That statement was no certainty, however, until the final moments of Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field against the archrival Bears. The Packers needed a fourth-quarter touchdown and a Nick Collins interception in the red zone to thwart Chicago’s last drive for a tense but uplifting 10-3 decision in a defensive slugfest in front of 70,833.
With the win, the Packers earn a Wild Card berth and the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs, with a trip to No. 3 seed Philadelphia next Sunday at 3:30 p.m. (CST). Green Bay finished the regular season 10-6, winning a three-way strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the conference’s final playoff spot.
“We’ve had a different road we traveled this year and we’ve met every challenge,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re at 10 wins and we’re one of six teams in the NFC. I’m very proud of our football team, just everything we’ve accomplished. Nothing’s come easy for us and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
When the day started, the Packers still could have gotten into the playoffs with a loss as long as the Giants and Bucs also lost. But by kickoff, Tampa Bay had beaten New Orleans, forcing the Packers to win to get in. And as it turned out, all the speculation about the Bears resting their starters with having locked up the No. 2 seed turned out to be just that – speculation. The Bears (11-5), who had no chance for the No. 1 seed when the Falcons won an early game Sunday, played their starters the entire game and made the Packers earn it.
“I wasn’t surprised about it,” cornerback Tramon Williams said of the Bears’ approach. “I would have tried to put us out too. It was a great, hard-fought game, a great way to go into the playoffs.”
The pressure seemed to mount as the Packers reached Chicago territory twice early but came up empty due to short-yardage failures and a Donald Driver fumble. Then the Bears marched the length of the field and had first-and-goal on the 4 when the Green Bay defense – which tied a season-high with six sacks – made the first of several huge stops in the game.
The first of two sacks from little-known Erik Walden on third down forced Chicago to settle for a field goal, and the Packers went in at halftime annoyed with their offensive struggles but down only 3-0.
“Just frustration was the biggest thing, and knowing we needed to win and knowing we were struggling on offense,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “There wasn’t a whole lot said as far as ‘rah-rah’ or anything. It was just hey, let’s play better, let’s execute better.”
That didn’t happen right away, but fortunately the defense continued to hold up its end. The Packers stopped the Bears on fourth-and-2 at the Green Bay 40 to open the second half, but one play later the defense was right back on the field in a tougher spot after Rodgers was picked off by Charles Tillman, whose 42-yard return put the Bears on the Green Bay 15.
Just limiting Chicago to a field goal there would have been a victory for the defense, but the unit did even better. Due to a holding penalty, the Bears were in third-and-19 from the 24 when quarterback Jay Cutler tried to force a pass into the end zone to Johnny Knox, who was double-covered. Safety Charlie Peprah hauled in an easy interception, and the Packers still trailed by only 3.
“That’s huge,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “Three-zero looks a lot better than 6-0, and like I said, that’s the mentality we have when we take the field. Sudden change like that, we’re going to go out and try to get a turnover.”
It still took the offense a while to get going, even after a 41-yard punt return by Williams and a 33-yard strike from Rodgers to receiver Greg Jennings to make it first-and-goal on the 1. A handoff to John Kuhn got nowhere before Rodgers faked a sneak and then flipped the ball back to running back Brandon Jackson, but the overhand throw was low and Jackson bobbled it and lost 2 yards. Then Rodgers was sacked by Tommie Harris on third down, leading to a tying field goal and a wasted opportunity.
Still, there was a little more than a quarter to play, the game was 3-3, and the postseason remained within reach. For everything that had gone wrong, that was all that mattered.
“I don’t think any of us were happy with how it was going, but we were still in the game,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “As long as you’re in the game, you have a chance.”
The defense again came up big after Chicago’s Danieal Manning returned the ensuing kickoff out to midfield. Mammoth defensive end Howard Green and Walden recorded sacks on first and third down, respectively, to force a punt, and the Packers answered with their best drive of the day.
Big plays aren’t easy to come by against Chicago’s defense, but the Packers – who couldn’t get anything going on the ground with 16 rushes for 39 yards by a trio of backs – kept taking their shots and it finally paid off. Facing third-and-3 from his own 32, Rodgers found Driver over the middle for 21 yards. On the very next snap, a play-action fake bought Rodgers time to fire deep to Jennings down the right sideline for 46 yards to the 1. Jennings finished with four catches for 97 yards.
This time, the offense took advantage of first-and-goal, and another play-action fake allowed Rodgers (19-of-28, 229 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 89.7 rating) to hit tight end Donald Lee for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown with 12:42 left.
“We knew the offense would eventually come around and at least get a score,” Woodson said. “They did that, and we were able to hold onto it.”
Some great work from the special teams helped. On the Packers’ last two punts in the fourth quarter, Tim Masthay’s Aussie-style kicks were downed inside the 5. The last one was at the 2, giving the Bears 98 yards to go with 4:49 on the clock.
With Cutler (21-of-39, 168 yards, 2 INT, 43.5 rating) converting three third downs with pass completions, Chicago drove all the way to the Green Bay 32-yard line but had just 20 seconds left. Cutler then tried to go deep over the middle to Devin Hester, and Collins stepped in front to pick the ball off at the 11.
That ended this one, and started the Packers’ postseason, if you don’t count the last two weeks when the Packers needed wins over New York and Chicago to stay alive.
“No doubt about it, this is where we planned to be at,” Williams said. “We’re here now.”
But how far can they go? The Packers will be on the road for as long as they last in the postseason, and the defense is playing as well as it has all year, keeping the Giants and Bears out of the end zone for the last six quarters.
Even Rodgers admitted, however, that the offense can’t rely on the defense that much and must shake itself from its pattern of ups and downs. Last week’s 45 points were followed by this week’s 10, and as much credit as Rodgers rightly handed out to Chicago’s defense on Sunday, that was a playoff defense the Packers faced, and they know they must step it up to advance.
“We can’t have the kind of inconsistent performances we’ve had this year that have forced us to be the No. 6 seed,” said Rodgers, who proceeded to call on himself for more efficient, turnover-free play from here on out.
“When you’re playing in the playoffs, it’s the best of the best. We can’t expect them to hold every team to three points.”
No, but one thing about this Green Bay team is it will find a way to give itself a chance. That’s all the Packers have asked for, and that’s what they’ve got now.
“It’s one at a time,” McCarthy said. “We feel very good about our chances. We’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. That’s been our motto and we’re well-oiled. We’ve been challenged and we’ve learned from those challenges. Trust me, we’ll be ready when we get to Philadelphia.”