Hester posted a 17.5-yard average on his two returns Sunday, but the key was only two opportunities for him in a game that saw the Packers punt eight times. He entered the game with a 20-yard return in eight of 15 games, as well as a league-high three touchdowns on punt returns.
“There is nothing like when a plan comes together,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “We had a plan to punt the ball away out of bounds. We didn’t want to punt to Hester. I think there were a couple that were mishit but the cover team covered it well. Those punts inside the 20 were huge.
“I know Coach 'Sloc' (special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum) and everybody has to feel good about the plan actually coming together, so it was a good day for special teams.”
Hester will go into the record books with a 17.1-yard return average on the season, the best mark in NFL history (min. 30 returns), but the Packers can take comfort in their ability to minimize his effect on Sunday.
Punter Tim Masthay finished with a 43.5-yard gross average and a 36.6-yard net average on his eight kicks, placing half of them inside the 20-yard line. Two of those came at a critical juncture in the game with the Packers holding a 10-3 lead in the fourth quarter.
After quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ pass to Jordy Nelson picked up 14 yards to the Chicago 45, a yard short of the first-down marker, Masthay drilled a 42-yard punt that was downed by cornerback/safety Jarrett Bush at the Chicago 3. Chicago picked up one first down, but back-to-back Green Bay sacks forced the Bears to punt from their own 2.
That gave the Packers good field position as they started from the Chicago 46, but a three-and-out quickly brought Masthay back out on the field. He responded again, with his 38-yard kick downed by Bush again, this time at the Bears’ 2 with under five minutes left in the game.
“I can’t say enough about how Brett snapped the ball and how our guys protected and how our gunners covered,” Masthay said. “They played great. I was hitting the ball well and we were able to do exactly what we wanted to do, which was eliminate Hester from having an impact on the game in the punt return.
“They did a great job covering, and then 'JB' (Bush) makes an awesome play on that last one pooch punt going in where he catches it on the 2-yard line. That was a huge play.”
Three of Masthay’s punts were downed, with one going out of bounds and one landing in the end zone for a touchback. Both of Hester’s returns came in the second quarter, the first a 19-yard pickup out to the Chicago 26 and the second a 16-yard return out to the Bears’ 27. The 19-yard return led to an eventual field goal from Robbie Gould, but neither were close to the momentum-type changing plays that Hester had in Green Bay’s matchup with the Bears earlier this season.
“I probably would have liked them (the two returns) to be out of bounds, but Hester is great,” Masthay said. “He picked up a couple of yards on a couple of them, but no big returns and that was our big goal.
“Our guys did a great job of getting down there. On those two that I kind of hit in the corner but they didn’t go out of bounds, they did a really good job on those.”
It was a strong finish for Masthay in his first year as he tied the best mark by a Packers punter since 1976 with a 37.6-yard net average for the season (Jon Ryan, 37.6, 2007). To have a game like he did Sunday in blustery conditions at Lambeau Field against an elite returner with a playoff berth on the line made the performance that much sweeter.
“That was the toughest game I have ever played in because the wind chill was down around zero and the wind was blowing pretty significantly,” Masthay said. “It was tough, but I just kind of trusted my technique and trusted all the guys doing their job. We were able to get it done today.”
Having missed all of the Week 15 contest at New England and half of the game the previous week in Detroit due to a concussion, quarterback Aaron Rodgers fell just 78 yards short of his third straight 4,000-yard passing season.
Already the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter, Rodgers entered Sunday’s game needing 307 yards to eclipse the 4,000-yard mark again. His 229 yards on 19-of-28 passing Sunday weren’t enough, but Rodgers etched his name in the franchise record books in another category.
With his 101.2 passer rating for the season, Rodgers became the first signal-caller in team history to post back-to-back 100-plus passer rating seasons. He posted a 103.2 rating in 2009, second in Packers history behind only Bart Starr’s 105.0 rating in 1966. Rodgers now has two of the top three single-season marks in Green Bay history.
With 12,394 yards since 2008, Rodgers checks in at No. 2 in NFL history behind only Kurt Warner (12,612, 1999-2001) for the most passing yards by a quarterback in his first three seasons as a starter.
Rodgers also finished the season with a 65.7 completion percentage, good for No. 2 in franchise annals behind only Brett Favre’s 66.5 mark in 2007.
Kicker Mason Crosby scored four points on Sunday, including a 23-yard field goal in the third quarter, to give him 112 points on the season.
Crosby’s 509 career points (2006-2010) rank No. 2 in NFL history for the most points by a player in his first four seasons behind only New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski (513, 2006-09).
For the first time in franchise history, the Packers had three wide receivers with 50 catches each as Greg Jennings (76), James Jones (51) and Donald Driver (50) all hit the 50-catch mark.
Driver came into Sunday’s game needing 83 yards to surpass James Lofton (9,656, 1978-86) for the franchise all-time receiving yardage mark, but posted 41 yards on his team-high five receptions.
After checking in as the most-penalized team in the league with 118 last season, the Packers finished off a dramatic turnaround on Sunday as they cut that number by 40 penalties.
With just 78 accepted penalties for the season, the Packers set a franchise record for the fewest in a 16-game season since the NFL went to that scheduling format in 1978. The previous Green Bay low was 80 penalties in 1983 and 2001.
Green Bay was whistled for four penalties on Sunday afternoon against the Bears, with rookie tackle Bryan Bulaga accounting for all of them with a pair of holding calls and two false-start penalties.
“Bryan Bulaga made some errors today, obviously, with his penalties,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “But Bryan Bulaga will line up and start and play well in Philadelphia. That’s what I expect from him and I guarantee you he will prepare to do that.
“It was a winning performance for our football team and Bryan will learn from his mistakes. But I’m sure when we turn on the film tomorrow, there will be a lot of things that were very positive on Bryan’s behalf.”
With the regular season coming to a close on Sunday, Green Bay’s opponents for 2011 are set.
Outside of their NFC North games at home and on the road, the Packers will host Denver, New Orleans, Oakland, St. Louis and Tampa Bay at Lambeau Field next season.
Green Bay will travel to take on Atlanta, Carolina, Kansas City, the N.Y. Giants and San Diego.
That makes five contests against 2010 playoff teams, with two matchups against the Bears and games against Atlanta, Kansas City and New Orleans.
McCarthy said there were no injuries to report following the game.