Packers taking early command of NFC North race again

By STEVE MEGARGEE AP Sports Writer

When he celebrated a touchdown run at Chicago on Sunday by shouting to the crowd, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers may have been selling his team short.

Rodgers yelled, "I still own you!" to the Bears fans at Solder Field. In fact, Rodgers and the Packers have owned the entire NFC North ever since Matt LaFleur arrived as coach.

That doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.

Green Bay (5-1) has a two-game lead over the Bears and Minnesota Vikings in the division standings after winning 24-14 at Chicago. The Packers are seeking their third straight division title and own a 13-1 record against NFC North opponents in LaFleur's three-year tenure.

"I'm just really proud of the guys," Rodgers said after the game. "These are character wins. These are wins that are really, really important. We've got to get healthy. We've got a lot of guys banged up, a lot of guys we could use moving forward. But I really like where we're at, two up in the division after six and playing winning football."

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, LaFleur is the only coach to win his first seven divisional road games. Green Bay's only loss to an NFC North opponent under LaFleur came last year when Dalvin Cook scored four touchdowns to lead the Vikings to a 28-22 victory at Lambeau Field.

"These games are so meaningful because if you can come out with a win, you're obviously adding a loss to a divisional opponent and that's a full game," LaFleur said. "So every divisional game is so important."

The Packers have built this division lead while dealing with multiple injuries.

Starters who missed Sunday's game included 2020 All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, 2020 Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander, 2020 Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, cornerback Kevin King and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Injuries knocked center Josh Myers, safety Darnell Savage and outside linebacker Preston Smith out of the game.

Bakhtiari tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 31 and opened the season on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he had to miss the Packers' first six games. Now that the Packers have played six games, Bakhtiari can start practicing again to prepare for his eventual return.

"We want to make sure that, No. 1, physically his knee is in great shape and he's not at further risk of doing more damage to it," LaFleur said Monday. "And also I think there's a confidence factor that you develop by playing football, whether that's in practice, so there is a ramp-up period."

LaFleur said he couldn't completely rule out the possibility of surgery for Alexander but added that team officials feel he's "progressing nicely" in his recovery from a shoulder injury.

The Packers return home to face the Washington Football Team on Sunday before going back on the road for a demanding two-game stretch at Arizona and Kansas City.

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