CHICAGO – Afterward, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t quite sure what to make of how he felt.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers quarterback was thrilled to be 3-0 after Sunday’s 27-17 victory over the archrival Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. But given some of the mistakes he and his team had made and the stunning touchdown-that-wasn’t at the end of the game, the vibe wasn’t quite what you’d expect after a victory over the team that entering the year appeared to be the defending Super Bowl champions’ prime competition for the NFC North division title.
“It’s an interesting feeling in that locker room. You feel … I’m disappointed I threw that pick, and I’m kind of slightly in awe of that last special teams play by Chicago, which was incredible,” Rodgers said after the Packers took a 27-10 lead, then turned the ball over on their next two possessions. “But, we just won a big division game against a rival on the road.
“I think there’s a feeling of, ‘We could have played a little bit better.’ It’s fun to be 3-0, it’s exciting coming to work with these guys. And we’ve got, I think, our best football is still in front of us.”
That may be the best news to come out of Soldier Field Sunday evening if you’re the Packers: While the Packers are tied atop the NFC North with upstart Detroit (3-0) and are off to their best start since 2007 – and only their sixth 3-0 start since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger – they also know they have plenty of room for improvement.
“I guess you would say three ugly wins – but they’re wins,” veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said. “It’s easier to build off of wins than to lose. I think what we’ve been able to do is have some close games that went down to the wire, and we were able to make plays that we needed to make to win. What we take from it is that no matter where we are in the game or what’s going on, we can pull it out. The season’s only going to get tougher for us. But we feel like we’re building the type of team that can stand the test of a hard season.
“No matter how we win – whether it’s a pretty win or an ugly win – just get the win. And that’s what we’re doing.”
There were certainly some beautiful moments against the Bears (1-2), headlined by the resurgence of tight end Jermichael Finley (seven catches for 85 yards and three touchdown) and running back Ryan Grant (17 carries, 92 yards), Rodgers’ continued stellar play (28 for 38, 297 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 111.4 passer rating), shutting down the Bears’ running game (Matt Forte managed a measly 2 yards on nine attempts) and second-year safety Morgan Burnett (two interceptions) playing well a week after three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was lost for the season with a neck injury.
But then came a fourth quarter of lowlights: Running back James Starks’ fumble, followed by a Rodgers interception intended for Finley, followed by Johnny Knox’s 89-yard punt return for a touchdown on a trick play with 51 seconds left – an astonishing display that would have made things very interesting if not for the suspect holding penalty on Chicago’s Corey Graham that wiped it out – that left coach Mike McCarthy seemingly less than thrilled in postgame news conference.
“We’re really focused on a fast start. We classify a fast start as the production you have in the first four games. We have a chance to go 4-0, which would dictate a fast start,” said McCarthy, whose Packers are one of only four remaining undefeated teams, along with Detroit, Buffalo (3-0) and Washington (2-0 entering Monday night’s game at Dallas). “There’s so much football left to be played. People that talk about leading the division after three games, I think it’s nonsense. There’s a lot of football left to be played.
“It’s tough to win on the road; it’s even tougher to win division games on the road. It’s early in the season. Our two targets were to, No. 1, to win the game and, No. 2, to improve as a football team. What’s exciting is we’re 3-0. We have a ton of room for improvement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It looked like the Packers would have an easy time against a Bears team that nearly kept them out of the playoffs last season in the regular-season finale and a nearly blocked their trip to Super Bowl XLV in the NFC Championship Game, in part because the Bears were without starting safeties Major Wright and Chris Harris, right tackle Gabe Carimi and several key reserves due to injury.
Rodgers led the Packers right down the field on the opening series, marching 80 yards in eight plays en route to Finley’s first touchdown, with Greg Jennings (career-high nine catches for 119 yards) doing most of the work with four receptions for 61 yards. Finley’s second touchdown, a 7-yarder set up by his 24-yard catch two plays earlier, pushed the lead to 14-0 three minutes into the second quarter.
“As long as No. 12 is going to be playing quarterback, it doesn’t matter who they have in there. I think you saw that last year,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “Jermichael Finley is a big target. He’s an athletic guy. But Rodgers makes them go.”
Finley’s third touchdown, with 12:49 to go in the game, pushed the lead to 27-10, but the Packers couldn’t deliver the knockout blow. Starks’ fumble came one play after Burnett’s second INT at the Packers’ 40-yard line; Urlacher’s interception of Rodgers’ short pass to Finley against a blitz came on the Packers’ next possession. In between, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler hit tight end Kellen Davis for a 32-yard touchdown on which three Packers defenders missed tackles.
Entering the game, the Packers’ offense had not committed a turnover, with the team’s only giveaway being a Randall Cobb fumble on a kickoff return at Carolina last week.
“We had two turnovers – that’s a negative. (And) just too many pre-snap penalties,” said McCarthy, whose team was flagged seven times for 5-yard infractions, including five false starts on offense. “I thought we were productive. When we stayed in rhythm, we stayed on time – which is a big emphasis when you play the Bears, because of the way they play on defense – I thought we were very effective. We definitely have a lot of room for growth.”
The Packers’ next two offensive possessions ended in punts, the second of which Knox returned for an apparent touchdown when returner Devin Hester and all of the Bears’ blockers ran to the right side of the field while Tim Masthay’s punt to the left went right to Knox, who was off to the races. When the play was wiped out, the Bears’ comeback was, too.
“I'd say it's exciting. We're still not clicking on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Rodgers reasoned. “I think we have the potential to get better. I don't know how many wins that means or the playoffs or whatever, but I just think that we can play better football. The standard that we've set around Green Bay is excellence, so until we're at that point, there's going to be a lot of hard work during the week.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.