CHICAGO – Afterward, Mike McCarthy and Charles Woodson were in different places – literally, and emotionally.
The Green Bay Packers coach was down a long corridor from the Soldier Field visitors’ locker room, standing at the podium discussing his team’s 21-13 victory over the archrival Chicago Bears. The even-keeled, all-football McCarthy wasn’t interested in the obvious narrative: How his team, which at one point had been 2-3 in the wake of a controversial loss in Seattle and an 18-point blown lead two weeks later in Indianapolis, had gone from the precipice of a lost season to clinching its second consecutive NFC North division title with two weeks left to play.
“I'm not a drama queen,” McCarthy said in one of his Pittsburgh macho moments. “It's great that we won the (division) championship today. I feel good about it. I'm not trying to diminish anything here. But we're just getting started. We feel that way as a football team.
“I'm not trying to be arrogant. We feel we have a lot better football in front of us. This is an extremely important game for everybody involved today, but we fully expected to come in here and win this thing. We got the division championship, and now we'll be focused on (getting to) 11 wins next week at home against Tennessee."
Then, there was Woodson, the team’s sage, emotional defensive leader, standing in the visitors’ locker room, soaking it in, watching his teammates don their NFC NORTH CHAMPIONS baseball caps and revel in their eighth victory in their last nine games (and sixth in a row) against the Bears.
Woodson was in complete agreement with McCarthy on the idea that this team has more to accomplish. But having just spent his seventh straight game as a spectator because of his Oct. 21 broken collarbone, the veteran safety found himself feeling a bit more introspective. It had been in this very locker room that he’d delivered his famous pregame speech about booking a trip to Super Bowl XLV against President Barack Obama’s favorite team (“White House on three!”) and celebrated that NFC Championship Game victory a few hours later.
And from his unfamiliar place on the sideline, he was starting to see things come together, just as they did two years ago amid injury after injury after injury.
“It’s been special, man. Honestly, it’s been a joy to watch these guys play football – even though I’m watching from the sidelines,” Woodson said. “Just having that opportunity to see guys grow, to get better and perform the way they have all season, it’s been a joy to watch.
“With games like today, tough games, I think we’re ascending – getting ready to make a run at what we all play the game for. To come out today, with the opportunity to win the NFC North, against a team that you know is always a tough opponent for you, to come out with a win says a lot about our team. These tough games, that's when you find out what kind of team you've got.
“We like where we're at this point. Big win for us today to be NFC North champions, but we know we can still get better. And we're going to get better.”
With the victory, the Packers improved to 10-4 on the year, including 5-0 in the division and 2-0 against their archrivals. They are two games back of Atlanta (12-2) for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and remained a half-game back of the San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1). Green Bay would have moved into the No. 2 slot had the New England Patriots pulled off their stunning comeback Sunday night, but the 49ers held on for a 41-34 victory.
The Packers are assured a first-round home game no matter what happens against Tennessee next Sunday and Minnesota on Dec. 30.
“It’s huge,” said Packers wide receiver James Jones, who caught three touchdown passes on the day – of 29, 8 and 6 yards – and now leads the NFL with 12 TD receptions on the season. “That’s what we came out here for, to get a win, to go home division champs and continue to just grow as a team and get better as a team. We know this was not our ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. So we have a lot of work to do.”
So do the Bears, but that work is now to simply make the playoffs, as Chicago fell to 8-6 and is now in danger of missing the playoffs after a 7-1 start. Since 1990, 37 teams have started 7-1, and only one – the 1996 Washington Redskins – failed to make postseason.
And it certainly doesn’t help that the Packers are dominating their rivals to the south the way they are.
“It wears on me. It wears on everybody,” said Cutler, who was 12 of 21 for 135 yards with one touchdown, one interception and four sacks (72.5 rating) to fall to 1-7 against the Packers as the Bears’ starter in regular-season play, with a passer rating of 61.5. “You don't want to lose to your rival year-in and year-out.
“It's not a rival anymore. It's a domination.”
That’s what Sunday’s game could have been – a domination. But after taking control of the game with Jones’ three touchdowns in a four-series span, the Packers did their best to let the Bears back into the game.
