Aaron Rodgers vs. Justin Fields. This is exactly what the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers rivalry needs — right here and right now. – The Denver Post


Perhaps it would be in the Green Bay Packers’ best interest to put their four-time MVP quarterback on the shelf for the rest of 2022, to let Aaron Rodgers rest his battered ribs and take care of his broken right thumb. The Packers then could take a longer look at young Jordan Love and begin to make a more informed evaluation of their possible quarterback succession plan. Always good to keep an eye on the future, right?

But nope. Forget that.

This is Bears-Packers, man. Meeting No. 206 in professional football’s longest-running rivalry. It’s a bit of a tiebreaker, too, with both teams owning 786 regular-season victories over the last 103 seasons.

Rodgers ain’t missing this.

“One of my favorite places to play,” he said this week.

Forget that ayahuasca tea. Visiting Soldier Field has long been one of Rodgers’ most reliable highs, an annual trip that usually ends in a state of satisfaction. Fifteen stops in Chicago as the Packers starting quarterback, 12 victories.

That’s why when the NFL schedule is released each spring, Rodgers admits he looks quickly for two things. First, when will the Packers have their bye week? Second, when will they visit Soldier Field?

Politely, he says it’s because he loves Chicago as a tradition-rich and passionate sports town. And he sincerely means that. But deep down, it’s easy to understand how much he relishes his role as tormentor too.

Thus Rodgers will start Sunday, even with his 4-8 team and his ordinary receiving corps and his dwindling patience for how the season has unraveled.

Pardon the pun. But Love can wait. Rodgers has an itch to scratch and a feeling of responsibility.

“Listen, if we were 8-4, 4-8, 12-0, 0-12, I’d be wanting to suit up this week,” he said Tuesday on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “And not just because it’s Chicago. It’s because that’s what you do. When you’re a player, you go out there and if you can play, you play. You don’t need some doctor to give you an excuse. ‘Oh, man, I don’t know. Maybe one more week. Not quite 100%.’ No. If you can go out there and compete and you have competitive greatness in your body, in your heart, in your mind, you go out and play.”

OK. That leads, naturally, to how the Bears’ up-in-the-air quarterback situation has evolved this week. On Thursday, Justin Fields was cleared for full practice participation for the first time since Week 12, clearing a hurdle that positions him to start this week. Against the Packers. Against Rodgers.

Heck, yeah.

Practically speaking, it might be in the franchise’s best interest to keep Fields out another game, to give him additional time to regain strength in his separated left shoulder and have his pain and discomfort diminish to where he can again be playing fast and worry-free.

After all, Fields’ November fireworks show teased a long and promising future of high-scoring, entertaining offense in Chicago. So why risk anything unless absolutely necessary, especially after top receiver Darnell Mooney was lost for the season last week with a left ankle injury that will require surgery?

Still, though …

This is freaking Bears-Packers, the rivalry that for decades favored Chicago until Rodgers and Brett Favre combined to win 46 of their 61 starts in the series, a running tab that could tick upward again this weekend.

Isn’t it part of Fields’ responsibility to help the Bears seize control back, to accelerate their pursuit of NFC North dominance by downing the team that has worn this division’s crown the most?

And wouldn’t there be something extra sweet — and perfectly intriguing, frankly — about the emerging young Bears quarterback slaying the Packers legend in a see-your-breath December shootout by Lake Michigan?

“If I feel like I can help my team win and help my team score points, then I’m going to go out there and play,” Fields said Wednesday.

Memory game

When Packers receiver Allen Lazard was asked Wednesday about Rodgers’ determination to play against the Bears, he smiled.

“I think he’s got to renew his ownership,” Lazard said. “You’ve got to do that twice a year.”

Oh, yeah. That. The whole “All my (bleeping) life! I own you!” grenade launched by Rodgers during his last visit to Soldier Field, a 24-14 Packers victory on Oct. 17, 2021, punctuated by the quarterback’s 6-yard TD scramble and celebratory invective behind the south end zone.

“He’s a (bleep)-talker,” Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said.

That episode last season was painful for the Bears and their fans but still a moment Rodgers casually downplays as not even among his top five moments of torturing Chicago with a villainous smile across his mug.

To that end, Rodgers retains vivid recall of so many triumphs in Chicago.

He did, after all, win the George Halas Trophy at Soldier Field in January 2011, beating the Bears 21-14 in the NFC championship game and going on to win his one and only Super Bowl two weeks later. That trip was pretty darn rewarding.

Rodgers also remains particularly fond of his 2016 win at Soldier Field, the one in which the Bears rallied from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 1:19 left — only to have their archrival rip their hearts out with a 60-yard completion to Jordy Nelson with 31 seconds remaining. That Rodgers pass set up a walk-off 32-yard field goal as time expired.

