The Chicago Bears placed their slim playoff hopes in the hands of quarterback Josh McCown and running back Kahlil Bell in a prime-time road game against the defending Super Bowl champions.
It didn't turn out quite as badly as it sounded going in. Bell rushed for 121 yards, and McCown made enough plays to keep the game close into the third quarter.
But it wasn't good enough to keep the Bears in the playoff chase. Aaron Rodgers threw five touchdowns, and the Green Bay Packers beat Chicago 35-21 on Sunday night.
"Yeah, that's what this business is all about, getting a chance to showcase your abilities," said Bell, a third-year player out of UCLA. "Tonight, I had a good shot and a good chance to get out there and play and try to make some plays for our team. Just unfortunate that we fell short."
With the win, the Packers nailed down the No. 1 seed in the NFC and claimed another round of bragging rights in the NFL's most storied rivalry. The loss eliminated the Bears (7-8) from postseason contention and put the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs.
The Bears trailed by only four points early in the third quarter, but Rodgers drove the Packers for touchdowns on their next three possessions to put the game out of reach.
"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 have lost five straight games since losing quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken right thumb in a Nov. 20 victory over San Diego. Chicago was 7-3 then.
The Bears started 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.
McCown was 19 of 28 for 242 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"All I know is, my number was called tonight and I played as hard as I could," McCown said. "The bottom line is, we still came up short. We have to protect the football better. You can't have those two (interceptions)."
To make matters worse for the Bears' offense, Barber was inactive because of a calf injury. Chicago already was without Forte, who missed his third straight game because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
Chicago did have Devin Hester, who played despite a lingering ankle injury, but he didn't look like himself.
The Bears were able to stay in the game early, with solid defense and tough running by Bell and Armando Allen. Rodgers' second-half fireworks proved to be too much for Chicago.
"Thirty-five points on that defense, that's a good night," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
The victory was the Packers' fourth over the Bears in 2011. Green Bay also beat Chicago in the 2010 regular-season finale, the NFC Championship game, and at Soldier Field on Sept. 25.
With the Bears trailing 14-3 at halftime, McCown found Earl Bennett wide open for a 49-yard gain to set up first-and-goal on the 1. Bell fumbled just short of the goal line on the next play but offensive lineman Edwin Williams recovered the ball for a touchdown.
With the Packers nursing a four-point lead, and the Lambeau Field crowd nervously quiet early in the third quarter, Rodgers answered by dropping deep and throwing a rainbow pass to Nelson, who blew through the Chicago secondary and hauled in the ball for a 55-yard touchdown.
Rodgers then showed his running ability on the Packers' next possession, juking his way between linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs on a scramble. Rodgers finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown toss to Jones, giving the Packers a commanding 28-10 lead.
Packers safety Charlie Peprah came up with an interception, and Rodgers found Nelson for another score to give Green Bay a 35-10 lead.
McCown finally answered with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Davis — then drew the ire of the Lambeau crowd by scrambling for a two-point conversion and spiking the ball over the goalpost with his team trailing 35-18.
"I was overcome with Christmas joy, I guess," McCown said.
Now the Bears will be home for the playoffs.
"It's tough," offensive lineman Roberto Garza said. "We had a lot of big goals for the season. We had a lot of injuries, but that doesn't matter. We have to step in, guys have to step up and make plays. We haven't done that. We haven't been able to score enough points. We haven't been able to finish plays. Obviously, it falls squarely on us. We have to go out and do a better job of that."