MINNEAPOLIS – Now that’s what you call putting the team on your back, doe.
Odds are you’ve seen the video. It has more than 10 million views on YouTube, and while you can file it under NSFW thanks to the, uh, colorful language used by the Madden gamer who made it, it led to such an unforgettable catchphrase that went so viral that Greg Jennings was asked about it before Super Bowl XLV.
So it was Sunday night, with Aaron Rodgers facing the Minnesota Vikings – and, oddly enough, Jennings, he of the frequent offseason criticism of his former quarterback’s leadership that he claimed this week was simply a joke run amok – that the Green Bay Packers quarterback did just that. He may not have had a broken leg – it’s the guys he’s playing without who are dealing with the injuries – but he certainly carried his team.
For while the Packers’ 44-31 victory Sunday night was a team effort – as he said so himself – Rodgers made sure through his preparation, his decision-making, his playmaking and, yes, his leadership, that the Packers (5-2) ran their winning streak to four games and made their farewell to the Metrodome a fond one.
“I wasn’t going to let this team beat us,” Rodgers said matter-of-factly after directing an offense that was never forced to punt all night long. “I wanted to make sure I put myself and our team in a position to be successful. A lot was on my shoulders. I wanted to make sure I got us in good runs and our team responded really well. This was a great team win. We all have our roles but I wanted to make sure that my role was one I executed really well.”
By no means is Rodgers doing it alone, and he didn’t do it alone on Sunday night. He doesn’t get all of the credit for the team’s brilliance on third down (converting 13 of 18, including their first seven in a row), for owning time of possession (40 minutes, 54 seconds to 19 minutes, 6 seconds), for running the ball in dominating fashion (a season-high tying 182 yards), for shutting down Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (13 carries, 60 yards) or for delivering the biggest plays of the game – Jordy Nelson’s 76-yard touchdown catch-and-run and Micah Hyde’s 93-yard punt return – when the game was still in the balance.
But what he does get credit for is helping hold the team together amid injuries to three offensive stars (tight end Jermichael Finley and wide receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones) and three key defensive starters (outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, and inside linebacker Brad Jones).
“I think this is really shaping up to be one of Aaron’s best years,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the Vikings (1-6) couldn’t stop Rodgers’ arm (24 of 29. 285 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, two sacks, 130.6 passer rating) or legs (four scrambles for 34 yards before two victory-formation kneel-downs).
“Aaron’s had a lot of challenges Monday through Saturday that don’t show up on a stat sheet. Just the change, just trying to get on the same page with younger players, trusting the game plan. Because when you are as productive as we’ve been, there was such a comfort with our no-huddle and just we really felt like we were really rolling on all cylinders. Now, we’ve kind of had to go in a different direction. He has to command it, and this thing obviously wouldn’t work without him.”
Just ask Ryan Pickett. As the veteran defensive tackle stood near the exit of the visitors’ locker room, he listened to a list of what the Packers had going for them amid all their injuries: A defense among the league’s best at stopping the run, an offense that had discovered a running game that had long been dormant, and one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
“The best,” Pickett corrected. “He is the best.”
Or, ask James Jones. As the veteran wide receiver looked around at the fill-ins dressing nearby – wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Myles White, tight ends Jake Stoneburner and Brandon Bostick – he was asked what a victory like Sunday night’s said.
“It tells you we’ve got a team that can go a long ways, but it all starts with ’12,’" Jones replied. “I mean, if you can keep him healthy, the dude is a phenomenal player. He’s going to be a Hall of Fame player. He throws receivers open, he’s going to put you in the right play and he’s going to make you be successful. When you keep him standing up, it’s going to be tough to beat us. And, we’re running the ball now. So …"
Jones paused, for effect.
Over the years, the Packers had experienced so much disappointment, seen so many downright bizarre turns of events at the Metrodome that this easily could have been another one of those nights. No, nothing to rival Eric Guliford getting behind Terrell Buckley in 1993 or T.J. Rubley inexplicably, unbelievably, moronically audibling out of a quarterback keeper and into an interception that cost the Packers the game and Rubley his job in 1995, but still.
