As Aaron Rodgers lay crumpled on the Lambeau Field grass midway through the second quarter of Sunday night’s Bears-Packers matchup, a familiar, nightmare-inducing sequence seemed to be unfolding.
After twisting his knee in a pile of pass rushers with nine minutes to go in the half, a solemn Rodgers made his way to the locker room on a motorized cart driven by a green-and-gold-clad grim reaper, and it seemed that the Packers’ worst fears would be realized. Their savior would be lost for the majority of his second straight season. Green Bay would sleepwalk through an ugly Week 1 loss to Chicago, which felt all but secured as Khalil Mack fully transformed into Thanos at the end of the second quarter and began terrorizing backup quarterback DeShone Kizer. Under Kizer’s watch, the Packers would suffer through another trying season. Fans and analysts alike would curse the front office for failing to properly surround an all-time great with proper help, bemoan head coach Mike McCarthy’s ongoing crimes against football, and lament another lost season in the career of perhaps the most talented quarterback the league has ever seen.
So much for that.
Instead, a hobbled Rodgers limped back onto the field after halftime, orchestrated a trio of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, and ripped out the Bears’ hearts on national TV yet again, leading the Packers to a 24-23 victory. Green Bay’s improbable comeback may have been aided by the late-game decisions of Chicago’s rookie head coach and 24-year-old quarterback with just 13 NFL starts to his name, but that doesn’t detract from the magnitude of what Rodgers pulled off Sunday. Green Bay’s win was a reminder that maybe three players alive could oversee a half like that—and Rodgers managed it on one leg. When he emerged from the locker room to start the third quarter, a knowing smirk across his face, he looked like he was about to create some magic. But why? The Bears held a 17-0 lead, Mack was lurking, and Rodgers was clearly not 100 percent. The Packers might as well have taken the field to the Jaws theme.
The third quarter came and went without much fanfare, but dread began to creep in for Bears fans at the 13:59 mark in the fourth when Rodgers fired a missile directly into the hands of wide receiver Geronimo Allison for a 39-yard score. The strike—which brought the Packers within 10 points—was vintage stuff, a throw that no other quarterback past or present could have made. Standing on the left hash mark near midfield, Rodgers dropped the ball into a window the size of a shoebox, between the outstretched hand of cornerback Kyle Fuller and the back-right corner of the end zone. The play design was nothing special, the separation minimal, and yet none of it mattered. About four minutes later, Davante Adams caught another touchdown to bring the Packers within three, and eventually Randall Cobb scampered for 75 yards to give Green Bay the lead. Yes, Rodgers got some help from Cobb, and sure, Chicago’s defense faded quietly into the brisk Wisconsin night. But make no mistake: That performance was summoned by a man who can make a sideline—and an entire stadium—believe by virtue of his presence alone.
For first-year head coach Matt Nagy, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and all the young Bears, Sunday night was full of lessons. The first, and perhaps greatest: As long as Rodgers is wearing that uniform, he will be Chicago’s bogeyman. It might be hard to find the value in that particular lesson, but there’s something to be gleaned from the others.
Chicago came roaring out of the gate in the opening quarter. The Bears offense aligned in a dizzying number of formations, including some that featured running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard sharing the field to toy with the defense. Left tackle Charles Leno split out wide as a receiver to give the illusion of a screen pass while the Bears gashed Green Bay inside. Wide receiver Allen Robinson skied over defenders to haul in a pair of contested catches. Trubisky delivered accurate, authoritative throws to every spot on the field. After three seasons spent toiling in the antiquated world of John Fox and his staff, the Bears finally looked ready to usher in a new era with a modern, creative offense lined with receiving talent. And then, just as quickly as that reality arrived, it disappeared.
Away from the offense’s opening script of plays, its aggression vanished in the second half as the Bears attempted to stretch a four-minute drill into 30 minutes of game action. All down-field looks disappeared as Trubisky repeatedly dumped the ball to Howard and Cohen on quick, horizontal routes toward the sideline; at one point in the fourth quarter, Trubisky had completed eight of his 11 second-half throws for 27 yards. As Trubisky’s confidence waned, his eyes fell, and he failed to let it rip on a number of open throws in the second half, instead content to pull the ball down and run with barely any sign of trouble. His apprehension made Nagy’s late-game play calling all the more curious. Up three with 2:47 remaining, the Bears faced a third-and-2 from Green Bay’s 14-yard line. Looking for the dagger to put Rodgers down for good, the Bears dialed up a double move to Cohen out of the backfield. Yet Trubisky ate the ball and flipped an obligatory incompletion toward receiver Anthony Miller, and the Bears settled for a field goal. That put them up 23-17, but they gave the ball back to Rodgers with more than two and a half minutes to work.
By that point, a Bears defense that had looked so promising for most of the first half appeared to have little chance of stopping Rodgers. Mack was a force for the first two quarters, but Chicago was cautious about throwing him all the way into the game plan after just a week’s worth of practice. He spent large chunks of the second half on the sideline, and when he was on the field, right tackle Bryan Bulaga managed to mitigate his impact. Asking Mack, after only a handful of days in Chicago, to dominate for four quarters against the NFL’s best pair of pass-blocking tackles was always an unreasonable expectation. But already his effect on the team’s pass rush and coverage on the outside was on display. The best days for the Bears defense—with a fully ingrained Mack and rookie linebacker Roquan Smith—are ahead of it, and this group was hardly the first to be smited by Rodgers when he’s throwing thunderbolts.
There were many encouraging signs Sunday for a Chicago team in desperate need of them. And, for all the talk of the Bears’ potential status as this season’s version of the 2017 Rams, these recipes are often more complicated than “just add water.” Yet all the optimism in the world won’t make this loss sting any less. If Fuller hadn’t dropped a ready-made interception on the Packers’ final drive, the Bears would be 1-0. If Trubisky had hit Robinson on a goal-line fade in the first quarter, the score would’ve been 14-0 Bears, and the game would’ve gotten out of hand early. If Nagy had let Howard—who finished with 82 yards on 15 carries—salt the game away, Rodgers’s heroics would’ve taken a back seat in a gutty Bears victory.
For now, though, those heroics are worth celebrating. The Bears’ party may have been spoiled, but it was spoiled by one of the best to ever do it, as Rodgers channeled the height of his power when a franchise and a fan base needed it most. Chicago’s day may come, but for now, the king in the North remains.