GREEN BAY – Walking out of the Lambeau Field tunnel for the second half Sunday night, Mike McCarthy expected to be calling plays for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer.
He wasn’t complaining when he got a different bit of news.
Aaron Rodgers returned from a knee injury that sent him to the locker room for the final nine minutes of the first half, and he brought the Packers back from a 20-point deficit for a 24-23 victory over the archrival Chicago Bears to open 2018 and the 100th season in hyper-dramatic fashion.
Leading a comeback that probably ranks as the most impressive of his career – it’s tied for the largest deficit from which he’s rallied to get a win with the 2015 game in Detroit that ended with the “Miracle in Motown” Hail Mary – Rodgers threw touchdown passes on three straight second-half possessions while playing on one good leg.
The game-winner was a 75-yard catch-and-run by Randall Cobb with 2:13 left that gave the Packers their first lead of the game, and the defense got one final stop to make it hold up.
“Aaron Rodgers was remarkable,” McCarthy said. “I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him. His performance speaks for itself.
“It’s one of the better wins we’ve had here at home.”
Rodgers left the game after he was sacked by Roy Robertson-Harris on third down in the second quarter with the Packers down, 10-0. He got up but couldn’t put any weight on his leg, went down and was attended to before eventually walking off under his own power. He was then carted to the locker room.
“It was painful,” Rodgers said of the knee, which will undergo further testing on Monday. “I’ll give you a better answer on Wednesday, but as long as there’s no major issues I’ll keep playing.”
While Rodgers was absent, the Packers’ deficit doubled. Kizer had the ball stripped by new Bears acquisition Khalil Mack with Green Bay in field-goal range and then threw a pick-six to Mack while under pressure in the final minute of the first half.
The Bears opened the second half with a nearly six-minute drive for a field goal for a 20-0 lead. In the interim, the Packers’ medical staff had determined Rodgers couldn’t injure the knee any worse by returning to the game, so he did.
Green Bay overcame a 20-point deficit to stun the Chicago Bears, 24-23, in the 2018 season opener
“I’m really proud of our team,” Rodgers said. “After it was decided I was going to come back, I knew it might give us a little jolt. We just had to play a lot better football in the second half and we did.
“Being more of a statue back there, I had to deal the ball on time and make sure guys were getting open. The protection was really good and guys made plays.”
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga began quieting Mack’s impact on the game, and the Packers started moving the chains on short, quick throws with the receivers piling up yards after the catch, with one major exception.
After a field goal with 3:37 left in the third quarter finally got the Packers on the board, Rodgers fired a 39-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison, who made a diving catch in the back of the end zone with Chicago’s No. 1 cornerback, Kyle Fuller, right on his hip.
The impressive, contested TD grab was followed by a 51-yard catch-and-run by Davante Adams. That set up Adams’ own 12-yard score on a great move to the pylon after the short reception, and the Packers were within 20-17 with 9:01 to go.
“It’s been a staple for us over the years,” McCarthy said of all the yards after the catch. “Randall was tremendous, Davante had some big ones. I thought our guys did a great job with that challenge. We had to get the ball in their hands and let them get to work. It was a big part of our success in the second half.”
Fittingly to cap the comeback, Cobb’s game-winner was a roughly 10-yard pass that erupted when he turned upfield with almost no Bears in sight. The big play gave Cobb a career-high 142 yards on nine catches for the game, with Adams (5-88) and Allison (5-69) also putting up solid numbers.
Rodgers finished with a 130.7 passer rating, his highest since the stretch run in 2016. He was 20-of-30 for 286 yards with the three scores in basically three quarters of work.
“I thought our offensive line played tremendous in the second half,” said McCarthy, as the Bears racked up four sacks and two turnovers in the first half, but none of either in the second half.
The other part of the comeback was Green Bay’s defense, which generated back-to-back three-and-outs after the early third-quarter field goal. The Packers then stopped the Bears in the red zone to force another field goal and stay within a touchdown at 23-17 with 2:39 left.
With a combination of adrenaline and some walking up and down the sideline to help keep the knee functioning, Rodgers knew the situation and smelled victory.
“I felt pretty confident we were going to win that game,” he said.
It still took some good fortune to pull it off. On the first play of the game-winning drive, Adams collided with another player as Rodgers released a short throw that went right to Fuller, who dropped the interception.
Two plays later, Cobb was off and running.
Then the defense actually had to stop the Bears on fourth down twice, because Clay Matthews was called for roughing the passer on the first one, keeping Chicago alive. It was the Packers’ third such roughing call in the game.
But Nick Perry got the job done on the next fourth down with a sack of Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky (23-of-35, 171 yards, 77.2 rating), forcing a fumble that Kenny Clark recovered with 58 seconds left, ending the drama.
“It’s one win,” McCarthy said. “It’s a big win because it’s a division game and it’s a home game.
“Great adversity win for us.”