GREEN BAY, WIS. - The Bears weren't in a giving mood, but it didn't matter because the Packers aren't used to doing things the easy way this season.
With 15 players on injured reserve and a staggering 87 games lost by opening-day starters, the Packers (10-6) still earned the NFC's sixth playoff seed. And they did it by beating a surprisingly determined Bears team that didn't need to win but still played its starters throughout a 10-3 loss in front of 70,833 at Lambeau Field.
"We've had a difficult road we've traveled this year, and we met every challenge," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is an exciting day for the organization. It's an exciting day for our fans."
The Packers will open the playoffs Sunday at No. 3 seed Philadelphia, where they won their season opener 27-20 but struggled down the stretch when quarterback Michael Vick replaced injured Kevin Kolb. The Bears (11-5), who knew before kickoff that they couldn't improve on their No. 2 seed, get a bye and the possibility of a rematch with the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, which would be at Soldier Field.
"We have a bye and then we've got to come back and play a game that counts for something," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, trying to downplay the loss.
The game did matter to the NFC playoff field, especially the Eagles, because the Packers are a dangerous team. Much more dangerous than the turnover-happy Giants or greenhorn Buccaneers would have been.
"We got a great defense, we got a great offense and our special teams are coming around," said safety Nick Collins, who intercepted an overthrown pass by Jay Cutler to seal the victory with 10 seconds left. "We're very dangerous right now. And we just got tickets to the dance."
Defensively, the Packers resemble the 2005 Steelers. That, of course, was the season Pittsburgh became the only sixth seed to win a Super Bowl. The Steelers gave up 258 points and ranked No. 3 in the league that year. This year, the Packers gave up 240 points (15.0) and ranked No. 2 behind the Steelers, who gave up 232 points (14.5).
"I kept joking with [the Bears' defenders], asking them when they were going to take a seat," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "But they kept on playing. We struggled offensively, but give them credit. Their defense played well. But our defense played better."
The Packers went after Jay Cutler, sacking him six times while holding Chicago to 227 yards. Cutler completed only 21 of 39 passes for 168 yards, two interceptions and a 43.5 passer rating.
Offensively, the Packers couldn't run the ball. Again. They had 60 yards rushing with Rodgers' 21 leading the way.
But the Packers needed only a couple of clutch passes by Rodgers to score the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Rodgers hit Donald Driver for 21 yards on third-and-3 and followed it up with a Cover 2-busting 46-yard completion to Greg Jennings to the Chicago 1-yard line. Boom, just like that, the Packers' quick-strike offense set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Donald Lee.
As for special teams, Tramon Williams' 41-yard punt return set up the game-tying field goal late in the third quarter. And punter Tim Masthay contained Devin Hester with four punts inside the 20, including two that were downed at the 3- and 2-yard lines late in the fourth quarter.
The Packers have lost key starters at running back, tight end, right tackle, safety, middle linebacker and, last but not least, outside linebacker. They've started seven different players at outside linebacker. Seven!
One of them is Erik Walden, a no-name youngster who was cut by the Dolphins and signed by the Packers on Oct. 27.
With Frank Zombo inactive because of a knee injury, Walden got his second start of the season Sunday. And all he did was have a game-high 11 tackles (10 solo) while notching the first two sacks of his career. Ho-hum.
"What he did today, that's All-Star material," said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson. "But we've had a lot of guys you probably never heard of before step up and help us get to the playoffs. That's the story of our season."
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org