An offseason of change, of promise, and of projected rebirth came crashing to a deadening halt in the first half of the Packers 2018 season opener.
As the first seconds in the second quarter ticked away, the Bears took a 10-0 lead and it was Chicago looking like the Super Bowl contender with a revamped scheme and a razor sharp quarterback. Matt Nagy’s team led by Mitchell Trubisky put up 139 yards of offense to the Packers’ 24 with just -3 net passing yards for Aaron Rodgers. Another three-and-out just a minute later incited some scattered boo’s from the sellout crowd in attendance to open the storied franchise’s 100th NFL season.
So much for a revamped playbook with Joe Philbin’s return or a rejuvenated defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
A defensive stop gave way to another ugly possession from Mike McCarthy’s supposedly innovated offense, one that ended even uglier. A sack by Roy Robertson-Harris ended up Rodgers sprawled on the immaculate Lambeau Field turf clutching his left knee.
At this point, the season could have been lost. The tens of thousands of Packer faithful had no idea they were about to witness the greatest comeback in team history with Rodgers’ heroic return to erase a 17-point fourth quarter deficit yet to come.
Pettine’s defense appeared to settle in, picking up a fourth down stop to give the ball back to the Packers, but Rodgers remained in the blue medical tent and cueing the stadium director for DeShone Kizer’s music.
A 3rd-and-6 conversion to Randall Cobb on a pickup of 29 yards had the Packers moving in the right direction, but Khalil Mack just snatched the ball away from Kizer on a third-and-goal, killing a Packers scoring chance.
Two first-round picks didn’t seem like too high a price for the player wearing 52 in white.
Another defensive stop, this time a three-and-out, gave Green Bay the ball back with a chance to make it a one-score game before halftime. Instead, Kizer lobbed a ball intended for Ty Montgomery on a screen right into the waiting arms of Mack who promptly housed it to boost the Chicago lead to 17-0.
At that point, the score felt inconsequential. The Packers could withstand the loss of a game, even to a hated rival at home. After all, the Saints lost at home to Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1 and would still be considered a Super Bowl contender so long as Drew Brees remained upright.
Halftime ticked away for an eternity as the football world awaited word on Aaron Rodgers. When the Packers emerged from the locker room, Rodgers walked, then jogged to rapturous applause from the Cheesehead faithful. He was going to gut it out.
But when the two-time MVP finally took the field again, his squad was down 20-0 after an opening field goal to start the half.
Rodgers return breathed some life into the offense as Green Bay pushed the pace and appeared to wear down the Bears pass rush. But Vic Fangio’s defense closed down the lanes, unwilling to give up plays down the field and stymying the Packers offense. A Mason Crosby field goal cut the deficit to just 20-3.
Pettine’s nebulous, switching defense now getting in a rhythm and getting after Mitch Trubisky forced a punt as the third quarter came to a close and finally the Rodgers magic act returned. An absolute dime on a moonshot toss down the right sideline to Geronimo Allison made the lead 20-10 and caused Al Michaels to exclaim “This really is Willis Reed,” invoking the famous game in which Reed battled through an injury to lead the Knicks to a win.
When HaHa Clinton-Dix tackled Dion Sims to force a followup punt, the Lambeau crowd channeled that famous Madison Square Garden moment.
The offense was hardly limping. Rodgers poured a teardrop pass up the sideline to Davante Adams, a 51-yard catch-and-run to set up another Rodgers-to-Adams connection, this one a 12-yarder for a touchdown.
Chicago’s 20-point lead suddenly stood at just three.
As had been the case so many times in the illustrious career of Rodgers, he needed his defense to get one more stop to give him a chance to go win the game. Trubisky and the Bears got the ball back with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and Green Bay just couldn’t get off the field until after surrendering a field goal with 2:42 left to play setting up the Packers quarterback to punctuate his comeback moment.
It didn’t take long to come.
Facing third-and-10 and Rodgers’ mobility near zero, the Green Bay signal caller bought just enough time to find Randall Cobb streaking across the middle of the field. Breaking free, Cobb weaved down the right sideline with nothing but green grass in front of him until the very end where he was able to make a man miss and score a 75-yard heart-pumping touchdown.
Eat your heart out Willis Reed.
But the Packers still needed to get one stop. It appeared they had it when Jaire Alexander broke up a shot down the field, but a roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews gave the Bears one last chance. Matthews’ running mate redeemed him, as Nick Perry sacked Trubisky on fourth-and-10 to end the seal one of the most exciting wins in recent Green Bay memory.
From riding off on a cart and Packers fans across the country worrying his season, by extension the team’s season, would be over. Instead, Rodgers added yet another chapter to his estimable legacy, kicking off the Packers’ 100th season the only way it could be: with a thrilling win over their most storied rival.