Green Bay – Green Bay had one last regular season game at Lambeau Field, Jan. 2, to prove that they belonged in the playoffs. Beating the Chicago Bears at full strength was all they needed to do. The mission was accomplished, and they’re back in the playoffs again with a 10-3 win.
Chicago coach Lovie Smith wasn’t going to lie down and let the Packers sneak in the postseason because that’s how bad he wanted to beat his archrivals to the north, even though resting his starters wouldn’t improve on the Bears’ No. 2 position in the NFC playoffs that came with a first round bye.
“I respect them for that, even though they had their (playoff) spot clenched,” Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji said of the Bears.
Crunch time for Green Bay rested on the opportunity to do something about extending their season by at least one game. Judging on what myself and the rest of Packer Nation saw, the effort in the first half of the NFL’s oldest rivalry was below expectations.
Neither team budged in the first quarter, but the Bears drew first blood in the second with a 3-0 lead that they took into the locker room. Mistakes, turnovers and dropped balls reminded us of a season that went up and down like a roller coaster. The second half of the game determined if Green Bay would finish at 10-6 or 9-7.
Receiver Donald Driver wished he could’ve taken back the fumble he lost after catching a pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the Packers’ second possession of the game. Rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s holding call wiped out a big gain by receiver Greg Jennings in the second quarter. Jennings also dropped two catchable passes and James Jones dropped a pass from Rodgers.
“There were some nerves at halftime,” Rodgers said. “Frustration was the biggest thing, knowing that we needed to win. There wasn’t a whole lot said as far as ‘rah rah’ and things. We just had to play better.”
In the third quarter, the Packers made it to the Chicago 1-yard line. They couldn’t get in the end zone, but the field goal by Mason Crosby tied the game at 3-3.
In the fourth quarter, the place erupted when Green Bay tightened up their defense and finally got it together. This time, Rodgers hit Jennings in stride down the right sideline and Jennings was tackled a yard short of the end zone. Tight end Donald Lee caught the touchdown pass on the next play and did the Lambeau Leap. It was 10-3, Green Bay.
“It felt good,” Lee said. “Anytime you help your teammates out, get a victory, going to the playoffs. It’s a good win.”
Added Rodgers: “He’s made the most of (his opportunities) the last couple of weeks. You know, (Lee made) a big catch in a timely spot. That’s the play that we actually ran a couple of years ago at home against the Bears and had success. It’s fun to get him the ball. He’s a veteran guy that other guys respect. It has not been the kind of year I think he wanted, but I’m happy that he had the go-ahead touchdown tonight, and that was real important for us.”
It didn’t matter that the New York Giants beat Washington in the late afternoon game that ended around the same time as the Green Bay and Chicago contest. Tampa Bay beat New Orleans earlier in the afternoon. Green Bay, Tampa Bay and New York all finished the regular season at 10-6, but the Packers clinched the last wild-card spot because their schedule was tougher and they beat the Giants head-to-head. Guess which teams will be sitting at home watching on TV? New York might fire Tom Coughlin as their coach.
“We had an idea,” Rodgers said of the playoff scenario. “Obviously, we went into the game knowing that we controlled our own destiny, and with a win, we’re in. I think some of us were keeping tabs on the Tampa Bay score. I don’t know if it was deliberately or on accident. None of the scores were up on the board from the games we needed, but I think we figured Tampa won and we had to win.”
The Packers go into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. They put themselves in the position of surviving for their playoff lives with games they should’ve won earlier in the year. After all, that Super Bowl journey might be within reach, but they have to win three playoff games on the road, beginning at Philadelphia, the No. 3 seed, Jan. 9.
“Were worried about Philadelphia,” Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Philadelphia is a hard place to win. I’m sure our team looks a lot different than the first time we met to start the year. It’s one at a time. 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.”
Will the Packers be ready for Michael Vick this time around? He almost single-handedly brought the Eagles from behind in Week 1. The team should also remember that fourth-and-26 playoff game in Philly.
It wasn’t the time to worry about Philadelphia. It was time to celebrate. The fans exited Lambeau Field with jubilation. Employees in the Packers gift shop danced in the store and exchanged high fives with fans, who ridiculed some Bear fans by chanting, “Bears still (stink)!”