Haugh: Bears lose again to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, but something felt different about this one

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- As quiet as he had been all Sunday, Aaron Rodgers triumphantly pumped his right fist without saying a word while walking off Soldier Field – perhaps for the last time as a Packers quarterback? – after his team’s 28-19 comeback victory that was much closer than the score indicated.

If Rodgers still owns the Bears, as he famously claimed on his last visit here, this time No. 12 was more of a silent partner. Green Bay won anyway, however much that still matters in Chicago.

Everybody in town can agree Rodgers wasn’t even the most impactful quarterback in a Bears-Packers game, quite a statement in this series and more significant than anything on the scoreboard from Chicago's perspective.

That designation best described Justin Fields, the emerging Bears star who returned from a left shoulder separation and played with protective padding on the injury. When Fields showed up on a perfectly chilly 40-degree December day wearing nothing under his No. 1 jersey, his exposed, sleeveless arms announced he was ready to go.

And, boy, was he ever.

The Bears backed up his boldness by winning the coin flip and taking the ball instead of deferring – “I told Justin all week, we were going to do that and he was excited about it," coach Matt Eberflus said postgame.

It showed, early and often. Fields looked like Fields again, a legitimate threat to score on every series because of speed now measured in miles per hour more than yards per second, the epitome of extraordinary, an explosive athlete who has become one of the NFL’s most dangerous running backs while playing quarterback. For 57 minutes, Fields did everything possible to put the Bears in position to win their first game since Oct. 24.

Then he threw probably his only regrettable pass of the game, up to that point.

On first down at the Packers’ 43-yard line with 2:52 left and the Bears driving while down 20-19, Fields stared down receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a dig route. St. Brown didn’t finish the route the way coaches teach, and Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander simply beat him to the spot. Alexander’s interception ended the threat and essentially clinched the victory.

“That's a trust throw," Eberflus said. “When you have a trust throw, that means that he's reading it and, man, he's going to let it rip and the (receiver) has got to do a great job of stepping up and making those plays."

So that was a good throw?

“Well, no, it's not," Eberflus responded to the follow-up question. "It's not. Because it's an interception. But I was just saying you got to let that thing rip. He's got to let it rip. I thought the corner did a good job of stepping in front of it, but again, hopefully we can break it up and move it from there."

Fields also made it pretty obvious what he thought went wrong, in another example of unexpected transparency at the podium.

“It's the dig route," Fields said. "I think 23 made a great play on that play. EQ was underneath him. At that point, once you throw that ball, you anticipate the throw and then boom, he jumped it and really, at that point, you just like to see the receiver come back to the ball.”

At that point, you just like to see the receiver come back to the ball.

“We always just try to tell the receivers that those DBs, they want that pick each and every time, so they're going to attack that ball," Fields added. “So, yeah, that's just a timing throw, anticipated throw, and I think 23 just made a good play on."

If St. Brown disagreed with that assessment, we'll have to wait for his explanation. He was unavailable postgame, another of his tasks unfinished.

Two points can be true about the interception Fields threw that prevented him from leading his team down the field for a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, a box on his development evaluation that remains unchecked. One, St. Brown could've run a crisper route and boxed out Alexander more physically with his 6-foot-5-inch, 214-pound frame. And two, Fields stared down his receiver long enough after the snap to make Alexander feel safe jumping the route.

It can lead to an interesting football debate over a pivotal play. Not every observation about Fields needs to induce an argument, not even in a city with no experience seeing a franchise quarterback mature and grow through ups and downs. Critiquing Fields as a passer isn’t concluding he can’t become a more polished one. It’s the essence of objectivity, evaluating what happened without being emotionally affected by what you wanted to see happen.

The consensus was that Fields’ second interception, a pass intended for Dante Pettis with 51 seconds left, involved a poor read but meant little other than a drop his passer rating. Not that the numbers really were memorable, not after a game that confirmed these are two franchises headed in opposite directions, largely due to their respective quarterbacks. Rodgers turned 39 on Friday, while Fields spoke postgame of wanting to increase his speed to 21 miles per hour. The contrast is striking.

Those wheels were on display on Fields’ 55-yard touchdown run with three minutes left in the first quarter, when four Packers theoretically could've made the tackle. And four Packers failed. Whether it was Fields’ burst or his strength, all of his instincts were on display during his latest highlight sure to go viral. Yet Fields hurt the Packers with his arm as much as his legs, completing 20 of 25 passes for 254 yards in an effort he considered “one of my best games, passing-wise."

