GREEN BAY—When the 2013 schedule came out back in April, it was entirely plausible the Packers-Bears showdown at Soldier Field in Week 17 could end up being for the NFC North title. But the way in which the season unfolded to get to this point would seem at least far-fetched or borderline unfathomable, if not for the fact that the improbable is regularly possible in the NFL.
The mayhem began on Nov. 4 when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone against the Bears. When that game ended in a Bears victory, there was a three-way tie atop the division at the midway point, with Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit all 5-3.
Every week over the next seven weeks produced at least one, if not two, down-to-the-wire finishes that involved comebacks, collapses and/or near-miracles that would have dramatically altered the division race had they gone the other way.
Through the following chronological synopsis of those wild endings and how the NFC North got to a Rodgers-returns-for-a-winner-take-all Packers-Bears clash, keep these facts in mind:
Had the Bears won just one more game, they’d be the division champs right now and Week 17 would mean nothing.
Had the Lions won just one more game, they’d be heading to the Metrodome in control of the division with a chance to beat the Vikings and finish first, regardless of the Packers-Bears outcome.
Had the Packers not pulled off either of their two remarkable comeback victories in Rodgers’ absence, they’d have been eliminated by now.
Here we go.
Week 10: Chicago loses at home to Detroit, 21-19, when two cracks at the tying two-point conversion fail with just 40 seconds left. An incomplete pass was accompanied by a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Lions, which moved the ball to the 1-yard line, but the ensuing Bears running play was stopped cold.
Week 11: The Lions lead the Steelers, 27-23, early in the fourth quarter when Detroit’s fake field goal is stopped at the 3-yard line. Pittsburgh drives 97 yards in 16 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, and an interception thrown by Detroit QB Matthew Stafford leads to the clinching score in a 37-27 Pittsburgh win. The Lions gain just 72 yards in the second half after putting up 379 in the first half.
Week 12: Stafford throws four interceptions – three in the red zone and one for a pick-six – as the Lions lose at home to the Buccaneers, 24-21. The final interception is bobbled by WR Calvin Johnson inside the Tampa Bay 5-yard line and picked off with 50 seconds left.
Meanwhile, the Packers rally from a 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit to an eventual tie with the Vikings, 26-26. Had the Packers won that game, nothing would be different today. Had they lost it, Detroit would still be alive for the division title.
Week 13: The Bears blow a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter at Minnesota, allowing the Vikings to drive 79 yards, including a fourth-and-11 conversion, for the tying field goal with 20 seconds left. In overtime, Chicago decides to attempt a 47-yard field goal on second down but misses, and Minnesota drives the other way for the game-winning kick, 23-20.
Week 14: At halftime of their respective games, the Packers trail the Falcons, 21-10, and the Lions lead the Eagles, 14-0, in several inches of snow in Philadelphia. Green Bay rallies for a 22-21 win as, in the fourth quarter, a 52-yard field goal try by Atlanta falls just short and another drive across midfield is thwarted by a fourth-down pass breakup. Detroit surrenders 28 points and 223 rushing yards in the fourth quarter and loses, 34-20.
Week 15: Trailing 26-3 at halftime in Dallas, the Packers tie the franchise record for the largest deficit overcome to win, as the offense scores five TDs on five second-half possessions and the defense posts two interceptions on the Cowboys’ final two drives for a 37-36 triumph.
A little more than 24 hours later, on Monday Night Football, the Lions lose to the Ravens, 18-16, as Stafford throws three second-half interceptions and Baltimore fails to score a touchdown the entire game but wins on kicker Justin Tucker’s sixth field goal, a 61-yarder with 38 seconds left.
Week 16: The Lions rally from a 13-3 deficit against the Giants to take a 20-13 lead, only to have Stafford throw a pick-six with five minutes left that ties the game. In overtime, Detroit recovers a fumble with New York in field-goal range but can’t take advantage of the reprieve. On their next drive, the Giants convert on fourth-and-7 from the Lions’ 42-yard line to get in field-goal range again, and win, 23-20.
So here we are. After all that, the Bears and Lions each came up one win short of controlling the NFC North, and the Packers did just enough in Rodgers’ absence to give them a chance.
“The National Football League never, ever amazes you,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “The ups and downs, the challenges. You talk about the word parity that has existed for so long in this league, the last three or four weeks are a great example of that.”
Going back to 2010, it’s fondly remembered that in Week 15 the Packers got a walk-off punt return from Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson to beat the Giants and an overtime triumph by the Lions over the Buccaneers to gain control of their playoff fate with two regular-season games remaining.
But all this? So far, 2013 is an even better story. It’s up to the Packers to finish it. Additional coverage - Dec. 27