Green Bay's 2023 season starts off as a (Jordan) Love story as the Packers pound the Bears

CHICAGO — They funneled through the Soldier Field tunnel with purpose, each with meaningful joy in their strides. Some slapped hands. Others laughed or exchanged knowing glances. But before they departed, seemingly all of these Green Bay Packers smiled and caught a piece of general manager Brian Gutekunst — a high-five, a handshake or dapped fist. When quarterback Jordan Love made his way through, Gutekunst stopped and slapped Love’s hand, then hugged him with both arms and patted the breast plate of Love’s shoulder pads.

“Good start,” Gutekunst said.

For one day and one unquestioned start — and one big exhale — the longest offseason in Packers history became a little more distant. Not forgotten, but certainly seeming more hopeful and manageable. Love took the Packers onto Soldier Field Sunday as his team. When he left it, for one day, it was his field too, just like Aaron Rodgers before him. And in dominant fashion, no less, with a 38-20 win over the Chicago Bears that featured a sticky defense, an upstart young supporting cast and a solid dent in the offseason story of a Justin Fields coming-out party.

“They thought we weren’t gonna win!” Packers defensive end Devonte Wyatt said with a faux laugh. “Ahhhhhh!”

He was followed a few moments later by Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas, who stopped in front of the cameras and dipped into his bag of hyperbole. That whole Green Bay quarterback succession — the one from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and now Jordan Love — precisely how long could this next chapter go?

“Thirty years, another thirty years, and it’s about to be another 30 years,” Douglas said, showcasing the count on his fingers.

On Sunday, it really might have felt that way for the Bears. Or at the very least for their fans, who were dejected enough at their team’s offensive woes to boo multiple times during the loss. What they expected to see, what they were sold on this offseason, was a fortified offense that would unlock the next big leap from quarterback Justin Fields. What they saw instead was Love gradually finding his gear in the middle of an offense led by layers of varied experience.

From veteran running back Aaron Jones to second-year wideout Romeo Doubs and two rookies — receiver Jayden Reed and tight end Luke Musgrave — Chicago had trouble shutting down an opportunistic offense that spread the ball around and took advantage of a defense that forced Fields into two turnovers. That retooled Bears offense? It managed 311 total yards and never looked as explosive as some of the preseason moments had suggested.

Chicago’s offense had its hands full with a multitude of Packers defenders, from cornerback Jaire Alexander hounding Bears wideout DJ Moore to Green Bay’s rolling front seven wreaking havoc with Wyatt and linebackers Rashan Gary, Quay Walker and Lukas Van Ness.

Afterward, the Bears had a half-rocked, half-dejected buzz about them. Defensively, the embarrassment was clear for a veteran group that expected to plant a new flag at home against a Rodgers-less Packers. It was matched by a retooled offense that had been talked up for a large portion of the offseason. In the end, neither looked close to what had been expected.

“This is definitely a wake-up call,” said Moore, who was added to the roster via big-splash trade involving the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick in March.

Of course, it’s one game and one loss for the Bears. One game and one win for the Packers. The most tangible gains on either side of the ledger is little more than a sense of what needs to be cleaned up for Chicago and what's possible for the Packers. Maybe the only dividing line is the quarterbacks, where Fields moves on with more work ahead — but also with part of his skills that are still a known commodity. Love, on the other hand, finally had the most meaningful game of his brief starting career to show what he looked like when the entire show was in his hands.

The results, at varying points, were encouraging. From hitting Aaron Jones in a tight window throw that helped the running back race for a 35-yard touchdown, to a wild fumbled snap that Love cooly picked up and heaved 37 yards to Musgrave. Each play had a residue of calm to it, revealing a Love who appears to have begun settling into his role as the starter and showing the markers of growth.

One of those came late in the second quarter, with the Packers driving for a score before halftime. In a play that had to leave Green Bay fans collectively groaning, Love missed a streaking Musgrave, who was a good five yards behind the defense, for what would have been a walk-in touchdown. It was the type of misfire that can’t get much worse without being an interception. But it also became a moment to see how Love would respond to an ugly mistake. The next play, he stepped up and hit Reed in a pocket of space that resulted in a 30-yard gain, eventually leading to a Packers field goal and a 10-6 halftime lead.

“That’s this game, right?” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of the moment. “You have to be resilient. You can’t allow one play to affect the next play. We always talk about having a one-play mindset. I think he’s a resilient guy. I was really proud of his effort, just his composure, his competitiveness.”

Added Love, “That’s why we tell everybody in the locker room, it’s never going to be perfect. You wish every play went as you draw it up and that you execute it perfectly. But there’s times things are going to go south and it’s not going to be perfect for us. [You just need to] be able to play that next play, bounce back and just find a way to go convert third downs and things like that.”

For an afternoon, Love did that, making good on all the visualizations of the previous day, when Love repeatedly told himself, “I’m going to play great. Tomorrow I’m going to play great.”

“That’s what I kept telling myself over and over again,” Love said. “I woke up today doing the same thing, just visualizing this win.”

Now he has it. And after an offseason of tumult and nothing but unanswered questions coming into Sunday, something to point to when people ask if he can step in and replace Rodgers.

“It feels great,” Love said. “It’s definitely been a long time coming for me. Three years as a backup, just watching, learning and keep growing. Seeing this team work, it feels good to be out there to lead those guys and to be out there playing with them finally.”