CHICAGO -- The Green Bay Packers' fall from grace can be boiled down to a pair of plays midway through the third quarter Monday night at Soldier Field.
On a third down from the Chicago Bears' 15-yard line, quarterback Aaron Rodgers rifled a pass past two defenders and into the arms of tight end Jermichael Finley in the end zone. Touchdown? Nope. A whistle. Right tackle Mark Tauscher was holding.
"That was a big change there," Rodgers said after the Bears' 20-17 victory. "When you lose by three points, you have to look at plays like that."
You'll hear plenty this week about the Bears' 3-0 start, the best record in the NFC. Our friends over at ESPNChicago.com have it covered wall-to-wall. I'll be the first to admit that I never saw the Bears as the NFC North's final unbeaten team, let alone the entire conference. No matter how it happened, the Bears deserve all praise that comes their way this week.
But before we crown the Bears, let's take a moment to bury the Packers. (At least for the moment.) Quite frankly, this was an epic collapse for a team that has its sights set on the Super Bowl. The Packers set a team record with 18 penalties, wiping out Finley's touchdown as well as two fourth-quarter turnovers. Their special teams gave up two long kick returns, including Devin Hester's 62-yarder for a touchdown.
Receiver James Jones' fumble with 2 minutes, 18 seconds remaining both scuttled the Packers' potential game-winning drive and set up the Bears' winning field goal.
"We lost our composure," receiver Greg Jennings said, speaking generally about the game. "Anytime you have that many penalties and mistakes, you've lost your composure."
That wasn't supposed to be the storyline for this Packers team, which is no longer the NFL's youngest and in fact has established veterans at most positions. The Packers were the league's most-penalized team last season, but all indications were that they had taken the next step and were ready to compete on the league's biggest stage.
Instead, they were an undisciplined mess. Linebacker Nick Barnett used a crude reference to describe their performance, comparing it to a bodily function that runs down a nerve-wracked person's legs.
"That's what it boiled down to," Barnett said.
So how could that happen in a game that seemed destined to deify the Packers as the NFC's top team? If I didn't know any better, I'd think the pressure got to them. Some teams and players embrace the so-called "front-runner" status. Monday night, at least, it appeared the Packers were consumed by it. They simply couldn't handle themselves on this stage, at least not yet.
Mistakes happen in every NFL game, but their frequency Monday night suggested a team playing outside of its comfort zone. Overall, 12 different Packers players committed at least one penalty. It was across the board, ranging from rookies to the most seasoned veterans on the team.
Rodgers typically has a good sense of the Packers' locker room, and so I asked him after the game if he sensed any correlation. I thought he chose his words carefully.
"I hope not," Rodgers said. "We're still a young team. But when you get into the grind of the week-to-week schedule, I'm hopeful that, like myself, the focus is solely on the opponent at hand, not on the expectations or experts' picks or how they say we're going to do that week. I can only speak for myself. That's training camp talk. For the most part, we're focused on our opponent and preparation."
It's true that rookies committed both penalties that overturned both turnovers. Linebacker Frank Zombo's brutal hit to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's chin nullified Barnett's interception, while a pass interference call against safety Morgan Burnett put the Bears in position for Robbie Gould's game-winning 19-yard field goal.
But even Rodgers, who played a whale of a game while fighting through second-half cramps, contributed to the mess. His intentional-grounding penalty pushed the Packers back 10 yards on the play prior to Jones' fumble.
"You can't win a game like that," Barnett said. "We just can't have that. We have to clean up all sides of the ball and play better football."
"Seeing all those penalties," cornerback Charles Woodson said, "that's just a tough pill to swallow. It's a tough situation. We'll have to get that fixed."
Even so, the Packers won't get a chance to take back Monday night's game. One-sixth of their NFC North schedule has already fallen victim.
Barnett acknowledged that the Bears "were the better team today" but not "a better team than us period." He added: "Honestly, I feel we have a better team. I feel we have better players. But they played better today. That's my personal opinion, and I feel we can play a lot better than we played today."
The way the Packers played Monday night "doesn't cut it," coach Mike McCarthy said.
For one night, at least, the Packers didn't match their hype. Instead, they seemed swallowed by it.