Of all the records Aaron Rodgers earned in his decorated career, one in particular sticks in his craw: 1-3 in NFC Championship Games, driven, as Rodgers tells it, because the Green Bay Packers have yet to host a conference title game. The last time Green Bay earned homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, which also happened to be the last time we saw Rodgers play this well, the 15-1 Packers fell in the divisional round in one of the major blemishes on the Rodgers resume. In a comeback Rodgers season, where righting wrongs and disproving narratives undergirds a historic season, a 35-16 win and No. 1 overall seed provides a fitting regular season coda for the 2020 squad, even channeling a bit of 2019 with an ugly win.
When the Packers needed it midway through the fourth quarter, they went to their playmakers, the group maligned this offseason when Brian Gutekunst eschewed a receiver in the draft and relied instead on internal development. Davante Adams set a new Packers record for receptions, Allen Lazard caught two critical passes for first downs, and Aaron Jones took ground and air touches to extend the Packers lead to 12 with under four minutes to go in the game.
RIP to one narrative.
Rodgers started 11/11 for 170 yards with 3 touchdowns before Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a would-be walk-in touchdown that would have extended the lead to two scores in the third quarter and forced Mitch Trubisky to beat this Packers defense. Even with the drop and the resulting three-and-out, Rodgers set a new team touchdown record, breaking his previous mark of 45 (also in 2011) and putting himself in firm position to capture his third MVP award.
From washed to MVP front-runner. The haters hate to see it.
After a bizarre start, featuring a Packers challenge contesting that Cordarrelle Patterson should have been out at the one on the opening kickoff, the Bears opened with the kind of urgency a have-to-have-it team would bring to a rivalry game in Week 17. Green Bay played nickel against heavy fronts, much like in the first meeting, daring the Bears to run. That’s exactly what new playcaller Bill Lazor did, calling nine runs on a 12-play, 60-yard drive to open the scoring with a two-yard touchdown plunge.
Rodgers and the Packers, coming into the game leading the league with 66 points on opening drives, had an answer: a 12-play 80-yard scoring drive, culminating in a touchdown to Bobby Tonyan. In fact, Green Bay scored on its first three drives and its final two in a dominating offensive performance.
A Tavon Austin fumble prevented the Packers from putting the hammer down in the first half, but the Packers’ defense held to a field goal. That was a theme all night, as Mike Pettine’s defense held the Bears to 16 points after coming in scoring 30+ in five straight games.
Two second-half turnovers, one fourth-down stop, and an Adrian Amos interception keyed a stellar defensive performance, holding David Montgomery to 69 yards on 22 carries. Mitchell Trubisky hit the one big play to Darnell Mooney, but otherwise found no success down the field as the Packers let the Bears try to win dinking and dunking their way on long drives.
And just for good measure, even with the game out of reach, Jaire Alexander kept Jimmy Graham out of the end zone with a sure tackle in what would only have been a cosmetic score as time expired. This team features many of the same players as last year, but they’re remarkably different.
With the win, the Packers locked up the top seed in the NFC, another 13-3 campaign for Matt LaFleur for the so-called worst 13-3 team ever, one destined for regression. Instead, they came back better than they’ve been in a long time, are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and have a chance to punctuate one of the best seasons for this franchise in the Rodgers era.
There goes another storyline.
The No. 1 seed mattered to Matt LaFleur and his team. They didn’t back down from saying so when other teams may have shied away, falling back on clichés like “We just want to go 1-0.” Green Bay knew the Bears would come out swinging, but the Packers stuck with their game plan on offense and defense, letting their talent win out.
Once again, they scored 30+ on a terrific defense, albeit one without two of its starting cornerbacks. They won on the road, something the ‘19 Packers struggled to do, and ensured they wouldn’t have to travel until they punch their February tickets for Tampa Bay. Instead of coming out flat in a must-win game in Week 17, LaFleur’s team started hot, survived a flip in the middle of the game, and made the plays on both sides of the ball they had to have.
The MVS drop will keep him up during the bye week. So too will Kevin King’s in the end zone at the end of the first half, or even Chandon Sullivan’s on fourth down—though that one may have helped field position. It’s the kind of game the Packers put together a number of times this season: it’s an impressive performance with plenty to correct.
And that’s the theme heading into the postseason. Correct the mistakes, tighten the focus even further, and do more than just right the specific wrongs on the football field. If last year’s 13-3 wasn’t real, this one is. If Aaron Rodgers hasn’t won enough Super Bowls, the Packers have a chance to change that. If regression was supposed to get them, if the weapons weren’t enough, if Matt LaFleur doesn’t get Coach of the Year, the best thing to do is to go out-score the Chiefs and silence the critics for good.