Green Bay earns season sweep, 21-13, sets sight on NFC playoff positioning
Green Bay Packers News – Aside from a fake punt return that was at once awful and inexplicable, the Green Bay Packers seldom strayed from the plan.
On offense, they pounded the football. On defense, they pounded the quarterback. In between, they played just well enough to capture the NFC North championship with a 21-13 victory over the Bears Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
“We’re just getting started,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “We feel that way as a football team. We feel there’s a lot better football in front of us.”
Clearly, the Packers (10-4) are the best team in their division, having won 11 straight against NFC North opponents. Whether they are the NFC’s best will be determined by several factors:
** Clay Matthews’ presence is critical, not just for his play on defense, but for the entire team’s overall outlook. Matthews is a star who can turn the corner – and the game – in a flash. Matthews racked up two of the Packers’ four sacks of the Bears’ Jay Cutler, who looked his usually rattled, out-of-sorts self on the sideline.
Matthews’ affect on the team, not unlike that of Reggie White’s in the 1990s, can’t be overstated. It’s like the Dallas Cowboys without DeMarcus Ware, or the San Francisco 49ers without Aldon Smith, only Matthews is better.
“You can see it in practice. When Clay Matthews is on the field, we are a different defense,” McCarthy said. “He is an impact player, he made an impact today. He is clearly one of the best defensive players in the league and I think that says it all.”
Matthews’ return from a nagging hamstring injury, coupled with defensive back Charles Woodson’s long-anticipated comeback (perhaps this week), offers a rare late-season boost to an ascending defense.
By the way, this might be a good time to commend Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers on the unit’s performance.
The Packers’ defense has been slowly, steadily and most assuredly improving throughout this season. It has endured the loss of Desmond Bishop, and then D.J. Smith, at inside linebacker. It has survived despite the extended absence of Woodson. It has generated enough pass rush to win on game days when Matthews is sidelined.
The Packers’ defense may not overwhelm opponents, but it certainly has been able to control them. When Green Bay has needed a stop the defense generally has delivered.
Think about this: The Bears were 0-for-9 on third down attempts. Basically, the Bears were in two-down territory for the entire game. Chicago managed just 83 yards rushing and 107 yards passing in addition to a paltry nine (6 by pass; 3 by run) first downs.
“Defensively, I thought that after the first series, I thought our defense really took over the football game,” McCarthy said. “Our third down defense was outstanding. We put them in tough situations there in the fourth quarter.”
** The running game seems to be a bona fide part of the offensive attack. Alex Green, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris combined for 96 yards on 26 carries, which was enough to influence the Bears’ defense and provide opportunities for Rodgers in the passing game.
Grant’s fumble needs to be a “one and done” situation. If not, I’m certain McCarthy would turn to Green and Harris without hesitation.
In fact, a little more Harris seems like a good idea regardless of Grant’s ability to hold onto the football. Harris’ vision, acceleration and balance merit a more extensive look.
** The offensive line needs to remain settled from here on out.
It helped that T.J. Lang was at left guard, and that Don Barclay is getting more comfortable at right tackle. This offensive line seems able to give the Packers just enough room to run or time to throw.
The Packers’ running game was far from great, but it was good enough to occasionally force the Bears’ defense into single coverage. That is when Aaron Rodgers found receiver James Jones not once, not twice, but three times for touchdowns.
Rodgers relied on his legs to buy time when his offensive line failed to. He bought enough to hit on 23 of 36 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
“I thought Aaron played really well,” McCarthy said, “especially down here against a real tough defense.”
When the Bears scored on a Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall touchdown pass to go up 7-0, Rodgers and the offense responded with a touchdown drive to quiet the Soldier Field crowd.
“That was important,” Rodgers said. “That was really important to keep the crowd at bay a little bit. Chicago fans are excellent sports fans; they know when to cheer and when to get loud. We’ve played here and it’s been very difficult to hear … we couldn’t let them get up a couple of scores and get into what they wanted to do.”
The Bears’ offense wanted to run Matt Forte and back it up with strong play-action passes. The running game never materialized once Capers countered by moving a safety down to the line of scrimmage.
Cutler finished 12 of 21 for 135 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He tried to look ahead, but the loss stung.
“You don’t want to lose to your rival year in and year out. It’s not a rival. It’s a domination,” Cutler said.
Last week’s prediction: Packers 24, Bears 23 (Packers, 21-13)
This week’s prediction: Packers 31, Titans 17
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.