CHICAGO - It's almost a cliche in football, how important third down plays are to keep drives going and maintain control of the ball and the game.
But the reason it's a cliche is that it's true, and the Green Bay Packers proved it Sunday, as three touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones gave them a 21-13 victory over the Chicago Bears to clinch the NFC North division title.
"Third down is the money down," said Rodgers, who, after a sluggish start, completed six consecutive third down passes for 120 yards and a touchdown and, for good measure, completed 2-of-2 fourth down passes for 20 yards and two first downs.
The Packers had netted minus-6 yards on their first five third down plays, which included just one completion (for a loss) and a sack. But from early in the second quarter, they never failed to convert a third down on which Rodgers threw the ball.
He finished with 23 completions in 36 attempts for 291 yards.
Of course, it wasn't just Rodgers' third down success that defined the game for the Packers. It was Jay Cutler's third down failures for the Bears.
Green Bay's defense shut out the Bears on third down; Chicago was 0-for-9 in converting third downs and finished with just 190 total yards on offense.
The third down plays not only were telling, but they were a reverse of season-long trends. Going into the game, Chicago ranked sixth in the NFL in third down defense, and Green Bay was 21st.
What made the difference for the Packers was the return of linebacker Clay Matthews, who had missed the previous four games with a hamstring injury. Matthews made two sacks, raising his team-high total to 11, had four other tackles for losses, two other hits on Cutler and, for good measure, broke up one pass.
"When Clay Matthews is on the field, we're a different defense," said Mike McCarthy, the Packers' coach. "He's an impact player."
The Packers, who have won eight of their last nine games, are 10-4 and now will be playing for post-season seeding position in the final two weeks. The Bears, who started 7-1, have lost three straight and five of six to drop to 8-6, leaving them in a fight for a wild-card spot in the playoffs. They also have dropped six in a row to their division rival Packers.
Chicago actually led, 7-0, on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Cutler to Brandon Marshall in the second quarter, but the Packers scored touchdowns on three of their next four possessions, one of them set up by rookie cornerback Casey Hayward's sixth interception of the season.
Following the kickoff after the Bears' touchdown, Rodgers directed an 89-yard drive in seven plays, ignited by a 19-yard pass to Greg Jennings, who broke three tackles. Randall Cobb, who earlier dropped a would-be touchdown pass when he was wide open, made a nifty leap for a 31-yard catch on 3rd-and-6 and, three plays later, Rodgers threw 29 yards to Jones for the first Green Bay touchdown.
In the last two minutes of the half, Chicago's Devin Hester apparently ran the wrong route and Hayward intercepted a Cutler pass, returning it 24 yards to the Bears' 26-yard line. While Cutler was screaming at coaches on the Bears' bench about Hester's blunder, Rodgers completed another third down pass to Cobb for 13 yards and then connected with Jones for an 8-yard touchdown pass and 14-7 lead at the half.
Asked about the play after the game, Cutler said, "It came out of my hands, I'm responsible," then added, "Those things can't happen. That's how you lose ballgames against good teams like that."
Chicago coach Lovie Smith said that turnover, the only one by the Bears, "really changed momentum."
The Packers took control of the game by driving 79 yards for a touchdown from the second half kickoff, using nearly seven minutes. Rodgers threw a six-yard pass to Jones for the touchdown that made it 21-7.
The game could have been more lopsided. Packers kicker Mason Crosby missed two field goal attempts, Green Bay running back Ryan Grant lost a fumble that set up a Chicago field goal, and the Bears got another gift when the Packers botched a crossfield lateral on a punt return deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter, leading to another Chicago field goal.
That call was "clearly not the highlight of my coaching career," McCarthy said.
It wasn't, but his team's ability to bounce back from a rash of injuries this year ranks highly, though perhaps not as highly as the team's rise from wild card to Super Bowl winner two years ago.
"It's been a grind," Rodgers said. "This season, more than last season (15-1 and first-round loser) or even 2010 (Super Bowl winner), it's been a grind. We've dealt with a lot of adversity, we've had a lot of guys hurt. We've had a lot of guys step up and play."
Notes: Rookie wideout Alshon Jeffrey of the Bears was called three times for offensive pass interference in the second half, one of the penalties killing a drive that reached the Packers 1-yard line. ... This is the second year in a row the Bears have faded down the stretch. Last year, they went 1-5 after a 7-3 start but at least that time they had the excuse of losing Cutler to an injury. ... Green Bay has won 12 straight games against NFC North opponents. ... McCarthy said he would not change kickers, but the vote of confidence for Crosby, who has missed 12 of 29 field goal attempts, came with a warning. He said, "Mason needs to make those kicks. It's time for him to step up." Clearly, McCarthy is losing patience with his kicker, which is why the Packers passed up a field goal attempt on 4th-and-6 from the Chicago 26-yard line.