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Mike Vandermause column: Defense makes a statement

Dec. 16, 2012
 

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Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji (90) reacts to the crowd as he walks off the field after Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. He thinks the Packers are peaking at the right time. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

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CHICAGO — Two prime ingredients are almost always needed for a chance to win the Super Bowl, and based on their division title-clinching victory Sunday at Soldier Field, the Green Bay Packers possess both.

“No doubt about it, defense wins championships,” cornerback Tramon Williams said after the Packers’ 21-13 victory over the Bears, “but you also got to have a great quarterback behind center.”

We’ve known for quite some time that the Packers have the latter in Aaron Rodgers, who was his usual lethal self against the Bears with three touchdown passes and a 116.8 quarterback rating.

But it’s the defense that has been a puzzle, especially last season when it was the worst-ranked unit in the NFL. On Sunday, the defense was the catalyst for the Packers’ victory.

“I think we’re hitting our peak at the right time, and who knows what happens?” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said.

Here’s what happens: If the defense continues to play like it did against the Bears, the Packers are capable of advancing deep into the playoffs.

The Bears mustered just 190 total yards and went a stunning 0-for-9 on third-down opportunities. That’s a shut-down performance by anyone’s estimation.

“After the first series, I thought our defense took over the football game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.

The Bears marched 49 yards on their first possession before punting and were barely heard from again.

When he wasn’t running for his life, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler struggled to find open receivers. Cutler completed just 12 passes, was sacked four times and posted a passer rating of 72.5. It was reminiscent of the first meeting between these teams, when the Packers held the Bears to 168 total yards in a 23-10 victory.

“I’ll take full responsibility for this offense and for this passing game,” Cutler said. “I didn’t get the job done, and we lost the ballgame.”

Cutler didn’t get it done primarily because the Packers wouldn’t allow it. Twice in the second half the Bears could have seized the momentum but got cold-cocked by the Packers’ defense.

The Bears were knocking on the door with a second-and-goal from the Packers’ 1-yard line in the third quarter but settled for a field goal. Then in the fourth quarter, the Bears were handed a first down at the Packers’ 16 after a fumble on a punt return, but they went nowhere and came away with just three points.

“We just had our minds made up they were not getting in the end zone,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said.

“It’s big. Our defense stepped up. It’s championship football.”

It’s a far cry from 2011, when the Packers’ offense felt pressure to score every time it had the ball because the defense couldn’t get off the field.

“Last year, that was not us as far as defense,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “The offense could not count on us to get any stops there. They had to score 40, 50 points to win games. We knew we couldn’t let that happen at all this year.”

An influx of youth has breathed new life into the defense to the point that injured veteran Charles Woodson has hardly been missed since breaking his collarbone nearly two months ago.

“Our young boys are playing,” Pickett said. “Our young boys, they are making a lot of plays. We’re just competing at a higher level than we were last year.”

They will need to maintain that lofty standard in the playoffs, when championships are won or lost.

“This is great,” Hawk said. “You always want to win your division, but our work hasn’t even begun. This is just the start of it.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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