Packers 31, Bears 23 Good start

Solid win may be more beneficial than blowout

They did not, in fact, kick Chicago’s ass.

No, coach Mike McCarthy’s depart-from-the-script, in-the-heat-of-the-moment pronouncement at the Green Bay Packers’ annual Welcome Back Luncheon did not turn out to be a premonition Sunday. Unlike 2014, when his Packers swept the regular-season series by a combined 62 points, Sunday’s 31-23 victory at Soldier Field required Aaron Rodgers to be masterful, James Jones to turn back the clock, the defense to make up for ceding mountains of yardage with a pair of fourth-quarter stops, and Jay Cutler to be, as Charles Woodson once put it so eloquently, Same ol’ Jay.

But maybe – just maybe – this was actually better for the Packers’ long-term prospects than a wire-to-wire domination would have been.

Maybe, for a team that claims it’s long over its NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks – their opponent next Sunday night – and the epic collapse it took to keep them out of Super Bowl XLIX, maybe it was better that it didn’t come too easy, as so much of that unforgettable loss seven months ago had.

And maybe, McCarthy got not what he predicted but what he actually wanted and needed: An opening-day victory (his team’s first since 2011) over an NFC North opponent (winning the division is always Job 1) with enough teachable moments to give his guys plenty to focus on this week instead of media questions about avenging last year’s meltdown.

“Hopefully this game just shows the resiliency of this group of guys,” said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, whose interception on Cutler squelched the Bears’ second straight fourth-quarter scoring opportunity and essentially clinched the victory. “We’re not going to sit here and act like we don’t have work to do. But it’s a barometer for where we need to go and what we want to accomplish. Now, we’ll work to improve upon it.”

Defensively, there’s definitely room for improvement. (We’ll get to that.) But offensively, the Packers’ highly efficient effort – excluding two kneel-downs, they only had seven legitimate possessions and scored on five of them – was led by Rodgers (18 of 23, 189 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks, 140.5 passer rating, plus 35 rushing yards), running back Eddie Lacy (19 carries, 85 yards, 4.5-yard average) and a happy-to-be-back Jones (four catches, 51 yards, two TDs).

“It’s a good way to start the season,” said McCarthy, who has been imploring his guys to get off to a fast start in this, his 10th year as head coach. “Definitely coming down to Chicago playing in this game is always a huge challenge. To start the season with a division win, a win against your rival, is obviously of importance. It also states the fact that this is our starting point. This is who we are as a team today. A lot of good things to build off of, a lot of things we can learn from.”

Many of those lessons were on defense, where the Bears gained 402 total yards; the Packers reverted to their early-2014 form against the run while allowing Matt Forte to rush for 141 yards and the Bears as a team to finish with 189; the unit didn’t force a single three-and-out; knuckleheaded penalties by Nick Perry, Mike Daniels and Sam Shields (two) kept a touchdown drive alive; and it wasn’t until Cutler’s gaffe on Matthews’ interception that the game felt secure.

 “We have work to do. We have a lot of work to do,” said inside linebacker Nate Palmer, who took over for an injured Sam Barrington (ankle) alongside Matthews on the inside. “There was some good, but we gave up a lot in the run game.

“We’ll get that corrected. I guarantee you that. It’s just going back to the drawing board and studying a little bit more.”

When they do that study, though, they will also see some good things: B.J. Raji flashing his old form; rookie first-round pick Damarious Randall looking like he belongs in coverage; and an important keep-control-of-the-game stop after the Bears had four shots from inside the 6-yard line. That stop, coupled with Matthews’ interception, were what Bears first-year coach John Fox called “pretty much the difference in the game.”

But the capper, of course, was Matthews’ INT, which came with 3 minutes, 55 seconds to go and gave Cutler the dubious distinction of having thrown an interception in each of his 12 games against the Packers as a Bear.

“As soon as I let it go I knew we were in trouble,” said Cutler, who is now 1-12 all-time against the Packers as a starter, including one loss with the Denver Broncos in 2007. “As soon as I let it go I started see him come across and you knew. The only thing at that point was to hope he’d drop it.”

Matthews didn’t drop it; instead, he took the ball back 48 yards (before Perry was flagged for an illegal block) and Rodgers & Co. turned it into a Lacy TD four plays (and two Bears penalties) later. One of those penalties was a 34-yard pass-interference flag drawn by Jones, who returned from exile and demonstrated the value of having an innate connection to the QB.

“The dude throwing the ball is pretty good,” Jones replied when asked if the conscious came back faster than he expected. “So when he gives me an opportunity to go up there and make a play, do your job and go make a play.”

The offense’s best moment was probably its 16-play, 9 1/2-minute touchdown drive which spanned the third/fourth quarter break and included third-down conversions on a Rodgers pass to Cobb (a 9-yard catch on third-and-8); a Rodgers scramble (a 12-yarder on third-and-4); a Lacy run (5 yards on third-and-4) and a fourth-down conversion as well (a 3-yard run by James Starks on fourth-and-3).

“We’d like to score as quickly as possible. But the way the game was going, they were running the football – very effectively at times,” Rodgers said. “It was good to get our defense on the sidelines for a while. We converted – it wasn’t chunk plays, it was 3 [yards] here, 4 here, conversion. Sometimes we have to do that in those situations. It was a good drive for us [where we] ot only turn the field position but kind of turn the game there.”

Still, it took Matthews’ interception and an onside kick recovery in the final minute – does that ring any Seattle bells? – to hold on.

“That’s how most games are,” Peppers said. “Last year we had a lot of blowout games, but I wouldn’t expect that this year. I expect more close games and games to be won in the second half.”

If Peppers is right, they’ve already got one in the bank – one that might just help them going forward.

“Any time you get a win, there’s always something to build off of,” Raji said. “That’s the beauty of winning in this league. You have to appreciate every win.”

Even if it’s not an ass-kicking.