After all, it was just last year here, when the Packers couldn’t contain Peterson, had their 13-game NFC North winning streak snapped, lost the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, which led to them facing the Vikings six days later in the playoffs, which led to them playing at San Francisco in the divisional round, which led to … well, you know the rest.
This time, there would be no disappointment, and no Ripley’s Believe It or Not moments. Rodgers made sure of that.
The game began in stunning fashion, with Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson returning the opening kickoff 109 yards for a touchdown. It appeared Bostick and safety Jerron McMillian had shots at Patterson around the 10-yard line before Hyde missed a diving tackle attempt at the 23. Patterson was off to the races after that, outrunning Chris Banjo, Sam Barrington and Tim Masthay en route to the end zone and a 7-0 lead.
The Packers calmly answered, however, as Rodgers and the offense surgically moved down the field on a 14-play, 90-yard march that ate up 7 minutes, 24 seconds of clock and tied the game. From an 11-yard completion on third-and-6 completion to Boykin, to an 18-yard strike to Boykin that got them into Minnesota territory to Rodgers’ third-and-6 I’m-not-sliding scramble that gained 12 yards, it culminated in a how’d-they-do-that 11-yard touchdown from Rodgers to Nelson. It was hard to decide what was more remarkable – how Nelson made the catch with cornerback Josh Robinson all over him, or how Rodgers threaded such a fine needle to throw the ball just over Robinson’s head to Nelson.
After forcing a punt, the Packers embarked on another long drive, this one taking 8:24 and, while it ended in a 30-yard Mason Crosby field goal, it included three third-down conversions and a fourth-and-1 pickup on a Rodgers pass to John Kuhn.
Two big plays seemingly blew the game open after the Vikings matched the field goal with one of their own. First, Nelson lined up in the right slot and Rodgers hit him with a quick pass before linebacker Chad Greenway rotated over to cover him, and when Greenway got there a tick too late, Nelson was gone for a 76-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
Then, when the Vikings went three-and-out on the next series, there was Hyde, catching the ball at his own 7-yard line and accelerating through a gaping hole in the Vikings’ coverage unit. The only person who came close to tackling him was Barrington, his own teammate.
And while the Vikings managed to get one of those touchdowns back just before halftime, it didn’t matter. Rodgers and the Packers opened the second half with another efficient, error-free, clock-elapsing drive. From Rodgers’ 11-yard strike to Nelson on the first third down of the possession, to his too-easy 8-yarder to Nelson on fourth-and-3, to his two third-down scrambles to pick up first downs, Rodgers did everything right on the drive.
So too did rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who ripped off a pair of 9-yard runs sandwiched around an 11-yarder, then had 7- and 8-yard runs before capping it off with a 1-yard touchdown. The drive used up 8:10 of clock, covered 80 yards and consisted of 15 plays – or, on this night, business as usual.
“That first drive of the second half, that was a thing of beauty,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “Taking 8 minutes off the clock, getting in the end zone – that’s fun football right there, especially for a lineman. Obviously you’d like to have more scoring plays like we had on the long pass to Jordy so you can rest a little bit, but when you’re eating up those long drives, and dominating a little bit, it’s a good feeling.”
That’s all the Packers are feeling these days. They came out of the game without any new injuries, and could start getting some key players back beginning with next Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
“I’m proud of the effort, I’m proud of the execution,” said Rodgers, who in his career against the Vikings has now completed 256 of 357 passes (71.1 percent) for 3,125 yards with 26 touchdowns against only four interceptions for a passer rating of 117.9 – the highest rating for any quarterback against a single opponent in NFL history.
“The identity of this football team has been proven. It starts up front. We’ve done a great job controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, stopping the run and running the football effectively. We haven’t had both of those things working here really in my time. We haven’t run the football this well since I’ve been here, and it really takes a lot of pressure off of the passing game when we can open up those kind of holes.”
As for the Metrodome, where Rodgers is 3-3 as a starter, well …
“I’m going to miss it,” he said with a smile. “I enjoy playing against this team. I think it’s a well-coached team that has my respect. I enjoy the competition and the competitiveness, been able to have some good games inside in domes.
“I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason other than when you’re playing in a tough environment, it’s loud, your focus and your preparation needs to be very high. I’d like to think mine was pretty high tonight.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.