Bears beat rival Packers to clinch NFC North title
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When the hitting and hugging and dancing had subsided, when he’d chosen to wear the bone-dry NFC North champions cap instead of the one covered with sweat, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was asked what it felt like to win the division.
He didn’t answer by providing the score or circumstances — a 24-17 victory at Soldier Field that clinched the Bears’ first division title since 2010 and eliminated the Packers from the playoffs — but by rattling off the Bears’ records from his first two years with the team.
“Three-and-13,” he said. “Five-and-11.”
And before that, 6-10 and 5-11 for four consecutive last-place finishes.
On Sunday, the Bears ended an eight-year playoff drought that claimed their three previous coaches and, starting with the Packers’ NFC title-game win in January 2011, beat a fan base into near-submission. The Packers had won 9 of 10 and 15 of the previous 17 games against their archrivals.
At 10-4, the Bears are guaranteed a home game in the wild-card round. They have the inside track to finish as the NFC’s third seed, though there’s a slim chance they can still earn a first-round bye.
“I checked off so many things today,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said minutes after proposing to his girlfriend at midfield. “I never beat the Packers at home. I never had a winning season. Never got double-digit wins. Never been NFC [North] champions. . . .
“I’ve been through some dark days here. This is one of the greatest days in my life.”
Second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky again looked like someone worth building around, completing 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns and a 120.4 passer rating.
All but three of the Bears’ starters are under contract for next year.
“We are set up the right way and in the right direction,” coach Matt Nagy said.
Nagy had the perfect bookend to his short head-coaching career.
With 2:36 to play in the season opener, cornerback Kyle Fuller dropped a tipped Aaron Rodgers pass that, if intercepted, would have sealed a Bears win.
With 3:04 left Sunday and the Bears up by 10, safety Eddie Jackson squeezed a tipped Rodgers pass in the end zone for the game-sealing interception.
“It could have ended on an interception the first game,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “And this game, it did end on an interception. It’s a storybook ending.”
It took a winding road to get there. With 1:14 left in the first half and the Bears up 7-3, running back Tarik Cohen ran 22 yards to the Packers’ 30. Two plays later, he caught a pass from Trubisky along the right sideline, tiptoed and lunged the ball over the pylon for a 12-yard score.
Mason Crosby kicked a 43-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half to cut the Bears’ lead to 14-6. Then Nagy got too cute, faking a punt on fourth-and-two from the Packers’ 49. Benny Cunningham’s run fell short.
Five plays later, Packers running back Jamaal Williams scored on a 10-yard run. The Packers went for two, and Rodgers found Davante Adams to tie the score.
The Bears faced third-and-one from the Packers’ 23 on the second play of the fourth quarter when Nagy had Cohen take a shotgun snap. He faked a handoff up the middle to Jordan Howard and fumbled the ball away.
The Bears’ defense forced a three-and-out, though. Helped by a holding penalty on the punt, the Bears started at the Packers’ 45. The Packers were flagged two more times on the drive. Facing a second-and-eight from the 13, Trubisky looked left and threw to wide-open tight end Trey Burton, who ran a corner route into the end zone, for a 21-14 lead.
The Bears then forced another three-and-out — Khalil Mack sacked Rodgers — before Cohen took a punt 44 yards up the left sideline to the Packers’ 15.
Three plays later, though, he ran out of bounds just shy of the first-down marker. Cody Parkey booted a 24-yard field goal to give the Bears a 10-point lead with 6:46 to play. Crosby made a 45-yard field goal with 11 seconds left, but the Packers’ onside kick failed.
Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan remembered Rodgers’ assertion that he could win in Chicago — something that had proved true for years.
“We don’t want nobody to feel like that,” he said. “He shouldn’t feel like that, especially after [Sunday].’’