This was supposed to be the “easy one.” Sitting at 7-6, Green Bay needed to win its three remaining games to have any hope of securing a playoff birth. With the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions both sitting above .500 and with impressive wins on their respective résumés, the game against the lowly 3-10 Bears was supposed to be a gimme. Yesterday served as a stark reminder: there’s no such thing as an easy win in the NFL.

After a 34-yard Mason Crosby field goal tied the game at halftime, Green Bay scored 17 unanswered third quarter points to extend the lead to 27-10. But this is a scrappy, hard-nosed Bears team that deserves plenty of credit for fighting back and never letting the Packers run away with the game. Bears third-string quarterback Matt Barkley – who was cut by the Arizona Cardinals this offseason and only has three professional starts to his name – isn’t a world beater by any stretch of the imagination. But his play is markedly improved since his first snaps of the season against Green Bay in week 7 when he was thrust into the starting role after Brian Hoyer broke his left arm. The former USC product threw two interceptions in that third quarter, both leading to touchdowns, but like his Bears teammates he bounced back. Barkley strung together three impressive scoring drives in the fourth, the last of which led to a game-tying field goal with 1:23 left in the game.

Head coach Mike McCarthy wisely burned two timeouts with Chicago in the red zone, knowing that he needed to give Rodgers as much time as possible regardless of the drive’s outcome. But after an incompletion on first down and a failed pitch on second down, the situation was different. Chicago had two timeouts, while Green Bay had the ball at third-and-ten on its own 27 yard line. When Packer lineman Lane Taylor was injured on the pitch, Bears coach John Fox declined the ten-second runoff, indicating he hoped for a defensive stop and the ball back. But the clock starts when everyone is set, and the ever aware Rodgers let the clock run for about twenty seconds before snapping it, and John Fox curiously didn’t call a timeout. Rodgers snapped the ball, dropped back and took a few steps to his left. Even more curious, the Bears left rookie cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc in single coverage on Jordy Nelson without any safety help. Rodgers noticed this and placed a perfect deep ball to Jordy, driving his knife through the hearts of Chicago’s faithful. He got his team up to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball, balky calf and all, while waving Lane Taylor off the field in the process. Mason Crosby hit the game-winning field goal, and Rodgers, that crazy bastard, did it again. If this team does indeed make the playoffs, this will easily go down as the play of the season. It was Rodgers’ longest completion thus far this year.

Playing in one of the coldest games in Soldier Field’s lengthy history, the Pack jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead on the back of several impressive third down conversions from Rodgers to tight end Jared Cook. But Rodgers was clearly dealing with tightness in his injured calf (and possibly in his injured hamstring too) and was confined to the pocket for most of the day. There were several plays that he typically extends with his legs, but he simply didn’t feel comfortable leaving the pocket where he can be so effective. The offense notably slowed down, going for a few three-and-outs late in the game and stalling a few drives in the fourth quarter. This was felt especially on third down, when Rodgers was sacked twice and had a third sack negated by penalty. Green Bay held on to the lead, but with another cold game on the horizon, Rodgers calf needs to heal quickly.

It should be noted Rodgers’ stats (19 for 31, 252 yards; 3 carries for 19 yards) belie his performance. He still completed crisp, accurate throws, and Davante Adams uncharacteristically dropped two easy touchdowns. Jordy also had a few atypical drops. Especially playing on the road in the frigid weather while injured, he would have had his typical MVP-like numbers without those huge drops.

Ty Montgomery, professional running back

For weeks, James Starks was stuck in the mud, while Ty Montgomery did something positive on seemingly every touch he was given. And yet, Mike McCarthy refused to give Montgomery more snaps or carries, and the running game continued to flounder. Possibly forced by James Starks’ concussion (from a car accident) this week, McCarthy finally installed Montgomery as his full-time running back on Sunday. And boy did he look the part.