Plus, there will always be that last-minute, fourth-down, division-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the 2013 season finale, the exclamation point on a 15-play, 87-yard drive that gave the Packers a 33-28 victory and a spot in the playoffs — in Rodgers’ first start back after an eight-week absence because of a broken collarbone he suffered in a Lambeau Field loss to the Bears.

Rodgers still can recount that game and that sequence in remarkable detail, remembering the interceptions he threw to Chris Conte and Tim Jennings; the bizarre fumble-recovery touchdown receiver Jarrett Boykin scored on; and the one-point deficit the Packers faced when they got the ball for the final time, at their 13 yard line with 6:24 remaining.

Rodgers converted three fourth downs on that final drive, the last against an all-out blitz. He’ll point out that the Bears sent seven rushers against a six-man protection on fourth-and-8 and, with a better rush pattern, should have had the pressure to blow up the play, win the game and clinch the division.

Rodgers has noted for years how his initial goal was to hit Nelson as his hot read on a stop route along the left hashmarks. But then he saw safety Major Wright blow Nelson up and caught a glimpse of fullback John Kuhn managing to cut block Julius Peppers just as the Bears pass rusher was about to engulf him. That’s when Rodgers noticed Cobb running wide open behind Conte.

And well, that 48-yard touchdown pass provided one of the greatest feelings of Rodgers’ career, a season-salvaging, playoff-berth clinching triumph. All at the expense of the Bears.

That right there is the stuff, the competitive exhilaration that can’t be matched. Those are the moments that bring Rodgers back, even in the late stages of a wayward season such as this.

‘He’s a soldier’

Those are the kinds of conquests Fields should continue to thirst for as he continues his career climb. At this point, his library in the Bears-Packers rivalry remains small. He has started three times and lost all three — by an average of 14 points.

By league standards, Sunday’s matchup won’t qualify as a high-stakes, big-stage game, not with the Packers way down the list on the NFC “In the hunt” graphics and the Bears nowhere to be found.

Still, there is plenty of potential juice. That much was evident as early as Monday at Halas Hall when Bears tight end Cole Kmet, who grew up a devoted Bears fan in Arlington Heights, was asked if he truly wanted to see Rodgers in the Packers’ huddle this week.

“Yeah,” Kmet said without hesitation. “Bring it on, you know? I mean, why wouldn’t you (want that)? He’s the staple of their franchise. And to get an opportunity to go beat him, it would always be a good feeling. So yeah, I would like to see Aaron out there for sure.”

Kmet will have that wish granted. Now, it appears, the Bears also could have Fields ready for the clash.

It’s no wonder, then, that Fields’ “full” status at practice Thursday created an energy surge in the locker room.

Said Johnson: “For me, it’s no surprise. He’s a soldier. He’s going to be out there whenever he can. I feel like he feels good enough to be out there. He looks good in practice, being back to himself. So I’m looking forward to him and 12 going at it.”

Johnson is far from alone with that eagerness.

“It’s great having him back,” running back David Montgomery said. “QB1, being able to have that guy back there and able to make some plays and be who he is is good.”

Fields’ toughness, desire and competitive tenacity has been evident. Now he gets the stage again and an opportunity to add to his resume.

“At the end of the day, he leads by example,” Johnson said. “He can’t ask us to come out there and be a tough team, be a tough unit and he’s out and not displaying toughness in whatever way that is. Mentally, physically, I feel like there are a lot of ways quarterbacks and players in this league display toughness. But he does it in all areas.”

‘Competitive greatness’

Rodgers was speaking generally on “The Pat McAfee Show” this week, explaining the mindset he has used through the grind of 15 seasons as a high-level NFL quarterback. But those searching for innuendo might have heard a splash of kerosene on the flames of the Bears-Packers rivalry.

“Understandably, I guess, there’s fear around, ‘What does it mean if I’m not 100% and I don’t play my absolute best?’ ” Rodgers said. “Can I live with that reality? And I think many people can’t. For me, I can because I know what competitive greatness is. Going out there and trying to do your best all the time and putting your body on the line for your teammates and knowing that if you’re 90%, 80%, 70%, and it gives your team the best chance to win, then you’re out there and you’re playing.

Perhaps that was a subtle challenge to Fields. Most likely, it was nothing of the sort.

Still, in a rivalry that always has provided elevated theater, it felt like a Shakespearean soliloquy, as timely as it was gripping.

Rodgers talked openly about his need to satisfy the man in the mirror.

“That’s honestly the only person you really have to appease and whose opinion you have to live up to,” he said. “It’s that person staring right back at you. That’s why I’ve always wanted to play. And that’s why I’ve never wanted to come out of games. Because I want to look in the mirror and know I did everything I could to be out there with my guys. I put my body on the line willingly. That’s the nature of being a fierce competitor and striving for competitive greatness — that it’s not really a question.”

Inside both locker rooms, neither Packers nor Bears players have been surprised at how this week has unfolded.

If everything breaks as it should, a potentially captivating quarterback duel — Rodgers vs. Fields — should begin at high noon Sunday.

Now we’re talking.



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