26-yard line. They faced third-and-11. Their defense allowed 17 fourth-quarter points. Their offense hadn’t converted a third down in the second half.
Now, all they needed was a prayer.
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“Third-and-11 is not a high-percentage conversion rate,” Rodgers admitted. “So I wanted to take a little bit of time off in case we didn’t convert, so we didn’t give them any time.”
An unusual psyche before the biggest snap of the Packers' season. Maybe Rodgers should’ve known better.
He has been here before, done this. The longest game-winning Hail Mary in NFL history last December. A pair of Hail Marys in the playoffs. Long, timely completions have become Rodgers’ trademark. Throw it up in the air, create magic.
"We talk all the time," receiver Jordy Nelson said, "all we need is time and downs. Obviously, Aaron showed it last year with the Hail Mary in Detroit."
Rodgers added another rainbow haymaker to his lexicon Sunday. Rodgers dropped back, pushed off his frozen, aching right calf, and targeted his top receiver. Nelson, sitting on 977 receiving yards for his season, picked one heck of a time to cross 1,000.
Take a little bit of time off? Rodgers was fortunate center Corey Linsley’s snap came with seven seconds left on the play clock. It left enough time for the Packers' offensive line to lumber from one end of Soldier Field to the other.
With three seconds left, Mason Crosby’s 32-yard field goal secured a 30-27 win against the Chicago Bears, adding an entertaining chapter to a rivalry that’s all tied up at 94-94-6 for the first time since 1933.
It’s the kind of frantic ending that has become a Packers staple. Watching from the sideline after bruising his hip the play before, left guard Lane Taylor felt déjà vu.
“Kind of had a flashback to 2013,” Taylor said.
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Yes, Rodgers’ game-winning pass to Nelson elicited memories of his fourth-down touchdown to Randall Cobb, clinching an NFC North title in the 2013 season finale at Soldier Field. The stakes might have been identical Sunday.
With two games left, the Packers surprisingly find themselves in the NFL North’s driver seat. If they win their final two games against a pair of division rivals, they win the division. Not what anyone expected when the Packers were mired in their four-game losing streak a month ago.
It wouldn’t have happened without another game-winning bomb. Needing a deep pass anyway on third-and-11, coach Mike McCarthy sent Nelson vertical. Rodgers said he read back-side safety Chris Prosinski’s shoulders.
If Prosinski squared to face him, Rodgers knew Nelson would get behind the Bears' secondary.
Nelson lifted his left hand as he ran past Bears cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. He didn’t need to. Rodgers saw him streaking open, no safety help over the top.
“Just tried to put enough air on it to run underneath it,” Rodgers said.
Their connection was spottier Sunday than the numbers indicated. Rodgers and Nelson, usually telepathic in their chemistry, couldn’t quite get things right. Nelson led the Packers with seven catches for 124 yards, but twice dropped deep passes.
After the second, Rodgers approached Nelson on the sideline. Be ready, he said. Before game’s end, they were completing a deep ball.
Nelson said he didn’t think of the earlier drops when he saw Rodgers’ pass hanging in the air.
“It happened so fast,” Nelson said, “and it’s a long way to throw a ball and hit a moving target. Obviously, there’s some wind out there. So there’s some adjustments. So he threw a great ball. I just wanted to make sure I caught it, and gave ourselves an opportunity for Mason to do what he does.”
For Rodgers, his final completion left an undeniable memory to overshadow an otherwise unremarkable game. Rodgers was more game manager than star against the Bears. The offense revolved around running back Ty Montgomery, who finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns.
Rodgers completed 19-of-31 passing for 251 yards. His passer rating (87) dipped under the century mark for the first time in five games. For the first time in 23 games, he didn’t throw a touchdown.
Even worse, Rodgers was sacked four times and hit on several other plays. The crisp timing of the Packers' passing game was a bit duller Sunday.
“The issue,” Rodgers said, “was I just couldn’t get away (from the pressure) today, and they did a good job covering us downfield. As you look at some of the pictures on the sideline on the notepad, they did a good job covering us, especially on third down. Not a lot of guys running open. In situations in the past, I’ve been able to extend plays and do things with my legs.
“Today, obviously not as much, and then took some shots.”
None of those shots reinjured his calf, Rodgers said. He had enough strength at the end for one last heave downfield, one final run to spike the football. With the game on the line, Rodgers delivered.
Just like he has done before.
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