With the first five-touchdown game of his NFL career, Aaron Rodgers ensured that the Green Bay Packers’ playoff road will go through Lambeau Field.
He also made sure the rival Chicago Bears will be spending the playoffs at home.
Rodgers broke a close game wide open by leading three quick scoring drives in the second half, and the Packers beat the Bears 35-21 on Sunday night.
Rodgers noted that he once threw six touchdowns in junior college – also in a rivalry game – but acknowledged this one was a little bit bigger.
”Yeah, this one’s pretty special,” Rodgers said.
With the win, the Packers (14-1) nailed down the No. 1 seed in the NFC and claimed another round of bragging rights in the NFL’s most storied rivalry by knocking the Bears out of the playoff chase.
”We wanted the path to go through Lambeau,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Rodgers threw a pair of touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson, another two to James Jones, and found tight end Jermichael Finley for a score. Rodgers was 21 of 29 for 283 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions when backup Matt Flynn took over for Rodgers with 7:54 left in the game.
Rodgers surpassed Lynn Dickey’s single-season franchise record of 4,458 yards passing with one game left, although it’s unclear how much Rodgers will play in the Packers’ finale against Detroit.
The loss eliminated the Bears (7-8) from playoff contention and put the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs.
Third-string running back Kahlil Bell rushed for 121 yards for the Bears, who trailed by only four early in the third quarter. But Rodgers drove the Packers for touchdowns on their next three possessions to put the game out of reach.
”When you play the Super Bowl champions, you have to be on top of your game,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. ”Offensively, we did enough things to keep us in the game and have a chance to win the game at the end. But defensively we just didn’t have it.”
McCarthy said the team’s run defense will be examined after the big performance by Bell, but added that the final score told the story.
”We won big,” McCarthy said. ”That’s the bottom line.”
Chicago came into Sunday on a four-game losing streak and beset by injuries. But the Bears were able to stay in the game with solid defense and tough running by Bell, who started because of injuries to Matt Forte and Marion Barber.
Rodgers’ second-half fireworks proved to be too much for Chicago.
”Thirty-five points on that defense, that’s a good night,” McCarthy said.
The victory was the Packers’ fourth over the Bears in 2011. Green Bay also beat Chicago in the 2010 regular-season finale, the NFC Championship game, and at Soldier Field on Sept. 25.
With the Bears trailing 14-3 at halftime, quarterback Josh McCown found Earl Bennett wide open for a 49-yard gain to set up first-and-goal on the 1. Bell fumbled just short of the goal line on the next play but offensive lineman Edwin Williams recovered the ball for a touchdown.
With the Packers nursing a four-point lead, and the Lambeau Field crowd nervously quiet early in the third quarter, Rodgers answered by dropping deep and throwing a rainbow pass to Nelson, who blew through the Chicago secondary and hauled in the ball for a 55-yard touchdown.
Rodgers then showed his running ability on the Packers’ next possession, juking his way between Bears linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs on a scramble. Rodgers finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown toss to Jones, giving the Packers a commanding 28-10 lead.
Packers safety Charlie Peprah came up with an interception, and Rodgers found Nelson for another score to give Green Bay a 35-10 lead.
”It just hasn’t gone the way we wanted to,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ”If we play like this, that’s what’s going to happen. The last five weeks, we haven’t played well enough to win, and we’ve lost all five games. We’re not real happy where we’re at. Our coaches aren’t happy, but that’s what we get.”
McCown finally answered with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Davis – then drew the ire of the Lambeau crowd by scrambling for a two-point conversion and spiking the ball over the goalpost with his team trailing 35-18.
Rodgers’ offensive feats came behind a patchwork offensive line, as the Packers were without three of their top four tackles.
Chad Clifton returned to practice this week after sitting out since October because of hamstring and back injuries, but isn’t ready to play. Bryan Bulaga was inactive Sunday because of a left knee sprain, and backup Derek Sherrod is out for the season with a broken right leg.
Green Bay also was missing wide receiver Greg Jennings, because of a sprained left knee, and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett because of a concussion.
The Bears have lost five straight games since losing quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken right thumb in a Nov. 20 victory over San Diego. Chicago was 7-3 after that win, but came into Sunday’s game barely alive in the playoff chase.
The Bears started McCown on Sunday after backup Caleb Hanie struggled to fill in for Cutler. McCown’s most recent start came with the Oakland Raiders in 2007, and he was out of the NFL last season.
”It’s a tough assignment, but you’ve got to find a way to pull it off,” McCown said.
To make matters worse for the Bears’ offense, Barber was inactive because of a calf injury. Chicago already was without Forte, who missed his third straight game because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
Notes: Sunday’s attendance was 70,574, the team’s 300th consecutive sellout, including the playoffs. … Bears offensive lineman Lance Louis left the game in the first half because of an illness. … Packers RB James Starks bruised an ankle.