Bears clinch NFC North title with win against Packers

CHICAGO — Club Dub stayed open a little longer than normal today.

After every win this season, Bears players celebrate in the locker room with loud music, some strobe lights, a disco ball and lots of dancing. This particular win, beating the Packers 24–17 to clinch the NFC North title—revenge after a one-point loss in Week 1—merited a little extra celebration.

“It was a big time party,” says rookie Bilal Nichols. “Everybody was celebrating, just bonding. That’s been the key to us all season, we always stay together as a family.”

“It was a good [Club Dub], that’s for sure,” tight end Trey Burton said, with a knowing smile.

This locker room culture fostered by first-year head coach Matt Nagy, featuring new traditions like Club Dub, is a huge part of why Chicago will be playing in the postseason for the first time since 2010, when they lost the NFC championship game to… Green Bay. That season was also the last time the Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field. It’s been so long since Chicago made the playoffs or beat Green Bay at home that there isn’t one current Bears player who has experienced it with Chicago.

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After the win, Akiem Hicks looked up at the ceiling of the locker room and sighed. “Boy, 3-13, 5-11…” he said, listing off the records of the last two seasons, when Chicago was stuck at the bottom of the NFC North. “It ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun. It’s just a great feeling.”

Tight end Trey Burton was asked to explain what playoff football was like in the locker room after the game; Burton won the Super Bowl with Philadelphia last season, making him the Bears player probably most familiar with playing deep into the postseason. “Every possession, every play, everything is so magnified and on a greater scale,” he says. “It’s something that we’ve learned this season, what it takes to win, and that everything just gets magnified and all eyes will be on us.”

Back in Week 1, when the Bears and Packers first met this season, Aaron Rodgers led a miraculous second-half comeback after a knee injury to beat Chicago 24–23—a game that is the lone highlight in what has become a frustrating year for Green Bay, emphasized by the mid-season firing of head coach Mike McCarthy.

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This time around, Chicago never squandered their lead, only allowing the Green Bay to tie the game at 14 in the third quarter. The Bears defense took advantage of the Packers injured offensive line, and sacked Rodgers five times in the game. 

“Aaron was smiling at me a lot,” Hicks says. “He knew I wanted to get him. We all wanted to get to him.”

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack recorded a highlight-reel sack, dubbed on Twitter as the Back Sack, because he took Rodgers down by leaning backwards over the quarterback, while Nichols came at Rodgers from the other side. “You don’t put nothing past Mack,” Nichols says. “He’s a tremendous athlete. Tremendous player. He surprises you every day with his abilities and the way he makes plays.”

Trubisky played a clean game, completing 20-of-28 for 235 passing yards and two touchdowns—a significant improvement from his 110 passing yards and three interceptions against the Rams last week—and the Bears only giveaway came on Cohen’s fumble.

The story of the Bears recent victories has been the entertaining array of gadget plays dreamed up by Nagy. Last week against the Rams, he called Santa’s Sleigh, a play with four defensive lineman and a backup tackle instead of skill players on the field—and it resulted in a touchdown. This season, he’s used a defensive end as a running back, he’s put two quarterbacks in the backfield for a forward-toss play and he’s had three players touch the football before throwing it. But Sunday gave a glimpse of a gadget play gone wrong and the risk involved with trying different ideas.

In the second half, Nagy nearly handed the game to Green Bay with a costly fake punt. On third-and-three at the 50-yard line, he called a handoff to running back Taquan Mizzell, who was stuffed for a one-yard gain. And then, on fourth-and-two, at midfield—right in the area of a field where an opponent would likely be expecting a fake punt—he called a fake punt. Unsurprised, Green Bay’s defense swarmed RB Benny Cunningham, who took the direct snap, for a one-yard loss. Green Bay then needed just five plays to score the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion, thanks to the short field from the failed fake punt. 

With the game tied, 14–14, Trubisky shifted out wide, and Cohen lined up in shotgun in a wildcat formation on third-and-one. Cohen took the direct snap and fumbled while attempting to hand the ball off to running back Jordan Howard. Green Bay recovered, and the Bears defense made up for the turnover and forced a three-and-out. Cohen took the blame for fumble, saying he waited a second too long because he was indecisive on whether he wanted to keep the ball or hand it off to Howard.

“At times we’re going to be aggressive,” Nagy said after the game. “That’s not going to change. I accept that, I understand it, and that’s who we are.”

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The Bears took back the lead with a decisive touchdown throw from Trubisky to Burton, and the game was won when safety Eddie Jackson intercepted Rodgers in the end zone with three minutes left in the game. Jackson’s sixth pick of the season, which broke Rodgers NFL-record streak of 402 pass attempts without an interception, was especially meaningful for Chicago because cornerback Kyle Fuller had the chance to make a game-sealing interception against Green Bay in Week 1 and couldn’t hold onto the ball.

“That felt awesome,” Nichols says. “Eddie Jackson is a playmaker, one of the best playmakers I have ever been around. He makes plays when you need him most.”

On the Packers’ last drive of the game, a Leonard Floyd sack for a loss of 18 yards forced Green Bay to settle for a field goal followed by an onside kick attempt. Bears receiver Allen Robinson recovered the kick to make things official.

In the northwest corner of the field, a Bears season ticket holder hangs a sign each week. This week’s edition featured a picture of Santa Claus holding his naughty and nice list. Bears players and coaches names written on the nice side, Packers players and coaches written on the naughty side. The sign said, “Dear Santa, Thank you for bringing the excitement back to our team. –Bears Fans”

In Chicago, Christmas came nine days early.

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