Montgomery rumbled his way to 162 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries (an absurd 10.1 YPC), and arguably should have gotten the ball a lot more. Check the highlights, they’re as good as it gets. This coming out party came at the perfect time, considering the Packers haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since Eddie Lacy (remember him?) did it in week three. There is no doubt that Montgomery is a running back, and the team’s starter moving forward. It’ll be fun to watch.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix laughs his way to another two interception game

There’s no denying that Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a rising star in this league. With two more interceptions yesterday – his second multi-interception game of the season – Ha Ha’s five picks move him into a four-way tie for second place in the league. Ironically, former Packer Casey Hayward leads the league with seven. It’s been an up-and-down season for this secondary, but Ha Ha has been arguably the most consistent contributor. He’s opportunistic and always roaming in the right place over the top of the defense. His play is becoming reminiscent of the last star safety Green Bay had, the ever awesome superbowl hero Nick Collins. That may be high praise for a young player, but Ha Ha’s continued rise is one of the brightest developments for this team. Only time will tell how many multi-turnover games are still up his sleeves.

Defense must rebound from 17-point fourth quarter

That’s pretty much all there is to say. Better to (hopefully) get it out of the group’s system before taking on a more potent offense like Detroit’s in week 17, a team that has proven capable of late comebacks time and again. This felt like the classic Dom Capers’ defense of old: a bend-but-don’t-break scheme that’s opportunistic at taking the ball away but struggles to hold leads. If not for a Julius Peppers strip sack and the two aforementioned interceptions, all of which came in the third quarter, Green Bay likely would have lost this game. McCarthy stresses turnover differential to an exhausting degree, and he’s right that this team wins the war when it’s victorious in the turnover battle. But turnovers also carry a high degree of randomness, and it’s not something this team can rely on going forward.

Considering Chicago hadn’t reached the 27-point mark all season long, there will be a lot for this defense to watch on film this week. Jordan Howard found plenty of running room on his way to 90 rushing yards on 17 carries (5.3 YPC) and a touchdown. Matt Barkley set a career high with 362 passing yards and a very solid 69.8 completion percentage. This won’t fly should Green Bay make the playoffs, where quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and more will be ready to pick apart this defense. The highlights? Aside from the turnovers, Jake Ryan had six tackles and played pretty well in the running game, and Micah Hyde saved a game-winning touchdown with a third-down pass deflection. For the third time this season, Green Bay somehow only had 10 defenders on the field after a timeout and had to send a defensive lineman running in from the sideline. It hasn’t burned the Pack over the last two weeks, but it’s inexcusable and needs to be fixed by the coaches. Damarious Randall was benched in the fourth quarter after allowing several catches and a touchdown to Alshon Jeffrey on a big drive.

NFC North finally cooperates

Even after last week’s resounding victory over a big NFC rival, Green Bay’s playoff hopes were fairly dim. The Vikings and Lions played close, gritty affairs, and both came away with huge wins. The teams ahead of Green Bay in the wildcard race, like the Washington Football Club, New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccanneers all won close games as well. It left a little hint of bitterness in the sweet taste of victory.

But every week is different in the NFL, and week 15 sang a different tune. The Colts destroyed the Vikings in Minnesota, and the Lions lost to the Giants, incapable of pulling off yet another fourth-quarter comeback. The Packers play at home against the Vikings next week, and then on the road at Detroit in week 17. As it stands, Green Bay finally controls its own destiny. A win at home next week would make week 17 a winner-take-all NFC North battle (spoiler alert: I’m buying tickets for that one). It’s a potentially exciting conclusion to a roller coaster season, one that didn’t seem remotely possible four weeks ago.

Before that, however, Green Bay has to win the first one. The Packers take on the Vikings at Lambeau this coming Saturday, Christmas Eve at 12:00 PM. Will it be a happy holiday? We’ll find out next week.

Game Notes

  • With the win, Green Bay tied the all-time series against the Bears, which now sits at 94-94-6. It is the first time the series has been tied since 1933. The Packers have won 12 of the last fourteen meetings between the two.
  • This fun nugget, per ESPN: In 2015 and 2016, Rodgers has completed four passes of 40-plus yards in the final two minutes of regulation, including playoffs. The rest of the NFL has two completed two, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
  • Ty Montgomery had never reached more than 9 carries in a game prior to Sunday’s win. He had 16 yesterday.
  • Randall Cobb had zero catches in the game. It marked his first full game played without a catch since week 13 of his rookie year (2011).
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