By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
Green Bay’s 24-17 loss at Soldier Field keeps Packers winless on road this season
GREEN BAY, Wis. – “With the 11th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft the Green Bay Packers select …”
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With two weeks to play in a lost season it has come to this: Packers fans are discarding their playoff scenario charts in favor of updates on NFL draft positioning.
The Packers’ 24-17 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field eliminated Green Bay from postseason play.
The harsh reality is that the loss also assured the Packers of their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1991. That was the year I began covering the Packers. A year later, Brett Favre arrived in Green Bay and the Packers’ “Golden Age” at quarterback began.
Way back then Aaron Rodgers was a grade school student dreaming about becoming the next Joe Montana. These days I’m thinking Rodgers is wondering what he can do to lead the Packers back from the brink after consecutive losing seasons.
Clearly, he isn’t throwing any bouquets to the Bears, despite their ability to run away with the NFC North title this year. Throwing them an interception was tough enough to stomach.
“The expectation is competing for championships,” Rodgers said Sunday. “It (Chicago) is a good football team. But like I told some of the guys, I look forward to the battles over the years. I like our chances in this division moving forward.”
Rodgers’ positive outlook belies the fact that the Packers have plenty of work to do to recapture their status as an elite team. This is scarcely a full-blown rebuild, but there’s no question the Packers’ margin for error in the draft and free agency is thin.
The Packers haven’t won a road game or back-to-back games all season. Their special teams remain hit-or-miss. Their defense is a game but rag-tag outfit replete with injuries and inexperience. Their once-dominant offense simply isn’t anymore.
Interim coach Joe Philbin said as much in so many words.
“Last week, we had a team victory where all three phases contributed,” Philbin told reporters. “Today, all three phases needed to do better. Coaching needed to be better. And so Chicago certainly deserved to win the game.”
The Bears (10-4) did their part to give the Packers (5-8-1) a chance to steal a victory.
Green Bay merely said thanks, but no thanks.
The Packers’ defense kept the game close through three quarters. That alone was impressive given that their defensive line was anchored by Tyler Lancaster, who led the team in tackles (seven) after replacing the injured Kenny Clark.
Leading 14-6 early in the third quarter, Bears head coach Matt Nagy elected to try a fake punt on fourth-and-1 at the 50. The Packers stuffed it to set up their tying drive.
Rodgers directed a nifty five-play, 50-yard drive that was capped by Jamaal Williams’ 10-yard touchdown run. Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for the 2-point conversion to make it 14-14 with plenty of time remaining.
The Bears’ ensuing 10-play drive spilled into the fourth quarter, but stalled at the Green Bay 26 when Chicago fumbled while trying a bit of “wildcat” razzle-dazzle in the backfield.
But the Packers failed to capitalize when their drive fizzled with a three-and-out which included Rodgers missing a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a deep throw.
The Bears apparently came to their senses, quit trying to be cute and outscored the Packers 10-3 the rest of the way.
The Packers’ Clay Matthews waxed philosophical afterward.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated having a losing season,” Matthews said. “It is what it is. We’re that close to having this whole thing flipped, but that’s all you can say in hindsight. We just haven’t done enough. We haven’t made those few plays that usually turn the game in our favor.
“It’s kind of been, unfortunately, the theme in most of the losses this year is those couple plays that we’ve made (in the past) but they’re just not happening.”
The Packers’ injuries continued Sunday when Aaron Jones left with a knee injury after just four rushing attempts. Going into the game the Packers were without starting right guard Byron Bell and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
The Bears’ powerful defense and Green Bay’s patchwork line led to five sacks, three of which were third down drive killers.
Rodgers finished 25 of 42 for 274 yards with no touchdowns and his first interception in an NFL record 402 attempts. The pass bounced off tight end Jimmy Graham’s hands and into those of Bears’ safety Eddie Jackson, although to be fair it wasn’t a particularly accurate throw.
Meantime, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky outplayed Rodgers to the tune of a 20-for-28, 235-yard, two-touchdown day that resulted in a fat 120.4 passer rating.
It led Packer Hall of Fame safety LeRoy Butler to ponder the question: How good is Rodgers? After all, he was outplayed by Trubisky, and 17 points isn’t going to win many games.
Butler has a point, but the fact is Rodgers – like his team – is having a subpar season in terms of what’s expected. Football is the ultimate team game. Butler knows that, which is why it’s puzzling he elected to call out Rodgers by Twitter on Sunday.
It’s an overreaction to suggest Rodgers is suddenly in decline. On the other hand, he needs to play better and he knows it. They all know it. But saying it and doing it are two different things.
Rodgers expects to play the final two games. He has no interest in turning the reins over to DeShone Kizer at this point.
“You just play,” Rodgers said. “We’re paid to play this game and prepare. You set different goals obviously because the playoffs won’t be happening. I think a good one is probably we can get our first road win of the year.”
Before Sunday’s game, Packers fans were all about which teams ahead of their team in the standings needed to lose. Today, the question is which teams beneath them have to win in order for the Packers to move up in the draft.
With that in mind, and as a service to Packers fans, here’s who to root for: Atlanta, Detroit, the Giants, Tampa Bay and Buffalo. They currently hold the 6th through 10th draft positions.
It’s actually a win-win.
If the Packers go to New York and defeat the Jets it’ll be great to finally get a road win. If they lose – and any of the teams with a 5-9 record win – it pushes them higher in the draft.
With a little luck, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might be saying, “With the sixth pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers select …”