The Chicago Bears were dead before halftime.
The performance put on by Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Dom Capers' defense will go down as one of the most memorable in the Packers-Bears rivalry if only for the magnitude of dominance. Chicago's 42-point halftime deficit was the largest ever in franchise history. Meanwhile, if not for a Randall Cobb fumble, Rodgers perhaps ties the NFL record for most touchdown passes in a single game.
Yet, the most significant takeaways from this game center on the NFC North, or rather which of its teams still matter.
The NFC North now firmly a two-team race
Though Chicago entered the week 3-5 and in NFC North cellar, there remained a clear path to contention. The second half of the Bears' schedule contained five games against divisional opponents along with three additional home games. With the bye week to self-scout, it was possible, however unlikely*, the Bears could fight their way back into playoff contention. However, after getting boat raced by the Packers to the tune of 55-14, nothing can save Chicago's season.
That leaves only Detroit (7-2) and Green Bay (6-3) contending for the NFC North, a race that could potentially come down to a Week 17 winner-takes-all showdown at Lambeau. The Lions have won four games straight, the last three of which required a fourth quarter comeback. Not to be outdone, the Packers have won five of their last six.
It's difficult to ascertain which team is better positioned to take the division. The Lions possess the slighter better record, the league's top defense, and the early head-to-head advantage. However, their offense ranks 24th in points per game, fifth worst in the conference, and their schedule moving forward is among the toughest in the league. As for the Packers, they own the NFC's top scoring offense and point differential. They also play the majority of their remaining games at home, including every matchup against a team with a winning record save for Buffalo.
We'll know a lot more about this race over the next two weeks. If Detroit finds a way to win over the 8-1 Cardinals and 7-2 Patriots, the Packers could be playing for a wildcard. On the other hand, if the Lions drop one or both of those games, it opens the door for Green Bay to overtake them.
*Tex requires we meet a Star Wars reference quota or he takes away our allowance
Capers finds inventive uses for Matthews
Other than rest and recovery, no aspect of the bye week is more significant than a team's self scouting effort. The Packers, fresh off a beating in New Orleans, needed this opportunity to find and correct their myriad of defensive issues, including their inability to stop the run and poor play at inside linebacker. With limited options as far as changing personnel, Dom Capers instead found a new way to utilize star linebacker Clay Matthews.
Against the Bears, Matthews lined up at inside linebacker in non-obvious passing situations. This allowed the defense to increase its bulk up the middle while creating additional pass rush up the gut. While taking an edge rusher further away from the line of scrimmage is a risky measure, the move paid off. Chicago rushed for a putrid 67 yards (discounting punter Pat O'Donnell's "carry" for -12 yards) while Matthews led the team in tackles while adding a sack and two tackles for loss.
More importantly, the Bears offense never found a way to account for Matthews attacking from so many different areas. Though he may not play primarily inside linebacker again this season, it seems likely that Capers will continue to move Matthews around to create confusion and chaos for opposing offenses.
The Lacy screen is here to stay
One of the few highlights from the Packers' loss to the Saints was the emergence of Eddie Lacy in the screen game. Unlike in past games where Lacy was relegated to a check down option, the team spotlighted Lacy's vision and open field running ability by placing a convoy of blockers ahead of him. Here's what we wrote then:
"With the coaching staff spending much of the bye week self-scouting, Lacy's ability to move the sticks as a receiver will surely be a focus. 100-yard games will never be the norm for a tailback in the Packers offense, Lacy should get more opportunities to catch and run moving forward."
The Packers didn't take long to again work their star tailback into the passing game. Facing second and 18 in the second quarter, Mike McCarthy dialed up the screen. Lacy took the pass from near the right sideline and proceeded to gallop down the seam before breaking back over the middle. Once there, Jordy Nelson landed the final block necessary to spring Lacy into the end zone.
Many things need to be properly executed in order for the screen to work. However, with the Packers' light-footed offensive linemen and physical receivers, such is hardly an impossible task. They won't run it very often, but the screen game will remain a part of the offense for the rest of the season.
Rodgers takes lead in MVP race
Only four active NFL players have won the MVP, of which only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have earned the award multiple times. However, after yet another transcendent performance by Aaron Rodgers (his fourth game with a passer rating over 135 this season), Manning and Brady could soon have company.
Purely by the numbers, Rodgers compares favorably with the other perceived contenders. The Colts' Andrew Luck has more touchdowns yet three times the interception total. The aforementioned Manning trails yards per attempt and has thrown over twice as many picks. Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have made strong cases of late with each more than doubling their touchdown total over their last four games, yet neither has displayed Rodgers' consistency. DeMarco Murray remains in the race, but whether justified or not his candidacy will appear weaker to the voters if he falls short of 2,000 rushing yards. He's currently on pace for 1,973.
But statistics alone aren't what separates Rodgers from the pack. No player presents as many challenges for the opposition as Rodgers, who threatens defenses as much with his legs as his arm. Even when a defender has him dead to rights, as Jared Allen did multiple times rushing from the quarterback's blindside, Rodgers instinctively climbs the ladder, creating enough time to locate the open receiver. For all the criticism he's taken for holding onto the football, Rodgers' is taken fewer sacks this season, and his teammates are taking notice.
"The biggest thing we've noticed up front is he's making quick decisions," guard T.J. Lang said in the locker room after Sunday's game. "[He's] getting the ball out of his hand and not taking a lot of unnecessary sacks that we tend to get blamed for."
He is currently on pace for roughly 36 sacks which would be his lowest total since the last time he won the MVP. That version of Rodgers -- the one throwing an absurd amount of touchdowns, limiting interceptions, and avoiding costly sacks -- is going to be difficult to overtake for the league's top individual honor.