GREEN BAY – If the Green Bay Packers’ run to the Super Bowl XLV title last year proved anything, it’s that homefield advantage in the NFL playoffs guarantees nothing. The Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears can attest to that.
So while the Packers accomplished one of their major regular-season goals by securing the NFC’s No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the postseason with their 35-21 victory over the archrival Chicago Bears on Sunday night at Lambeau Field, they’re also acutely aware that it’s up to them to make the most of it. Earning the franchise’s first No. 1 seed since the 1996 team did it won’t mean much unless they do what that team did on the road to winning Super Bowl XXXI: Win an NFC Divisional Playoff game on Jan. 14 or 15 and the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22 en route to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.
“It’ll be great being at home, but you’ve got to win the games,” Packers second-year left tackle Marshall Newhouse said. “This is the NFL. Homefield advantage is nice, it’s convenient, but there aren’t gimme-games. We’ve got to show up and play a great game. There’s no getting around it. It’s nice, it’s a great accomplishment, but there’s more to be done.”
Or, as coach Mike McCarthy, whose team has now won a franchise-record 14 regular-season games, put it: “We had three goals to start the season – win the division, (get) homefield advantage and obviously win the Super Bowl. We wanted the path to go through Lambeau. We have a great homefield advantage here. … I think everybody would like to play at home.”
As has been the case many times this season, an otherwise dominating victory had one glaring flaw. This time, it was the Packers’ run defense, as the Bears (7-8) racked up a whopping 199 yard on the ground, with third-stringer Kahlil Bell rushing 23 times for 121 yards.
The Bears’ run-heavy game plan was hardly surprising, given they were starting a quarterback (Josh McCown) who was coaching high-school football six weeks ago and were without their three biggest stars on offense (quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and wide receiver Johnny Knox) on offense. Plus, field-tilting return man extraordinaire Devin Hester looked like a shell of himself while playing with an ankle injury.
“Defensively, we still have some problems. We just give up way too many things on a consistent basis, so we have a long way to go,” Packers veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said. “(We’re) just not playing good football at times. We've been consistently inconsistent throughout the season. It's on each man to get it done. Moving forward, we have a great opportunity (in) the playoffs and hopefully... everybody on this team, to the man, has to look within himself and just get the job done.”
Still, there were plenty of reasons for the Packers to feel good about the way they responded to their first loss of the season last week at Kansas City. For starters, the rejiggered offensive line, playing without three injured tackles, did not allow quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked after giving up four takedowns to the Chiefs it last week’s 19-14 loss. Newhouse shut down perennial Pro Bowl end
“The key was to have a full week of practice under our belts,” said left guard T.J. Lang, who shifted to right tackle with Bryan Bulaga (knee) out. “We knew this week, with a couple of our starters down, we were going to have to have a couple guys step up and fill their roles. The chemistry was there. We never use injuries as an excuse. Our motto is ‘next guy up,’ and we came out and knew that their goal was going to be to get to Aaron. We knew that after last week we had to take more pride in protecting him. We did a pretty good job today.
In addition, wide receivers Jordy Nelson (six receptions, 115 yards, two touchdowns) and James Jones (four catches, 50 yards, two TDs) both delivered after combining for just four catches for 46 yards against the Chiefs in the offense’s first game without Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings (knee).
“For as disappointing as losing (was), having a chance to go undefeated, the most disappointing thing (last week) was that we didn't execute, perform the way we know we can and wanted to and expect to,” Nelson said. “So coming back out this week and doing that for the most part – we had a little lull there in the first half – but to get a 2-minute drill going again and playing well in the second half was huge.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, was simply Rodgers, returning to form after throwing “only” one touchdown pass and registering a quarterback rating of “only” 80.1 last week against the Chiefs. By the time he exited with the 35-10 lead and let backup Matt Flynn handle the final 7 minutes 54 seconds, Rodgers had completed 21 of 29 for 283 yards with a career-high five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a passer rating of 142.7.
Asked if he’d ever thrown five touchdown passes before, Rodgers replied: “Yeah, (in) junior college I threw for six against Shasta in 2002 at Shasta. Since then, no.” And was this one better? “It was pretty good. That was a pretty good one there. That was our rivals, Shasta College and Butte College. But this one's pretty special."
The Packers got the ball to start the game after the Bears won the toss and stole a page from McCarthy’s playbook by deferring, and Rodgers & Co. made them pay. Completing all eight of his passes on the drive for 77 of the 80 yards, Rodgers capped the drive by seeing tight end Jermichael Finley mismatched on linebacker Nick Roach and threw him a 2-yard touchdown pass to make it 7-0.
Green Bay’s problematic Ryan Pickett-less run defense allowed the Bears to move the ball effectively on the next three series, but Chicago had nothing to show for it after Robbie Gould missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt, the defense forced a punt on the second drive and Bears quarterback Josh McCown was tricked into an interception by linebacker Clay Matthews on a second-down play from the Green Bay 22-yard line.
Gould’s 34-yard field goal pulled Chicago within 7-3 with 1:56 left in the first half, but that’s when Rodgers went to work again. After a 32-yard strike to James Jones got the drive going, Rodgers converted a third-and-7 with a 17-yard completion to Jordy Nelson on a free play, then hit Donald Driver for 11 yards down to the Chicago 2. Two plays later, he hit Jones for a 2-yard TD and a 14-3 halftime lead.
The Bears kept it more than a little interesting by taking the opening second-half kickoff and driving for a touchdown. A 49-yard McCown-to-Earl Bennett completion against a seven-man pressure by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers took the ball down to the Green Bay 1, and Bears left guard Edwin Williams picked up Kahlil Bell’s fumble at the goal line for the score.
But the Packers answered quickly, with Rodgers going up top on a play-action pass to Nelson, who made safety Major Wright look downright silly on a 55-yard touchdown. Just like that, it was 21-10.
When Green Bay’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and Rodgers directed another touchdown drive – this one ending in Jones’ second TD catch of the night, a 7-yarder – it was 28-10 and the Packers were well on their way to routing their rivals. By the time Rodgers threw his fifth TD pass – a 2-yarder to Nelson just seven seconds into the fourth quarter to make it 35-10 – the only real question was how the Packers would approach next week’s regular-season finale against playoff-bound Detroit with nothing to really play for.
Judging from McCarthy’s post-game tone, getting healthy will be Job 1 now that the No. 1 seed is secure.
“That’s a great question. But I’m focused on what we just accomplished tonight,” McCarthy replied when asked what there is to play for against the Lions. “Fourteen wins – anytime I can stand up here and talk about a record that stands in front of the great history and tradition of the Green Bay Packers, that’s special. The goal was to get the home-field advantage all of the way through. We accomplished that tonight. But we do need to get healthy as a team.
“We’ll look at all of our options. But I’m not going to stand here and tell you we want to give away opportunities to win the game. We’re going to play to win the game next week. I’m not real excited about a division opponent coming in here and think we’re not going to do everything we can to get to 15-1. But health is an issue for us. I think that’s stating the obvious.”
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.