When the Green Bay Packers were blown out by the Saints in Week 1, so badly that Jordan Love entered the game with nine minutes left, all the takes broke loose. Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions and struggled to complete 50 percent of his passes. This had to be proof and legacy of the bad blood between him and Packers brass. Maybe Rodgers should have been thinking about football and practicing football instead of spending his free time maneuvering his way out of Green Bay. Was Rodgers so eager to move on that he was going to check out of this season altogether? How could someone with hair that long even care about football?
The next week, Green Bay easily finished the Lions, 35-17, and then won with Rodgers’s last-minute genius at San Francisco, when he needed just 37 seconds and two passes to Davante Adams to get the Packers in field-goal range to win the game. Then they beat the offensively inept Steelers at Lambeau. In Week 5 they struggled to score touchdowns at Cincinnati, going 2-for-5 in red zone attempts, and needed four tries for Mason Crosby to kick a game-winning field goal. But a win is a win, and the Pack had strung together four of them. As Rodgers himself once said, relax.
Sunday in Chicago played out like a microcosm of the Packers’ season so far, from the early panic to the late unclenching. On the seventh play of the game, Bears linebacker Khalil Mack broke through Green Bay’s right tackle and right guard and made his way to Rodgers. The quarterback gave himself up and curled into a ball as soon as he saw Mack thundering toward him. Going to the ground was a smart football move, but one that gave the early impression that Rodgers was surrendering to this Bears defense. On the next drive, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields completed 3-of-4 passes for 46 yards and Chicago went 80 yards in eight plays for the touchdown. With Chicago up 7-0 and Green Bay dealing with a long list of significant injuries on both sides of the ball, it felt like the Packers were losing control of this division game and, potentially, their division lead.
Entering Week 6, the Packers were having real issues with converting in the red zone, or as they call it, the “gold zone.” Last year, they led the league in touchdown scoring in the red zone with an 80 percent success rate; coming into the game at Chicago, Green Bay was ranked 27th in red-zone efficiency at 55 percent. Meanwhile, the Bears defense had allowed the third-lowest touchdown percentage in the red zone (37.5 percent) this season.
But the Packers flipped the script on what Matt LaFleur called “the best defense we’ve seen,” and scored touchdowns on three out of four trips into the red zone. Rodgers flipped a one-yard pass to receiver Allen Lazard for the first score, then threw a checkdown pass to running back Aaron Jones, who broke a tackle and ran 12 yards into the end zone for the second touchdown, and then the quarterback took one in himself. This fifth straight win for Green Bay, on the road against the stoutest defense they’ve faced, felt like another reminder to calm down.
“I think it shows we are going to be OK,” said Jones. “We can win games in multiple ways, we have the leaders that we need. We have everybody in the locker room that we need to get the job done.”
It feels like the Packers do this dance every year. A little offseason turmoil usually involving Rodgers leads to some early-season panic after an uncharacteristic loss or a troubling trend, then a run of dominance. If there’s a twist this season, it’s that so many contributions have been coming from the deeper corners of the roster, as Green Bay has been rotating and signing new players as injuries mount. Green Bay signed cornerback Rasul Douglas off Arizona’s practice squad two weeks ago, and on Sunday, he played 85 percent of the defensive snaps. Offensive lineman Lucas Patrick stepped in at center in the first drive of the game; LaFleur said postgame he only had a handful of reps with the ones during practice that week. In the third quarter, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown made a perfectly timed block to spring receiver Amari Rodgers for his first career catch and a 14-yard first-down conversion; St. Brown had just been added back to the active roster on Wednesday after getting cut in training camp and spending the first five games on the practice squad. Injuries have affected so much of Green Bay’s roster, that when starting defensive tackle Kenny Clark hobbled off the field and missed a few plays to get his ankle taped up in the first quarter, LaFleur said, “I thought I was going to throw up.”
“I felt like the first week was an anomaly,” Rodgers said postgame on Sunday. “We’ve backed it up the last five weeks. But the way we’ve done it with the guys we’ve done it with, with the kind of injuries that we’ve had—if you look at our roster now, there’s a lot of guys that weren’t with us the start of the season that are playing big minutes. Rasul [Douglas] out there playing a bunch of time for us. I’m proud of him. You know, Jaylon [Smith] was in there a little bit today, too. Jon Runyan playing left guard for us, Lucas coming in at center. Elgton [Jenkins] coming back from an injury. EQ, you know, who was released and now he’s back and played a lot of time for us. I’m just really proud of the guys. These are character wins. These are wins that are really, really important.”
These Packers are going to be fine, as usual. Rodgers looks like he’s enjoying himself again, vividly illustrated when he claimed ownership over Chicago after he ran into the south end zone at Soldier Field for a touchdown.
Rodgers said his outburst was prompted by one woman in the stands who was holding up the double bird, but upon further review it appears that basically everyone in sight was flipping him off.
That F YOU! energy from Bears fans springs from watching Rodgers create a play where there wasn’t one, as he has done so many times before, especially here. It was just more cruel evidence that as long as Rodgers is wearing green, these Packers will always have a chance. It doesn’t matter what drama is going on with management, or how many starters are injured. When I asked him if there was a sense of finality to his message to the Bears fans, if he shouted at them because this could be his last time in that end zone, Rodgers said no, but admitted he spent some time with Crosby before the game, reflecting on all 18 games he’d played at Soldier Field in his career and appreciating the rivalry. “I don’t think this is my last one, but I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” he said.
The educated assumption is that this is Rodgers’s last dance with Green Bay; his reworked deal allows for an out, which both sides seem at peace with. But his answer, and his mood as these Packers have bounced back from the worst Week 1 loss imaginable, make his departure seem like less of a sure thing.
“I really like where we’re at,” Rodgers said. “Two up in the division after six and playing winning football.”
Nothing to see here.