GREEN BAY – Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing his team down by 20 points as he returned to the game on a bum knee in the second half, Aaron Rodgers was doing a simple math calculation.
“Seven times three,” the Packers’ two-time MVP quarterback said. “We have to score three touchdowns, stop them three times. That’s what goes through my head.”
It didn’t work out quite that simply but it might as well have. There were a pair of field goals in there, too, but Green Bay’s 24-23 comeback triumph over the Bears on Sunday night at Lambeau Field will go down as another unforgettable contest in the NFL’s longest-running and oldest rivalry.
Rodgers has certainly been a part of his share. Where this one stacks up exactly will be determined somewhere down the line.
He beat Chicago to open the 2009 season with a 50-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings with just over a minute left, also on Sunday Night Football. He topped the Bears 10-3 in Week 17 of 2010 to get the Packers into the playoffs and on their way to a championship. He came back after missing seven games to a broken collarbone in the 2013 regular-season finale to win the NFC North on fourth-and-8 from the 48 at Soldier Field.
“We’ve had some fun ones in this rivalry,” Rodgers said. “This will be one I’ll definitely smile about in 10 years.”
It was difficult to smile too much with his knee still clearly bothering him after the game. The pain he was going to wake up to sometime Monday morning wasn’t going to be fun, either.
But Rodgers’ performance exemplified an approach toward being both a standout leader and one of many fighting for the same thing, as dichotomous as that sounds for the newly highest-paid player in the game.
“Playing behind Brett Favre for three years, you realize you have to be tough to play this position,” Rodgers said. “That situation, it’s about coming back out and leading. If you can do it and deal with the pain, you should be out there.”
He was, as soon as team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie was confident he couldn’t injure the knee any worse. He put a sleeve on the knee under his uniform pants, but that was it. More tests await Monday. Rodgers said it’s swollen and painful. Other than that, he doesn’t know, but he plans on continuing to play.
“The measure of a teammate is what you are willing to put on the line for your team,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. Being out there is special. The ovation from the crowd lifts you up, gives you the energy. The momentum of the game, you feel the tide turning. It’s special.”
His re-entry wasn’t quite as dramatic as in the 2014 regular-season finale against the Lions, when he emerged from the tunnel despite a calf injury to chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” More was at stake then, whereas this was only the first of 16.
Just seeing him jog back to the sideline gave the Lambeau Field faithful some reassurance he’d be fine in the long run, regardless of what happened in the second half. Rodgers actually broke into the jog for Dr. McKenzie’s benefit, because he realized he hadn’t shown him he could move like that on the tender knee.
As cheers ensued, Rodgers didn’t want them to be for naught.
“When I got the ovation, I said we might as well win this thing,” he said.
Confined to the pocket and forced to line up in either the pistol or shotgun formation, Rodgers and his receivers put on a clinic, the offensive line kept him clean after a rough start, and the Bears never fully snatched the momentum back.
A true believer in momentum within a game, Rodgers remained confident throughout the comeback, despite his physical limitations. The winning TD to Cobb was an example of how important longstanding on-field relationships are between passer and pass catcher, as Cobb knew to zag when Rodgers zigged to get open in the middle of the field on third-and-10.
“Nothing’s easy in this business,” Rodgers said. “But the familiarity, him kind of stopping his route there … I saw him put his foot in the ground and move back to the left, and that’s where the ball had to go.”
The first down would have been good enough with more than two minutes still left on the clock, but it turned out to be the last pass Rodgers needed to complete. The number of breakdowns in the Bears’ secondary rose as Chicago’s pass rush fell off the pace.
The touchdown to Allison was one of Rodgers’ wow throws, but it was the protection and the yards after the catch and the defense giving him a chance that Rodgers appreciated most. His play might have been superhuman given the circumstances, but the majority of the plays themselves were elevated by others, and that’s the nitty-gritty the team can draw upon when the inspiration of their quarterback returns to its base level.
“I don’t think it looked like a win for a good portion of it,” Rodgers said. “It’s just a reminder to the squad that the belief in each other is so very important to sustaining success.
“When we had to have it tonight, we made plays.”
And when they had to have their guy, the Packers did. Victories like this, even in Week 1, can go a long way.
Green Bay overcame a 20-point deficit to stun the Chicago Bears, 24-23, in the 2018 season opener