CHICAGO (AP) — One bizarre play sealed two teams' fates, one of them maybe for seasons to come.
It tore a hole in the NFL's space-time continuum.
And if the league is lucky, it might be the prelude to a postseason so wacky, you'll have to watch most of it wearing a seat belt.
The Green Bay Packers strolled off Soldier Field on Sunday whooping and hollering and bumping fists after sneaking past the Chicago Bears, 33-28. The win gave them an improbable third straight NFC North division title, plus home-field advantage against San Francisco when the playoffs open next weekend.
The play that decided the outcome was plenty entertaining, though in this game, it rated a distant second. It came on fourth-and-eight at Chicago's 48-yard line, with 46 seconds left, right after fullback John Kuhn figured out on the fly that the Packers couldn't protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers. So he cut in front of his quarterback as Bears end Julius Pepper was closing in.
Kuhn hit Peppers hard enough to make just enough room for Rodgers, who hadn't played since November because of a broken collarbone, to slide to his left. Rodgers quickly set his feet and determined to take advantage of his narrow escape, threw a 48-yard touchdown to wide-open Randall Cobb, who hadn't played since October because of a leg injury.
"To happen with those two guys, in that manner, whew," Green Bay defender Mike Neal said, letting out a low whistle.
"All the ups and downs the last two months, losing guys to injuries, the one-point wins — all the crazy stuff that happened to us and now this. It's, it's ..." concurred teammate B.J. Raji, searching for the right words. "It's just like real life."
But life in the NFC North? Where the Packers, Bears and Lions spent most of the season refusing to capitalize on each other's mistakes?
In real life, opportunity rarely sits out in the open practically screaming "pick me up!" the way the football did on the turf Sunday with some three-and-half minutes left in the second quarter. For the record, Green Bay faced a first-and-10 at the Bears' 17, when the play began at exactly 3:34.
But at least three seconds elapsed before Peppers roared around right end and knocked the ball from Rodgers, just as he was preparing to launch it. With nearly everyone assuming it was an incomplete pass — despite no whistle — the ball lay on the ground for a few seconds more.
Bears linebacker James Anderson, an eight-year veteran, walked right past it. The first time Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin tried to pick it up, he knocked it a few feet forward. Once he got his hands around the ball, Boykin casually stuck it on his hip and started walking back toward the Green Bay huddle.
That's when Rodgers rushed over, looked back at referee Clete Blakeman and realized the play was still live. He yelled at Boykin to turn around and head for the end zone and his receiver did exactly as instructed.
"I looked back at Clete and he was just looking at us," Rodgers recalled.
Untouched, Boykin ran the last 15 yards to put the Packers ahead 10-7. Though at least a dozen seconds or more elapsed from the play's start to finish, the score was recorded at 3:28.
Blakeman, the referee, acknowledged afterward that the game clock was turned off "at some point" and officials in the booth upstairs suggested "we should make an adjustment to the game clock.
"But under that situation," he continued, "we can't, because we don't know if it's 3 seconds, 5 seconds or 10 seconds ...
"Ultimately," Blakeman concluded in remarks to a pool reporter, "it doesn't really make much difference for us because we'd have to estimate it."
Truth be told, it wasn't until the Bears opened the second half by driving for three straight touchdowns that players on both teams realized how important that play turned out to be.
"I guess the one time that you don't," Anderson said about being "programmed" to play until the whistle, "it hurts you."
Exactly how much remains to be seen.
The Bears had the division seemingly wrapped up just one week ago, then got rolled 54-11 at Philadelphia. This loss dropped quarterback Jay Cutler, whose contract is up, to 1-8 against the Packers, with only one trip to the postseason over that same five-season span. The debate on his future in Chicago, already percolating, will be boiling over for weeks.
Rodgers, meanwhile, is headed back to the playoffs for the fifth time, having already won a Super Bowl for the Packers just three years ago. This time, it's in large part because of a great athletic play at the end; but also because Rodgers had the presence of mind to recognize a gift — and cash it in — when he saw one.
"Most guys had no clue what was going on, but Aaron's a pretty smart guy. That's only one reason why he gets the big bucks," Packers receiver Ryan Taylor said, "and this was one time he was worth every cent."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.