GREEN BAY — It wasn't too long ago, back when the Bears were trying to make a go of it with Rex Grossman, that a high-ranking team official said just wait, the balance of power in the NFC North would shift once Brett Favre retired.
Well, the future Hall of Fame quarterback is in his first season of retirement and last played for the Packers in 2007, and Aaron Rodgers is having a similar effect on his Green Bay teammates. He proved it again Sunday night with a career-best five touchdown passes in a 35-21 victory at Lambeau Field that eliminated the Bears (7-8) from the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
It was the fifth straight loss since Jay Cutler suffered a fractured thumb Nov. 20 — the longest losing streak in the Lovie Smith era — and it prompted the question of whether there's reason for hope.
"Yes, the season will be over next week," middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "That's good."
Josh McCown became the Bears' 25th starting quarterback since Favre's run began in Green Bay in 1992. He was a significant upgrade over Caleb Hanie, completing 19 of 28 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
"That's hypothetical," McCown said when asked if the Bears would be in a different situation if he had taken over two or three weeks ago. "All I know is what I had here this night, and we still came up short."
McCown, signed Nov. 23, and the Bears hardly had enough firepower. Kahlil Bell rushed for 121 yards on 23 carries in his second NFL start against a defense that might not be good enough to repeat as Super Bowl champions. But Rodgers certainly is good enough to guide Green Bay (14-1) to Super Bowl XLVI, and the Packers secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs with the victory.
The Bears came in with the right game plan, to pound the ball against a front that was missing end Ryan Pickett (concussion). Bell ran hard and rookie Armando Allen showed some elusive moves in gaining 40 yards on 11 carries. The offense controlled the ball for 11 minutes, 36 seconds more than the Packers, meaning the defense was well-rested.
McCown proved to be far more poised than Hanie, but Rodgers looked like the league MVP, completing 21 of 29 passes for 283 yards and the five scores, including two each to Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
The Bears had 126 of their 199 rushing yards in the first half but found themselves trailing 14-3 as McCown was intercepted by Clay Matthews at the Packers 24-yard line and Robbie Gould missed a 49-yard field goal. They struck quickly to open the third quarter as McCown hit Earl Bennett for a 49-yard pass when a defender fell, setting them up at the 1-yard line. Bell fumbled running around left end, but left guard Edwin Williams recovered for a touchdown that trimmed the deficit to 14-10.
Rodgers put the pedal down from there and routinely came up with big plays when he needed them with quick slants against the Bears' Cover-1 defense. The Packers picked on cornerback Zack Bowman, starting in place of Tim Jennings, and Nelson burned free safety Major Wright on a double move for a 55-yard touchdown.
Rodgers hooked up again with Jones and Nelson for scores, and Green Bay led 35-10 at the start of the fourth quarter. It was so bad, at one point Rodgers faked out Urlacher and Lance Briggs on a 12-yard scramble and Urlacher limped off the field and was sidelined temporarily.
McCown threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kellen Davis and ran in for a two-point conversion before dunking over the goalpost. He was that excited to be back in the NFL, where he last started in 2007.
As easy as it was to point at critical errors in coverage by the Bears, there was zero pass rush against a decimated Packers offensive line that was missing both starting tackles. Green Bay was mauled up front last week by the Chiefs.
So the Bears will close out their season Sunday at Minnesota and can begin planning for 2012. A healthy Cutler puts the Bears in position to compete, but there's a lot of ground to cover to catch the Packers.
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