CHICAGO—On top of everything the Packers had to overcome this season, their playoff berth came down to not one, not two, but three fourth downs with the game on the line Sunday at Soldier Field.
Remarkably, Green Bay converted all three, most dramatically on the third and final one with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb for a heart-stopping 33-28 triumph over the Bears.
The game-winning play, capping a monstrous 15-play, 87-yard drive, gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title and added another incredible chapter to both the 2013 season and the oldest rivalry in pro football.
"There was no blinking in the huddle," receiver James Jones said of the final offensive possession, which began at the Green Bay 13-yard line with 6:24 left and the Packers trailing, 28-27. "Everybody buckled up, our season on the line. You've got to play your best football with your season on the line, and we did."
The first fourth down came on the first series of the drive, and fullback John Kuhn converted with a 1-yard plunge from the Green Bay 22.
Seven snaps later, it was fourth-and-1 again, just after the two-minute warning, and receiver Jordy Nelson went low to snag quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pass for a 6-yard gain.
The next series, and the game, came down to fourth-and-8, and when Rodgers escaped a sack from the Bears blitz – with the help of a block from Kuhn on defensive end Julius Peppers – Cobb had slipped behind the coverage wide open. The "matchup nightmare," as Kuhn called Cobb, could only wait for the ball to come down.
"I just prayed it would get down fast, because it seemed like it was in the air forever," Kuhn said.
The two offensive stars in Rodgers and Cobb, who combined had missed the equivalent of more than a full season to injuries before returning to action on Sunday, showed just how much the Packers missed them in the most clutch of moments.
"They've been well overdue. They've been out a little bit," Jones said, laughing a bit about his teammates. "Those two are special players."
The Packers defense needed a key stop to help make it happen and finally got one after a rough second half.
Green Bay's defense started strong, forcing a trio of three-and-outs in the first half and forcing a fumble that the offense turned into a field goal before halftime.
But the Bears, with the help of a long punt return by Devin Hester early in the third quarter, scored three straight touchdowns in the second half and had a chance to add to their 28-27 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Just across midfield, the Packers were helped by an illegal formation penalty and then a tackle for loss on running back Matt Forte (110 yards rushing, 47 receiving), setting up third-and-17.
Given that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had connected on a couple of deep balls to his big targets, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery – including a 67-yarder to Jeffery to set up a TD – it was no surprise he threw a jump ball deep down the sideline.
"Why not? He's got two big guys who are good when the ball goes in the air," cornerback Tramon Williams said of the duo that combined for nine receptions, 154 yards and a TD on the day. "He gave his guys a shot to make a play, and he almost made one. He almost came down with one, but we were in good position and got it on the ground."
Sam Shields, who was burned by Jeffery on the 67-yarder, knocked this one away from Jeffery near the goal line, forcing the punt that gave the Packers offense one last crack.
Cutler wasn't done testing the Packers deep, though, as in the final half minute he launched two more throws to the end zone for Jeffery. Safety Morgan Burnett came across to knock away the first one, and then Shields intercepted the Hail Mary on the final play.
"We've been burned by these plays in the past couple years," said Williams, referring in part to the last play of the first half against the Giants in the playoffs two seasons ago and the controversial final play in Seattle last season. "We can't let those things happen to us, and guys played them exactly as they should."
Now, the Packers are exactly where they were a season ago, champions of the NFC North with a home game on the first playoff weekend.
Only this time it'll be the team they faced on the road in the second round last year, the San Francisco 49ers, coming to Lambeau Field.
A chance for revenge against the team that has beaten the Packers three straight times – the last two season openers and the playoffs last year – seemed unthinkable when the Packers didn't win a game the entire month of November.
Yet here they are.
"We just continued to keep grinding, no matter what happened … injuries, lost four in a row," Jones said. "We just kept grinding, kept staying with each other, kept believing in each other.
"We punched our ticket and we've got a shot to make a run."
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