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Defensive Line Keys Green Bay's Victory Over Rival Bears

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COMMENTARY | Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Clay Matthews rightfully got the headlines after the Packers sealed the NFC North with a 21-13 win over the Chicago Bears.

But the resurgent play of B.J. Raji and the return of Mike Neal were as critical to Sunday's victory as any of the aforementioned superstars.

Raji was only credited with 1 tackle, but he blew up a half dozen running plays in the backfield and must have been having flashbacks to his days at Boston College where he was unblockable at times in the ACC.

This is two straight games that early running success by opposing offenses couldn't be sustained thanks to the play of the interior. Particularly when the Green Bay defense can play base, it is hard to run on Raji and Ryan Picket in the middle.

But Raji has regained his form as a pass-rusher as well, pushing the pocket inside and preventing Jay Cutler from stepping up in the pocket.

With all the looping and stunting the Packers do with Clay Matthews, it's important for Raji to be able to move and occupy blockers. He did, and Matthews wound up with 6 tackles and 2 sacks.

The former top pick of the Packers, Raji was a key factor in the 2010 Super Bowl run on what was a much more talented defensive line with Cullen Jenkins, a healthy C.J. Wilson along with Howard Green to rotate in. Mike Neal was lost early that year to injury and never got to be a major factor.

Against Chicago's porous offensive line, Neal registered 1.5 sacks, one of which was actually on a three-man rush late in the fourth quarter when Jay Cutler took about as bad a sack as a quarterback can possibly take under the circumstances.

But the pressure from the defensive line and Matthews, along with Dezman Moses, lead to four sacks on Cutler and just 135 yards through the air for the Bears.

After an opening drive by Chicago in which the Green Bay defense was mauled upfront, the Packers tightened their belts and allowed Matt Forte just 69 yards on 20 carries, a paltry 3.45 yards per carry. In fact, if you take out Forte's 22-yard run, he averaged just 2.47 yards per carry against this defense.

Rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels didn't have much of an impact in the box score, but their ability to be flexible in Dom Capers' sub-packages helped keep Pickett and Raji fresh for critical moments.

Moments like late in the third quarter with the Packers leading 21-7. Ryan Grant found a hole up the middle, but Charles Tillman does what he does better than anyone in the game and punched the ball free.

Chicago took over at their own 37-yard line. A curious penalty on Sam Shields moved the ball up five yards - any Chicago complaining about the refs should be null after this call where Shields was penalized for being ripped down by his facemask by Alshon Jeffery.

A weak pass interference call put the ball at the Green Bay 5-yard line, first and goal. The Packers got stops on three straight plays from about a foot off their own end zone and forced a field goal after an offensive pass interference call on Jeffery. It was 21-10 instead of 21-14. Of the four plays, the Bears ran three times for just 4 yards.

It was the defense's huge stop after the bizarre reverse-pass call on a punt return by Green Bay that helped stem the tide of momentum. Chicago had the ball at the 16-yard line in Green Bay territory after the fumble, but the Packers forced a field goal after just three plays without allowing a single yard.

And then it was Mike Neal's sack with just over two minutes to go in the game that essentially sealed the game for Green Bay.

On the day, the Chicago Bears didn't convert a single third down play in nine tries.

Clay Matthews' return was huge. The continued emergence of Randall Cobb as Aaron Rodgers' go-to receiver was brilliant to watch, and all James Jones does is catch touchdowns.

But without the inspired play of B.J. Raji who, at one point in the first half, whipped a double-team like the linemen weren't even there, the Packers don't beat the Bears. Raji set the tone and Mike Neal, finally healthy and playing with ferocity, followed the lead to his best day in a Green Bay uniform.

The best teams in the NFC can win with defense and Green Bay, for the first time in a number of weeks, proved they too are up to that challenge.

In 2010, the Packers got crucial stops to win games down the stretch, whether it was a Tramon Williams interception against Philadelphia in the playoffs or a Clay Matthews forced fumble in the Super Bowl.

For much of the last two season, the defense couldn't be counted on to make those winning plays. Against Chicago, they made a slew of them to turn the tide and ultimately win an NFC North title. Slowly but surely, this defense is making its way back.

Just in time too.

Peter Bukowski is a Wisconsin transplant living in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter

. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime
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