The improbable season of the Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) will march on at least one more week, as 17 volatile weeks in the NFC North concluded Sunday afternoon with the Packers besting the Chicago Bears (8-8) during a seesaw battle that featured 61 points, six different lead changes and an unforgettable final 30 minutes.
It was over when…
…Packers cornerback Sam Shields made another iconic interception of a Bears quarterback, this time on a last-ditch Hail Mary with no time remaining and the Bears down five points. Three years earlier, Shields stamped Green Bay's trip to Super Bowl XLV by picking off Caleb Hanie in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game. This time, Shields stole Jay Cutler's final heave out of the cold, windy air in Chicago to put the Packers back into the postseason. Of course, this late drama was only possible after Aaron Rodgers completed one of the throws of his career to Randall Cobb, a 48-yard bomb with Rodgers escaping heavy pressure to his left and the Packers needing eight yards to extend the game on fourth down.
- Aaron Rodgers: A seven-week absence left Rodgers rusty at times, but he erased any shortcomings Sunday by delivering one of the more clutch throws of his NFL career. Down one, in the rival's house, playoffs on the line, facing fourth down and against a seven-man blitz, Rodgers effortlessly flicked the football 48 yards—while scrambling to his left—to a wide open Cobb, who got behind the man-to-man coverage. That long-winded description doesn't even do the moment's impact proper justice. What a return for the Packers' $110 million quarterback.
- Randall Cobb: Ten weeks away from the playing field forced the Packers to be careful with Cobb's snaps, but he certainly made the most of them Sunday. He caught just two passes, but each went for a touchdown. Each put the Packers into the lead, too, with the second sealing another improbable win. It probably goes without saying, but Green Bay would be thinking about next May's draft without Cobb and Rodgers back on the field in Week 17.
- Jordy Nelson: No one is happier that Rodgers is back than Nelson, who caught a game-high 10 passes on a game-high 16 targets. The Packers' next highest targeted receiver was James Jones, who saw seven of Rodgers' attempts. Nelson made big play after big play, including a 34-yard catch-and-run that set up a touchdown, two third-down conversions and a fourth-down catch that was much more difficult that it looked.
The boxscore was mostly dominated by the Packers. Green Bay had more first downs (25-17), passing first downs (14-8), third down conversions (9-5), fourth down conversions (3-0), total plays (76-49), total yards (473-345), passing yards (313-224), rushing yards (160-121) and time possession (35:09-24:51). The Packers also had four fewer penalties (5-1)...Green Bay and Chicago both had two turnovers a piece...The Bears were a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone, while the Packers were just 3-for-6, including a 1-for-4 start...The Packers scored the game's last 13 points...Aaron Rodgers finished his abbreviated season with 2,536 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions...Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, who have combined for more receiving yards than any other receiver combination this season, had nine catches for 154 yards and one touchdown. The duo also had two drops and Jeffery lost a fumble...Jordy Nelson had a season-high 10 catches. He finished his season with a career high 85 receptions...Eddie Lacy rushed 21 times for 66 yards and a score. His rookie season ended with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns...The Packers defense forced two or more turnovers in five straight games to end 2013. Green Bay had just 22 takeaways this season, but 12 have come since Week 13...The Packers have allowed at least 26 points in eight of the last nine games...Mason Crosby made both of his kicks and finished with a kick accuracy of 89.3.
– Green Bay's final drive was slow, stressful and—given the result—now forever memorable. The Packers needed 15 plays to go 87 yards in 5:46. However, the first 14 plays netted Green Bay just 39 yards, and the offense needed to convert fourth downs of one yard, four yards and eight yards. The Packers' season hung in the balance on all three attempts, but the Bears defense failed to close the game. The conversion plays, in order: John Kuhn power off right guard, Nelson shoestring catch and Cobb broken play touchdown. The final play will live on as one of the more clutch plays in the history of the Packers-Bears rivalry.
– Rodgers showed understandable periods of rust Sunday. Green Bay's first drive was sharp, but his decision on third down in the red zone wasn't one we're used to seeing out of Rodgers. He never saw Chris Conte underneath. His second interception was the direct result of a poor throw, both high and behind Jordy Nelson. It's a pass that should be caught, but that type of ball placement isn't typical of the always accurate Rodgers. Several other passes, especially in the middle of the field, sailed high. And on the play directly before the final touchdown, Rodgers missed a wide open Nelson coming free inside. It was thrown well behind. That's the ball we're probably talking about if Rodgers doesn't make his insane throw a play later. I'd expect him to be more polished a week from today.
– What a wild, entertaining ride this season has been. According to Numbers Fire, the Packers' playoff probability bottomed out at six percent after Week 13. But this team, no matter how flawed, has been all about overcoming the odds. That's a big reason why you'll hear "team of destiny" and "2010" talk over the next week. But putting the realist cap on, it's not difficult to argue that the San Francisco 49ers are a better, more complete football team. They should be favored on the road Sunday. San Francisco can run the football, make plays in the passing game, and, above all, play defense. It's a team built to play a cold weather game. The Packers are still deeply flawed on defense, and the special teams had another shaky day. A third straight division championship might not mean anything more than another early postseason exit.
– That said, Aaron Rodgers gives the Packers a chance against anyone left in the NFC field. And remember, Green Bay was leading late in the fourth quarter in San Francisco during the season opener. These are two vastly different teams 17 weeks later, but who knows. Dom Capers certainly needs to avenge some ugly playoff losses in recent seasons. He'll have seven days to devise a defensive plan that works better than his previous two against Colin Kaepernick.
– The Packers will welcome the 12-win 49ers to Lambeau Field Sunday at 4:30 p.m. CT. FOX will have the broadcast. The winner will play either the NFC South-winning Carolina Panthers (12-4) or the NFC West-winning Seattle Seahawks (13-3).
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.