After Chicago turned the first of kicker Mason Crosby’s two missed field-goal attempts into a 7-0 lead with a 15-yard Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall touchdown, the Packers found themselves starting on their own 11-yard line when Randall Cobb was taken down on the ensuing kickoff.
But on third-and-6 from the Green Bay 34, quarterback Aaron Rodgers ran for his life from the Bears’ pass rush and, while sprinting, uncorked an on-the-mark 31-yard strike to Cobb with three defenders nearby. Three plays later, he lasered a 29-yard touchdown to Jones, who’d run past cornerback Kelvin Hayden on the right sideline.
“That was important. That was really important,” said Rodgers, who completed 23 of 36 passes for 291 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and three sacks (116.8 rating). “(It allowed us to) keep the crowd at bay a little bit. Chicago fans are excellent sports fans and they know when to cheer and when to get loud. We’ve played here and it’s been very difficult to hear. Today, at points it was the same.
“We couldn’t let them get up a couple scores and then kind of get into what they wanted to do.”
The Green Bay defense, which was clutch all day, forced a three-and-out punt, and when the Packers offense responded in kind, it appeared as the teams would head into the break tied at 7-7. But when Cutler and Devin Hester weren’t on the same page, rookie Casey Hayward easily picked Cutler off – “That’s Jay,” cornerback Sam Shields said, harkening back to the teams’ first meeting – and gave Rodgers & Co. new life at the Chicago 26.
Five plays later, Rodgers hit Jones again, this time for an 8-yard TD and a 14-7 lead.
“That’s Bears-Packers football. There’s going to be momentum swings,” said McCarthy, who showed his team clips of the famed 1974 Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for motivational purposes. “We talked about it all week: Just keep punching, and there’s going to be times in this game when we need to counterpunch. I thought our guys did a great job of that today.”
What they failed to do, though, was deliver the knockout blow. They did accomplish their goal of “doubling up” – scoring on the final drive of the first half and the first drive of the second – by taking the second-half kickoff and turning it into Jones’ third TD for a 21-7 lead. But then, after the defense got another three-and-out, veteran running back Ryan Grant fumbled at the Chicago 37, at the end of a 14-yard gain. While the Bears only got a field goal going the other way, it was a knockout opportunity squandered.
“I like them all to be blowouts, to be honest with you. This one had a chance, too,” said Rodgers, who improved to 8-2 against Bears in regular-season play, with a passer rating of 102.7 (19 TDs, 6 INTs). “We were up 21-7, we doubled them up there at the end of the first half. In the second half, we got the ball back, we were driving, we turned the ball over, and you just can’t turn the ball over against these guys.
“It’s tough to put this team away. … For some reason every time they play us they’re never out of the game.”
That was the case again Sunday. First, Crosby doinked a 42-yard field goal attempt off the left upright, keeping the Bears within 11. And when the defense forced another punt, McCarthy got the harebrained idea to use a trick play on the punt, instead of having Cobb simply fair-catch the ball.
Cobb, a part-time quarterback in college at Kentucky, caught the ball, then rainbowed it across the field to backup returner Jeremy Ross, who bobbled it. The Bears recovered the loose ball at the Packers’ 16.
Again, the defense forced a three-and-out, and the Bears had to settle for an Olindo Mare field goal, pulling them to within 21-13 with 7:04 to play. But while the offense’s final two series also ended in punts, the defense – with the help of rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffery’s third offensive pass interference penalty of the day – never let the Bears sniff the end zone.
“I thought our defense took over the football game. Our third-down defense was outstanding,” McCarthy said of a unit that allowed only 190 net yards, 12 first downs and didn’t allow a single third-down conversion (0-for-9). “We put them in tough situations in the fourth quarter.
“With that, it’s an excellent team win and that’s what’s exciting about our group. We feel like this 2012 group has a chance to continue to get better. We have a lot more to offer in all three phases.
“I’m thrilled to win a division championship. We know we’re now in the tournament, the playoffs, and now we fight for the seed.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.