CHICAGO - Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had missed seven games with a broken collarbone and Randall Cobb had missed 10 games with a knee injury. But they came back just in time on Sunday to rescue the Green Bay Packers and send them into the playoffs.
On a 4th-and-8 play, Rodgers spun away from an all-out blitz and launched a 48-yard touchdown pass to Cobb with 38 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, lifting the Packers to a 33-28 victory over the Chicago Bears for the NFC North Division title.
It was only Green Bay's third victory since October and the first since then by more than a single point. But it allowed the Packers to finish the season with an 8-7-1 record as the only team in the division above .500. The Packers will host San Francisco (12-4), the defending NFC champion, in a first-round playoff game next weekend.
Chicago finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
The Packers, who led by six points at halftime and trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter, had to convert three fourth-down plays on their winning drive, which covered 87 yards in 15 plays. On one of the fourth-down conversions, the Packers actually were lined up in the wrong formation, Rodgers said.
"Today's game was pretty much a microcosm of our season," said Mike McCarthy, the Green Bay coach. "It was just a great team win, clearly one of the finer moments of our time in Green Bay."
Perhaps that last comment was a bit of hyperbole, because the Packers did come out of the wild-card round to win the Super Bowl three years ago. But the point was nonetheless well taken for a team that overcame a dreadful spell of games while Rodgers recovered from his injury, which was suffered in the first quarter of a mid-season loss to the Bears at Green Bay.
At first, Rodgers appeared rusty, throwing a pair of interceptions and losing a fumble that, oddly, turned into a Packers' touchdown. On that fumble, Bears players ignored the ball - thinking it was an incomplete pass - and Green Bay wideout Jarrrett Boykin alertly picked it up and ran 15 yards into the end zone.
"That was one of the crazier plays I've been a part of it," Rodgers said.
"We all thought it was a dead ball," said Bears linebacker James Anderson, who waltzed right by the loose ball and probably could have picked it up and run 85 yards for a touchdown himself.
But that was the only touchdown the Packers were able to produce in a first half in which they penetrated the Bears' 20-yard line four times and got to the 26 on their other possession.
When Chicago scored touchdowns on its first three second-half possessions to lead 28-20, it appeared the game might be turning.
Early in the fourth quarter however, a short pass from Rodgers to tight end Jordy Nelson - who caught 10 for 161 yards - turned into a 34-yard gain after Tim Jennings missed a tackle just past the line of scrimmage. Three plays later, tight end Andrew Quarless made a terrific diving catch of a 22-yard pass from Rodgers, and, on the next play, rookie running back Eddie Lacy ran 6 yards for a touchdown.
Because there was still 11:38 remaining, the Packers passed up a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion and settled for the kick that narrowed Chicago's lead to 28-27.
The Bears failed to add to that margin on their next drive, when a penalty for an illegal formation followed by a 5-yard loss on a running play by Matt Forte, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for 110 yards, forced them into a fourth-and-17 punting situation.
Green Bay's winning drive from its own 13 started slowly. On fourth-and-1 from the 22 with just over four minutes remaining, McCarthy chose not to punt because Green Bay had only one time out remaining. Fullback John Kuhn, who had carried the ball only nine times in the 15 previous games, made the yard.
Less than two minutes later, the Packers faced another fourth-and-1, at their own 44, and Rodgers threw to Nelson for 6 yards.
But Rodgers' next two passes were incomplete and a running play gained just 2 yards, leaving them facing fourth-and-8. The Bears sent seven rushers at Rodgers, who managed to escape to his left after Kuhn was barely able to impede defensive end Julius Peppers' run at Rodgers.
Cobb, who quickly realized the Bears' secondary had blown the coverage, threw his arm up to signal Rodgers and kept streaking down the field. He caught the ball inside the 10 and easily got into the end zone.
"As soon as I came off the ball . . . I saw the safety was flat-footed," Cobb said.
"We had a little miscommunication," said Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings.
It was a difficult throw for Rodgers, a right-handed passer, causing McCarthy to say, "Two guys made a great, great play."
Rodgers completed 25-of-39 passes for 318 yards while Chicago's Jay Cutler was 15-of-24 for 226 yards.
"(Rodgers) made the plays when it counts," said Jennings. "We didn't play well enough."
For the Packers, the matchup against San Francisco is a chance to gain a measure of revenge against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago on the way to the Super Bowl. But they weren't thinking of that just yet, preferring to bask in the glow of the comeback against their prime rivals.
"There was a lot of opportunities for us to give up," Rodgers said. "It's been a roller-coaster season, but I think you have to applaud Mike and his staff and the organization for keeping the team together."
NOTES: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is now 10-3 as a starter against Chicago, while Chicago QB Jay Cutler, who was 15-of-24 for 226 yards, is 1-8 as the Bears' starter against the Packers. ... Bears RB Matt Forte rushed for 110 yards for the Bears, but Chicago, with the league's worst run defense, allowed 160 on the ground. ... Chicago lost a starting offensive tackle, Jordan Mills, to a foot injury in the first quarter and he did not return. ... The Bears became the second highest-scoring team in Chicago history with 445 points this season, small consolation as they sit out the playoffs. ... The Packers have won nine of the last 11 meetings.