GREEN BAY, Wis. — Where Aaron Rodgers once new names — Urlacher, Briggs, Peanut, Pep … Khalil, Danny, Akiem, Roquan — he only knows numbers with this Bears defense.
“They still have a lot of talented players — I think 33 is one of the top corners in the league,” Rodgers said, referring to cornerback Jaylon Johnson. “They’ve got a couple of young guys in the secondary [rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker] who’ve been battling injuries, but when they’re playing, they seem to be playing better. Ninety-nine [Trevis Gipson] is a real solid end, rush guy off the edge. It’s a talented group. They’re simplifying things probably for them, but they’re still professionals.”
Once upon a time, Rodgers loved the chess matches with Brian Urlacher and enjoyed the personal rivalries he developed with Lance Briggs, Peanut Tillman, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and other established stars of the Bears defense.
Not so much this week. With Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith traded and safety Eddie Jackson on injured reserve with a foot injury, the Bears have a cast of young, nondescript defenders that Rodgers has little to no rapport with.
But one thing hasn’t changed. “I always enjoy playing against the Bears,” Rodgers said.
Therein likes at least part of Rodgers motivation as he tries to recover from a rib injury that forced him out of the Packers’ loss to the Eagles last week and put his season in jeopardy. The Packers are 4-8. Rodgers is 38. But the notion of missing a game is the last thing on his mind.
“Pride, for one,” he said. “Love of the game. They’re paying me to play. A lot of different issues. I love to compete and want to be out there with my guys.”
And the chance to beat the Bears at Soldier Field — maybe for the last time — is an elixir right up there with “my herbs and teas and all the other things” as a healing agent for Rodgers.
“For sure,” Rodgers said. “It was back in 2013 and still is today in 2022.”
Of course, Rodgers remembers 2013. How can anyone forget it? It looked like the Bears had vanquished their nemesis when Shea McClellin broke Rodgers’ collarbone in the first quarter in Week 9 at Lambeau. Rodgers missed the next seven games — the Packers went 2-5-1 without him.
The Bears under Marc Trestman stumbled just enough to give Rodgers hope — and that was all it took. With the NFC North Division championship on the line in Week 17, Rodgers returned and overcome some rust to throw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb with 38 seconds left to lead the 8-7-1 Packers to the playoffs, burnish Rodgers’ legend and crush the Bears’ soul. It wasn’t the first time. And wouldn’t be the last. Rodgers is 24-5 against the Bears in his 29 career starts, including 11-3 at Soldier Field.
So here we are again, with Rodgers nursing what he hinted was rib cartilage damage similar to what Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert had earlier this season. But all expectations are that Rodgers will play Sunday. He usually does in these situations.
Rodgers did not practice Wednesday, but was encouraged enough by some light work (“I was tossing the ball around and felt pretty good”) to practice Thursday — though, let’s face it, Rodgers could get out of traction on Saturday and beat the Bears on Sunday.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur said he is expecting Rodgers to start. He’s not surprised Rodgers is going all out to do that.
“It just speaks to how competitive he is and how much he’s invested in the game, [and] this team, regardless of the circumstances,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.
Indeed, the circumstances aren’t what they were in 2013. Rodgers is unlikely to spark a Packers’ late-season rally with a victory — though you can’t put anything past him. And Rodgers can’t crush the Bears’ soul this time. On the contrary, beating the Bears at this point could actually help them, if it pushes them into a difference-making player in the draft.
But that’s not Aaron Rodgers’ concern. He always wants to beat the Bears.
“I’ve enjoyed the rivalry over the years and have been a part of a ton of these games,” Rodgers said. “This is the 37th one I’ll be a part of and I’ve enjoyed all of them. It’s a great rivalry. Been around for a long time. Happy to be on this side of it. A lot of good memories of Soldier Field.”