Same old Aaron Rodgers, same old Jay Cutler
CHICAGO — The numbers tell you the Chicago Bears controlled this game.
Your eyes say Aaron Rodgers did.
The Green Bay Packers' 31-23 win over the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday was just the latest illustration that most NFL games come down to quarterback play.
The Bears did everything they could to keep this a grinding, low-scoring game, and to protect Jay Cutler from himself. It basically worked. The Bears put up more yards than the Packers (402 to 322), won the battle for possession time (31 minutes, 52 seconds to 28:08) and were only a score down halfway through the fourth quarter.
Yet the Packers came out with the win. And that's because Cutler finally cracked, as he always seems to in this rivalry, and threw a game-turning interception in the final four minutes. The Bears, on the other hand, never got a handle on Rodgers, who kept making plays with his arm and his feet while not turning the ball over.
Or, to put a finer point on it, things went how they almost always do when Rodgers and Cutler match up. Since Cutler became the Bears' quarterback in 2009, the two have started and finished head-to-head match-ups 10 times. Rodgers is 9-1.
"We were going to have to be near-flawless to beat them," new Bears coach John Fox said, "and we didn't quite reach that."
The Packers' opener showed they have some things to worry about, win or not. Their run defense was a major liability much of the day — the Bears' grinding game plan worked because Matt Forte pounded his way to 141 yards rushing and a 5.9-yard average per carry.
Coordinator Dom Capers' defensive line missed Letroy Guion, who's suspended for the first three games for his offseason conviction on possession of marijuana. You also have to think we'll be seeing more of Mike Pennel. He's been the team's best run stopper on the defensive line since the start of camp.
But let's face it, the Packers have to win with offense. There are going to be games where they have to keep scoring and scoring when the defense isn't getting stops. In fact, that's essentially how Sunday went. The game in effect was shortened because of time-consuming drives — the Bears had three possessions of 5 1/2 minutes or more, and punted only once; the Packers had a 9 1/2 minute drive in the third and fourth quarters.
But the Packers' offense operated as well as ever, even minus Jordy Nelson and with a new play caller, Tom Clements. There were no noticeable hitches in the system, and while Rodgers' passing yardage was pedestrian — he threw for 189 yards, 85 fewer than his per game average last season — he was precise and efficient.
Rodgers' passer rating (140.5) dwarfed Cutler's (67.5).
"Tom called the plays in and I ran them. That's basically how it went," Rodgers said. "I'm not belittling what happened. Talked a lot this week about the process and way we were going to do things. Good communication on the sidelines."
Rodgers kept exploiting against the Bears two advantages that he's likely to have on an almost weekly basis.
One was one-on-one matchups on the backside as the Bears tried to ensure that halfback Eddie Lacy didn't beat them. The beneficiary on this day was mostly James Jones (four catches for 51 yards, two touchdowns), whose timing with Rodgers looked like he never left for Oakland in 2014.
"Teams are going to want to put that extra element in the box (against Lacy)," Rodgers said, "and it leaves some one-on-ones outside. We really need to win those matchups."
The other advantage is Rodgers' mobility, which was lost in the playoffs last year because of his severely strained calf. Rodgers' 35 yards rushing included five scrambles for 26 yards and two first downs.
"It's a different offense when I go do some of those things," Rodgers said. "If you want to play some two man (deep at safety) and not have a guy on me that's the risk you take."
The Bears also were ripe pickings. They have one of the NFL's weakest set of cornerbacks — what wouldn't they do to have the Packers' draft-class haul of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter at that position?
Rodgers kept picking on 30-year-old cornerback Alan Ball. Both of Jones' touchdowns came against him, along with a 34-yard shot on a free play when the Bears were offsides.
Cutler, in the meantime, mostly played within himself in working offensive coordinator Adam Gase's conservative, ball-control game plan. But with the game on the line he made the kind of game-changing mistake he always seems to against the Packers.
Cutler didn't see Clay Matthews dropping into the short seam on a slant to tight end Martellus Bennett inside the Packers' 30, and Matthews intercepted with a little less than four minutes to play. That ended up being the game.
And therein was the difference. Rodgers made plays and no mistakes; Cutler did the opposite.
"He just kind of floated in there," Cutler said of Matthews. "As soon as I let it go I knew we were in trouble."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.