CHICAGO - Khalil Mack’s back was turned to Aaron Rodgers. He’d just broken free from a block, nearly tumbling with the violence of his spin move. Jason Spriggs, the backup right tackle, clung for dear life, practically tackling the Chicago Bears star.
Any other pass rusher, this play might be over. Mack, tumbling, had no chance. Except he isn’t just any other pass rusher, not with the transformation he brought to a football-starved city this season.
“He’s talented,” Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I think he deserves the recognition that he’s gotten.”
And he just keeps raising the stakes.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that instead of tripping out of the play, Mack fell backward into Rodgers. He kept digging in his heels, kept pressing his weight onto the Packers quarterback, until Mack fell completely on top of Rodgers for the sack.
Some metaphor, huh?
The Bears didn’t back into anything this season. Now 10-4, Chicago dominated the same division it finished dead last in each of the past four years. And yet, in a fickle league built on parity, it’s fair to wonder just how thin the margin from first to fourth really is.
If the NFC North was clinched with Chicago’s 24-17 win Sunday inside a Soldier Field that was packed, for once, with Bears fans instead of green and yellow, Sept. 2 sure seems like the date the balance of power within the division shifted three hours south of Green Bay. That’s the day the Packers had their biggest loss of the season against the Bears, failing to acquire the All-Pro pass rusher who revived not just a franchise, but a dormant football city.
Mack had 2½ sacks Sunday, increasing his total on the season to 12½ in 12 games. Not a bad encore to his first meeting with the Packers, when Mack had one sack, one forced fumble, one interception and one touchdown. He’s the type of generational edge rusher who makes bad teams good, good teams great, and great teams …
Well, on Sunday, Khalil Mack made the Chicago Bears division champions.
“He’s infected every player in the right way and made us all better,” was how first-year Bears coach Matt Nagy put it.
On Sunday, you could see the difference a season’s worth of Mack’s presence makes.
Here were the Packers, somehow tied at 14 in the third quarter, trying to pull on some recent history. Fifteen weeks might seem like a long time ago, but Bears defenders remember what Rodgers did Week 1 at Lambeau Field. After Nagy’s ill-advised fake punt gave the Packers a short field, leading to their game-tying touchdown, that 20-0 comeback didn’t feel like ancient history.
This time, the Bears defense steadied itself. After the Bears took a 21-14 lead, Mack beat Spriggs again for a 5-yard sack on first down. The Packers were forced to a three-and-out. After a Bears field goal on the next possession, Green Bay never got another chance to pull even.
“Everybody wanted to get to him,” Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said of Rodgers. “Everybody wanted a bite.”
It’s no wonder Rodgers looked pedestrian. Harassed all day by the Bears' rush — and especially Mack — Rodgers finished 25-for-42 for 274 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. His 69 passer rating was his lowest in a complete game since Week 4 of the 2016 season.
Rodgers wasn’t just inaccurate, as he has been at times this season. He looked almost flustered, unable to either see or connect with open receivers downfield. The two-time MVP missed Randall Cobb twice. He missed rookie Equanimeous St. Brown in the end zone, and again late on a wide-open crossing route. He had fellow rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling open with inside leverage down the right seam, but overthrew him.
Often scrambling, Rodgers never seemed comfortable. The quarterback who can drop jaws with the best of them was instead all too human.
Call it the Khalil Mack effect.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Packers left guard Lane Taylor said. “There’s no doubt about that. He gets his sometimes, just because he’s an elite player. So he’s going to get something some game.”
Inside the Bears' locker room, there was euphoria. The belief that Mack brought Chicago on the first Saturday of September was only a seed when the Packers hosted the Bears in the opener, but it has clearly grown over time. The memories of four straight last-place finishes, and eight straight Packers wins inside Soldier Field, remained. Now there’s something else, finally a success.
In the far corner, Hicks sat in the glow of TV cameras, taking his time. After collecting a couple NFC North champion hats, he had a decision to make. Which one to wear? Hicks finally placed one atop his head, flashing a smile when asked how it felt to not just win the division, but to do it against Rodgers.
“It was special as hell,” Hicks said. “I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you guys and say I didn’t enjoy taking it. Green Bay is not our friend. We have nothing in common, and we want to beat them as many times as we can whenever we can. So I loved it.”
Across the stadium, the Packers were left to wonder what comes next. They once won the NFC North five straight seasons with Rodgers, back when the quarterback seemed untouchable. It has now been two seasons without a division title, and for the second straight year, the Packers’ playoff hopes officially ended in Week 15.
“I like our chances in this division moving forward,” Rodgers said.
Inside Soldier Field’s visitors locker room, Bakhtiari agreed.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said, shaking his head.
Maybe the Packers should be worried.
How thin is the margin between first and fourth? The Packers are only a half game ahead of the last-place Detroit Lions. More problematic, the NFC North no longer belongs to Aaron Rodgers. Now, it’s Khalil Mack’s division.
The real question is, for how long?