Indeed, that passing game showed progress, never an insignificant detail for someone who tied an NFL record for quarterbacks with a rushing touchdown in his sixth straight game. The kind of growth Fields experienced against the Packers justified all the urgency the Bears felt to get him back onto the field before the bye week.

The prettiest pass Fields threw came on a 56-yard completion to St. Brown, who got the best of Alexander on this one by running right by him. Alexander squatted early in St. Brown’s route and never recovered, giving St. Brown an opening. All Fields did was place the perfect spiral right in his hands, setting up David Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Fields also delivered with intermediate passes with accuracy and noticeable authority, especially on back-to-back completions to Chase Claypool for 31 yards – the second of which Claypool lost a fumble to the Packers. On a 24-yard completion to tight end Cole Kmet in the third quarter, Fields bought himself time by keeping his eyes downfield while stepping up in the pocket and waiting for Kmet to clear. On a 49-yarder to N’Keal Harry in the fourth quarter, Fields used his patented spin move in the pocket but reset to throw rather than tuck and run. He threw the ball to a point that allowed Harry to make a play on it with Alexander defending, and Harry rewarded that faith.

Flash back to the Bears' loss to the Jets last week when Fields watched Trevor Siemian take a similar approach on passes to Claypool and Byron Pringle. You wonder how much seeing Siemian throw his receiver open made an impression on Fields. I also wonder how having that trust betrayed by St. Brown on that final interception might affect Fields the next time he considers his options.

Meanwhile, Rodgers arrived nursing injuries to his right thumb and ribs, but the biggest health concern was coming down with laryngitis after whining to officials seemingly after every incompletion. It was like he was reading out of Football Divas for Dummies. Chapter 1: Challenge Every Call. You didn’t have to be a lip reader to realize Rodgers’ frustration was palpable, his complaints directed at the men in striped shirts as well as those on his sideline or in his huddle. Even after overthrowing his longtime buddy Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter, Rodgers’ demonstrative body language screamed that it wasn’t his fault.

He finished with an un-Rodgers-like stat line: 18-of-30 for 182 yards and one touchdown with an 85.7 passer rating. The Bears defense playing without three starters in the secondary actually did its part to keep Rodgers and the Packers running game off-balance at times, with safety DeAndre Houston-Carson making plays and linebacker Jack Sanborn being everywhere. The Packers scored 28 points, but it appeared anything but smooth or satisfying for Rodgers – who denied feeling anything but confident.

“There were probably a lot of people (in the stadium) who felt good at 19-10," Rodgers said. “So did I."

Maybe internally, but the most satisfied Rodgers looked on the field came on fourth-and-4 from the Bears' 14-yard line with 17 seconds left in the first half. Instead of kicking a field goal, the Packers decided to go for it, perhaps because coach Matt LaFleur feared Rodgers’ reaction in the halftime locker room. The Bears pass rush gave Rodgers all day to throw on the play, long enough for receiver Christian Watson to create a slight cushion between him and safety Elijah Hicks. Rodgers did the rest, buying time and throwing a dart with his lightning-quick release. That score coaxed a smile.

Before that touchdown, the Bears called timeout with 23 seconds left – a curious decision Eberflus was asked to defend.

“Just to force their hand … and make them make a decision," Eberflus said. “And it gave us an opportunity for defense to get set up."

More importantly, it also gave Rodgers a chance to catch his breath and LaFleur an opportunity to pick the perfect play.

Another fair coaching decision to question came after Harry’s 49-yard reception. The Bears’ third straight running play came on third-and-5 at the Packers’ 23, a concession that play-caller Luke Getsy didn’t need to make, not with Rodgers on the opposite sideline. The Bears played it way too conservative with a 19-17 lead. Cairo Santos had a 40-yard field-goal attempt blocked – Santos also missed an extra point as doubts about him start to build – and the Packers took the lead for good on the ensuing series.

As a result, the Packers won their 787th game as a franchise, passing the Bears for the first time since 1921. That means this is the first time in 99-year-old Virginia McCaskey’s life that the Packers have had a better all-time record than her family’s Bears.

This also felt like the first time in a very long time that this rivalry could be changing again.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-10 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.

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