Success on the road remains elusive for Packers

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CHICAGO – As has been the case all season on the road, the Packers had their opportunities Sunday.

But once again Green Bay didn’t seize them, and the Bears took control in the fourth quarter for a 24-17 decision at Soldier Field that sent the two rivals in opposite directions.

While the Packers (5-8-1) had their playoff hopes extinguished with the loss and Minnesota’s victory, the Bears (10-4) clinched their first NFC North crown since 2010 and are headed to the postseason for the first time since then.

“I thought it was a typical Packers-Bears game, a hard-fought football game, but credit Chicago,” interim head coach Joe Philbin said. “They definitely played better in the fourth quarter.”

That final period started with the game tied at 14 and the Bears in scoring range, but a fumble by running back Tarik Cohen out of a shotgun-wildcat formation was a huge gift for the Packers.

Except they didn’t take advantage of it, not only going three-and-out, but doing so again on their next possession while the Bears were putting together a touchdown drive and a long Cohen punt return for a field goal to go up 10 points.

“They made a play when we had some opportunities,” Philbin said, in particular lamenting a first-down sack right after the Cohen fumble and wishing he’d called a different play. “Credit their defense, they stood up. It was a big sequence in the game.

“That was kind of the theme in the fourth quarter. We knew we were going to be in a dogfight here.”

The Packers had battled back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to tie the score in the third quarter, driving for a field goal and then stopping the Bears on a fake punt at midfield.

The ensuing touchdown drive, capped off by Jamaal Williams’ 10-yard touchdown run and a two-point pass to Davante Adams, knotted the game at 14 and seemingly had the Packers in great shape.

The Green Bay Packers traveled to Chicago's Soldier Field to face the Bears in a Week 15 matchup.

But after the Cohen fumble, it quickly snowballed the wrong way. Following the sack, a scramble throw for Randall Cobb sailed high (Rodgers said the wind took it), and a deep ball for Marquez Valdes-Scantling was overthrown.

A penalty on the Packers’ punt allowed the Bears to start across the 50, and Mitchell Trubisky’s 13-yard TD pass to tight end Trey Burton put Chicago on top for good.

The next three-and-out also started with a first-down sack, and Cobb dropped a slant on the next snap. A poor punt, long punt return and field goal then put the Packers down 24-14 and their season on the brink.

It effectively ended when Aaron Rodgers’ NFL-record interception-free streak also ended. On third-and-goal from the Chicago 9, Rodgers was picked off for the first time since Week 4, as his throw deflected off tight end Jimmy Graham and to Chicago safety Eddie Jackson in the end zone.

The Packers’ lone turnover with 3:04 left closed the book on Rodgers’ record INT-free streak at 402 consecutive pass attempts and started Chicago’s celebration.

Green Bay’s late field-goal drive and onside-kick attempt were academic at that juncture. The chance to stay alive in 2018 and extend the team’s eight-game winning streak at Soldier Field had been squandered.

“I told the team we were three or four plays away, and we all know big games are decided by three or four plays,” Philbin said. “It’s a fine line in the National Football League between winning and losing.”

That’s been the story of the season for the Packers on the road, who remained winless away from Green Bay at 0-7 and will now miss the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2005-06.

They battled in this one shorthanded due to injury on both the offensive and defensive lines, and with Williams taking over for injured running back Aaron Jones (knee) in the first quarter, but it wasn’t enough.

Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd combined for 4½ of the Bears’ five sacks of Rodgers, who threw just his second interception of the season and posted a 68.9 passer rating (25-of-42, 274 yards). Adams continued his superb year with eight catches for 119 yards.

Trubisky, unlike last week, didn’t make any mistakes on an efficient day (20-of-28, 235 yards, two TDs, 120.9 rating), and running back Jordan Howard powered his way to 60 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries to lead all ball carriers.

Rodgers pointed to two “especially disappointing parts of the game,” referring to a sequence at the end of the first half that led to the Bears’ second touchdown, and the series of events early in the fourth quarter.

Missed opportunities all around, with mistakes in all three phases.

“You have to perform under pressure, you have to execute, and I thought we had some momentum during the game but we let it slip away,” Philbin said. “They made the plays in the fourth quarter they had to, to win.”

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