GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers are gaining an unwanted reputation around the NFL.
For the most part, the Packers are considered a prime contender for the NFC title, one of a handful of teams in the conference good enough to reach the Super Bowl. Still, there is an impression afoot that the Packers are a finesse team in a league where physicality usually wins in the end.
The Packers haven't lost many games since coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers joined forces, but how they lost and who they lost to has created an image of a soft team, one that looks like a juggernaut right up until an opponent punches it in the mouth. At that point, it seems like everything changes and the Packers are unwilling or unable to trade punches with aggressive, physical teams that seek to rough them up along both sides of the line of scrimmage.
If the Packers have become a team that can be bullied, the Chicago Bears are a team that has thrived on being a bully throughout its century of existence. The Bears were dubbed the "Monsters of the Midway" in the 1940s and have generally tried to live up to that nickname ever since, beating opponents with a rough, tough brand of football that includes running the ball on offense and intimidating quarterbacks and running backs on defense.
That clash of styles made Sunday night's game against the Bears a perfect test for a Packers team that was dominated physically in the second half of a loss at Indianapolis a week earlier, a game in which it led by two touchdowns at halftime but barely touched the ball after that.
True, the Bears were reeling after a 5-1 start, mainly because they have the most unproductive offense in the NFL. But they still have a strong defense filled with fast, physical playmakers. LaFleur said last week the Bears have "the best defensive unit we’ve played." They also welcomed the return of starting running back David Montgomery from injury, making them more dangerous on the ground.
Entering the game, the Packers were at the point where they needed to prove their football manhood against a tough opponent by running the ball and stopping the run, two things they have done sporadically this season. That is doubly important because the calendar will flip to December this week, increasing the likelihood of games where the weather plays a significant role and the more physical team usually has an advantage.
So what happened? The Packers dispelled at least some of the criticisms leveled against them in a 41-25 victory over the Bears at Lambeau Field, handing Chicago its fifth straight loss.
The Packers ran the ball very effectively against a Bears defense that was missing Akiem Hicks, a 347-pound wrecking ball in the middle of the line. However, they also gave up more than 100 yards to Montgomery, a total that might have climbed even higher had the Bears not been forced to pass after falling behind by 24 points in the second quarter.
Still, progress is progress and the Packers' running game made a sizable impression against a defense ranked in the top 10 in most categories. The Packers took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards on 14 plays, but the most important statistic was this: seven runs and seven passes. Running back Aaron Jones, who had been quiet since returning from a calf injury three games earlier, had five carries for 33 yards on the drive.
In all, the Packers ran 39 times for 182 yards, their second-highest rushing total of the season. Jones and Jamaal Williams had 17 carries apiece and combined for 163 yards. That gave the offense the kind of mix it needs to set up the play-actions and crossing patterns that make the Packers so unstoppable at times.
"I thought we were physical," LaFleur said. "I thought we brought a lot of energy. ... We knew it was going to be a physical football game and I thought our guys did a great job in every aspect."
Especially on offense. With the run game rolling, protecting Rodgers became easier. Not only wasn't he sacked, he often had time to stand back and survey the field before throwing, especially on his first touchdown pass to wide receiver Davante Adams.
"I think (the run game) is the key for the offensive line and the pass rush," Rodgers said. "We haven't had the run game anywhere near this efficient for the last four or five weeks. I thought Aaron ran excellent, Jamaal was great. That's a credit to them, a credit to the offensive line."
In their first seven games, the Packers ran for 128.9 yards per game. In their last three, they rushed for 85.7 per game even though Jones was back from injury. Getting the running game back on track was imperative and the Packers succeeded.
"That's a good front, with or without 96 (Hicks)," tackle David Bakhtiari said. "We were on the attack all night and it showed. It's something we can definitely build off of."
The defense, on the other hand, remains a mystery. Montgomery burst up the middle for 57 yards on his first carry and ended with 11 carries for 103 yards. The pass rush got to quarterback Mitchell Trubisky at times, but the Packers have yet to show they can consistently stop the run.
Oh well, it might have been too much to expect the Packers to erase their image as a soft team in one game. At least they got back to running the ball Sunday. That'll have to do for now.
Photos: Packers cruise past Bears to stay in control of NFC North