CHICAGO — As forecast, the Chicago Bears gave it the old college try on this 44-degree afternoon at Soldier Field.
They knocked the Green Bay Packers’ run defense on its heels in a rip-snorting opening drive.
They sacked Aaron Rodgers twice in the first two series and kept the Packers off the scoreboard through three possessions.
And they scored first on an exceptional individual play by their mainstay on offense, Brandon Marshall.
When wide receiver Joe Anderson blew up Randall Cobb on the kickoff return, the Packers were 89 yards from a tying touchdown and a long way from clinching the NFC North Division championship.
So often in this rivalry over the last two decades, quarterback play tipped the scales toward the Packers. It did again Sunday in Green Bay’s 21-13 victory.
Facing third and 6 early in the drive, Aaron Rodgers was flushed from the pocket and fleeing to his right as the pursuit began to close. Out of nowhere, he decided to throw into a tight sideline window to Cobb, who went up and speared the pass for a gain of 31 yards.
“I kind of had flashbacks to back in Atlanta when he used to do that,” fullback John Kuhn said. “They brought one too many guys. They had a free rusher, and he made the guy miss. He’s a fantastic player, the best in the league.”
Then on third and 4, Rodgers spotted James Jones separating on the outside right against man-to-man coverage by Kelvin Hayden. He hit him in stride for a 29-yard touchdown, and just like that the Packers had marched those 89 yards in just seven plays.
After an exchange of punts, Jay Cutler began a two-minute charge from his 37. With Marshall doubled on the outside, he whipped a ball toward Devin Hester, who was running a double move on Casey Hayward.
The throw went right to Hayward, who returned his sixth interception of the season 24 yards to the Chicago 26.
When Rodgers looked off coverage and found Jones for an 8-yard score, it was 14-7 at halftime. When he took the Packers 79 yards in 13 plays to open the second half with a third touchdown strike to Jones, the rest was almost anti-climactic.
“The man’s pretty good . . . pretty good . . . pretty good,” defensive end B.J. Raji said of Rodgers. “The stat that sets him apart from every quarterback is his touchdown-interception ratio from his career.
“I could be wrong on the stat, but I think it’s three to one. That means 21 points on the board before he throws a pick.
“I mean, how do you lose when you’re three to one on touchdowns to picks?”
Raji was almost dead on. Counting playoffs, Rodgers has 179 touchdown passes compared to 50 interceptions.
That was Cutler’s only interception but, once again, his performance paled in comparison to Rodgers’. Just as Brett Favre outplayed dozens of Chicago passers from 1992-‘07, quarterback play is the common denominator why the Packers are 31-12 against the Bears since Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf took over in ‘92.
Raji said it would be foolish to blame Cutler for the Bears’ sixth loss in a row to Green Bay. “It wasn’t his fault, I would say,” Raji said.
But with a shabby offensive line, just one legitimate target and a defense missing three of its top six players (Henry Melton, Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings), the Bears once again had no choice but to place an undue amount of the burden on the quarterback.
And against the disciplined scheme of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has owned Cutler and the Bears, the Bears had very little chance to win short of taking the ball away four or five times.
Unlike Favre, whose penchant for turnovers helped the Bears win 10 of his 32 starts, Rodgers (9-2) almost never turns it over.
“You know going in what he is and what type of performance you’re going to have to have,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s a great player. MVP of the league.”
Five weeks ago, the Packers found themselves two games behind the Bears. Then they Packers went 4-1, the Bears went 1-4 and — poof — the race was over with two games left.
The Bears (8-6) still can qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card team. They also could fail and, either way, be looking at a coaching change.
Last season, the Packers won the North with four games remaining en route to a 15-1 regular season. A lot of good that did them after the Giants ushered them out of the playoffs.
“We’re where we want to be with two games left,” nose tackle Ryan Pickett said. “We’re playing good football at the right time.”
Although the Packers (10-4) remain two games behind Atlanta (12-2), the Packers would claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs on the basis of better conference record if the teams finish 12-4.
San Francisco improved to 10-3-1 with its victory in New England and can earn the No. 2 seed with victories over Seattle and Arizona. As usual, the Packers weren’t artistic in winning for the eighth time in nine games. But they had Rodgers to hide some shortcomings in the offensive line and a defense that basically took away everything offensive coordinator Mike Tice tried to do after the first series.
The Bears rushed seven times for 40 yards, prompting defensive end Mike Neal to say, “They came out and actually fired off and were playing good in the first quarter.”
That drive resulted in a punt after Matt Forte was stopped for no gain on second and 1, center Matt Garza false-started and Sam Shields broke up a third-down pass to Alshon Jeffery.
The Packers moved a safety down late into the box a good share of the first half. It was so effective that Forte, who had six carries for 37 yards on the first series, went 13 carries for 10 yards after that, not counting a 22-yard run in which Shields fanned on the tackle at the line.
“Chicago runs the ball pretty good on everybody they play,” Pickett said. “But against us we find a way to shut it down with our big bodies and athletic players like Clay (Matthews).”
From the first series on, Forte had five carries for no gain and three attempts for minus yardage.
By moving a safety, usually Morgan Burnett, to the line, the Packers allowed a few more man-to-man chances than in the Sept. 13 meeting for Marshall to beat Tramon Williams.
Partly because of pressure and partly because of Williams’ shadowy coverage, Marshall was targeted just seven times and wasn’t a major factor.
“I traveled a lot with him (Marshall) today,” Williams said. “We just mixed up coverages. Played a lot of one-high (safety). Half safety over the top sometimes.
“That’s what they were asking for. For the most part, we gave them opportunities and they couldn’t do nothing with it.”
When Smith was posting a 6-2 record against the Packers from 2003-‘07, an underlooked part of his winning equation was the dominant special-teams play of Dave Toub’s units.
The Packers had woes of their own Sunday — two misses by Mason Crosby, McCarthy’s bone-headed attempt at a throwback punt return — on special teams, but it has been several years since the Bears could just throttle the Packers on special teams.
“They’re really good and very dynamic,” Jarrett Bush said of the Bears’ kicking units. “But over time you tend to learn your opponent and try to take away their strength.”
That the Packers have. Combine it with superior quarterbacking and the Packers-Bears series has become one-sided, even routine.