GREEN BAY – A hush fell over Lambeau Field, as Aaron Rodgers laid on the ground with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the first half of the Packers’ regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears.
With their quarterback in the locker room with a knee injury and questionable to return, the Packers went into halftime downtrodden after Khalil Mack returned an interception for a 27-yard touchdown to put the Bears up 17-0.
However, whatever energy was lost during Rodgers’ brief absence quickly was regained at the sight of the two-time NFL MVP jogging back onto the field for the start of the second half, even as the Bears added a field goal to their advantage.
After completing just three of seven passes for 13 yards in the first half, Rodgers fought through the pain to lead four consecutive scoring drives, producing 24 points over the final 24 minutes, 10 seconds of regulation in a remarkable 24-23 comeback victory to kick off Green Bay’s 100th season.
“It’s a special moment in my career,” said Rodgers, who completed 17-of-23 for 273 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. “It is the Bears, and the injury I was dealing with and the pain and 20-0 and coming back and winning that game. It seems a long time ago, standing here in Week 15, but that was a good moment for us.”
Rodgers admits the story would be a bit more legendary had it sparked a big-time winning season. Instead, it serves as the high point of an up-and-down season that has the Packers sitting at 5-7-1 entering Sunday’s rematch with the Bears at Soldier Field.
Under first-year coach Matt Nagy, Chicago is in the driver’s seat in the NFC North at 9-4. Coming off a dominant defensive performance in a 15-6 victory over the high-powered Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, the Bears have a chance to wrap up their first division title in eight years with a win over Green Bay.
Meanwhile, the wide-open NFC playoff race has allowed the Packers to remain in the peripheral for the sixth and final wild-card spot, with Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington all losing last week, and Minnesota having lost three of its last four.
“I’m competitive, I’m a competitor, I know what’s going on,” Rodgers said. “I’m aware of what the scores are. There’s been a number of games that needed to go our way – and they have all gone our way. So hopefully that continues, and we find a way to win out. And we’ll see what happens.”
Rodgers and the Packers’ offense got back on track last week against the Falcons, putting up a season-high 34 points (thanks in part to a Bashaud Breeland pick-six) and converting on 7-of-13 third downs after combining for only eight conversions in their previous three games.
With three backups starting on the offensive line, interim head coach Joe Philbin emphasized a quick passing game early to help the offense settle in. Rodgers liked the approach, particularly on one sequence in the third quarter when the Packers called back-to-back screen passes to running back Aaron Jones.
While the first attempt on the left side went for a loss of one yard, Philbin called it a second time to the right and Jones broke it off for a 15-yard gain to key an eventual eight-play, 76-yard scoring drive.
“The first one could have gone for about 60 had we just blocked it up the right way,” Rodgers said. “Assignment-wise, Jake (Kumerow) was supposed to run a deep over instead of kind of blocking the end and slowing him down. To come right back with that, I loved that sequence of calls. Joe did a great job. The communication was great on the sideline and the flow was good and kind of got into a rhythm.”
Now, the Packers look to carry over that momentum to Sunday’s matchup with the NFL’s third-ranked defense, and history is on the Packers’ side. Green Bay has won eight consecutive games at Soldier Field, beginning with a 21-14 win over the Bears in the NFC Championship Game in January 2011.
That streak also includes the 2013 regular-season finale when Rodgers – in his first game back from a collarbone injury – connected with Randall Cobb on a 48-yard game-winning touchdown pass in a winner-take-all showdown for the NFC North.
The Packers aren’t where they envisioned they’d be in Week 15, but Rodgers acknowledges the team has mounted some “pretty crazy” late-season comebacks before. While his gutsy performance in Week 1 didn’t result in a big season, Rodgers’ comeback has contributed to the meaningfulness of Sunday’s game against the Bears.
If there’s a run to be had over the next three weeks, it has to start in Chicago.
“It’s the biggest one in football,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Bears versus Packers, that's the reason why we started off the season the way we did, with that one. We've done historically pretty well in Soldier Field. We won like eight straight there, so looking to push that to a ninth.”