By Chris Jenkins/The Associated Press
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Now that the Green Bay Packers have wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Mike McCarthy is free to rest some of his starters in the regular-season finale.
And while McCarthy’s natural inclination might be playing to win — especially with the NFC North rival Detroit Lions coming to Lambeau Field on New Year’s Day — the coach acknowledged after the Packers’ 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night that his team’s injury situation might dictate his strategy.
“We’ll look at all of our options,” McCarthy said. “But I’m not going to stand here and tell you we want to give away opportunities to win the game. We’re going to play to win the game next week. I’m not real excited about a division opponent coming in here and think we’re not going to do everything we can to get to 15-1. But health is an issue for us. I think that’s stating the obvious.”
Aaron Rodgers threw five touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his NFL career, breaking a close game wide open by leading three quick scoring drives in the second half.
The Packers (14-1) nailed down the No. 1 seed in the NFC and claimed another round of bragging rights in the storied rivalry by eliminating the Bears (7-8) from the playoff chase. Chicago’s loss also put the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs.
Rodgers threw a pair of touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson, another two to James Jones, and found tight end Jermichael Finley for a score. Rodgers was 21 of 29 for 283 yards and no interceptions when backup Matt Flynn took over with 7:54 left in the game.
Rodgers has 45 touchdown passes this season — only shy of Tom Brady’s single-season record set in 2007.
But when asked about the possibility of breaking Brady’s record, Rodgers made it sound as if he didn’t expect to see much of the field next Sunday.
“I think that’s probably safe,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said he expected McCarthy to weigh the pros and cons of playing to win.
“There’s something to be said about finishing the season well,” Rodgers said. “The Bears tried to keep us out of the playoffs last year in the last game of the year and it would be nice to finish out the season the way we started it, with a strong showing in a home game. That being said, I think you have to take into account the health of your football team. We have some guys banged up. We’ll see what Mike says this week. But until we hear differently, we’ll prepare as if we’re going to play.”
Rodgers might not get a shot at Brady’s touchdown record, but he did break a franchise record Sunday. With 4,643 yards passing, he surpassed Lynn Dickey’s single-season total of 4,458 set in 1983.
“It’s obviously an award that’s bigger than an individual award,” Rodgers said. “It takes obviously the offensive line pass-blocking for you and your guys getting open and delivering a catchable ball and then making plays. We’ve got a great group of guys to work with. This is a record we all share.”
Rodgers’ offensive feats came behind a patchwork offensive line, as the Packers were without three of their top four tackles.
Chad Clifton returned to practice this week after sitting out since October because of hamstring and back injuries, but isn’t ready to play. Bryan Bulaga was inactive Sunday because of a left knee sprain, and backup Derek Sherrod is out for the season with a broken right leg.
But the line played well, and Rodgers wasn’t sacked.
“We felt that was going to be a huge challenge for us up front, dealing with their defensive line,” McCarthy said. “I can’t say enough about our offensive line.”
Green Bay also was missing wide receiver Greg Jennings, because of a sprained left knee, and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett because of a concussion.
With so many players banged up, will the Packers be cautious with starters in the finale?
“I enjoy playing this game, but at the same time, we have to be smart,” Clay Matthews said. “We like winning around here. It’ll be interesting to see where we go. Like I said, we have to be smart.”
Missing the playoffs is a disappointing end to what was once a promising season for Chicago.
The Bears have lost five straight games since losing quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken right thumb in a Nov. 20 victory over San Diego.
And they had a chance Sunday, trailing by only four early in the third quarter before Rodgers found his rhythm. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell rushed for 121 yards with Marion Barber and Matt Forte sidelined by injuries.
“When you play the Super Bowl champions, you have to be on top of your game,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “Offensively, we did enough things to keep us in the game and have a chance to win the game at the end. But defensively we just didn’t have it.”
The Bears started Josh McCown on Sunday after backup Caleb Hanie struggled to fill in for Cutler. McCown’s most recent start came with the Oakland Raiders in 2007, and he was out of the NFL last season.
“It’s a tough assignment, but you’ve got to find a way to pull it off,” McCown said.