The Bears won. The Giants won big. The Eagles won back on Thursday night. The Saints pulled out a win in the final minute. The NFC-leading Falcons also rallied to win, though at least that came at the expense of the Buccaneers, who have stayed in the playoff hunt.
But there’s nothing the Packers can do about all of that, so they aren’t concerning themselves with it. They’re only concerned with their own game these days, and they took care of business on Sunday with a 34-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in front of 70,575 at Lambeau Field.
“Until you get to 10 wins, you’re just wasting time, you’re wasting conversation,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of the playoff talk and scoreboard watching. “You need to keep your focus on the next game.”
The Packers showed that focus on Sunday by getting their eighth win, improving to 8-4 and remaining one game behind the Bears in the NFC North. That’s the primary competition with the division title still up for grabs.
The Falcons are the first team to 10 wins, but the Packers also stayed one game behind the 9-3 Saints and tied with the 8-4 Eagles and Giants while moving one game ahead of the 7-5 Bucs in the battle for what appears to be five NFC playoff spots outside of the eventual NFC West winner.
Green Bay started a little slow in this one, trailing 6-0 through a quarter and a half and leading just 14-13 at halftime after allowing San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis to break free for a 66-yard touchdown right before intermission.
But the Packers took control in the second half, scoring on four straight possessions. The dominance started with a phenomenal 61-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by receiver Donald Driver, which McCarthy called “the biggest play in the game” and quarterback Aaron Rodgers called “one of the most amazing plays I’ve seen here.”
After a holding penalty, the Packers faced second-and-16 from their own 39 when Rodgers made an adjustment at the line of scrimmage and found Driver wide open up the right seam. From there, the 35-year-old made an unforgettable run after the catch, dodging three different San Francisco defenders as he made his way up the sideline and then carrying three tacklers into the end zone for his biggest gain of the season.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Driver, who after the game admitted he was dying to see the play on the highlights, because everyone had been telling him how amazing it was. “I just started ducking and stepping back and ducking again, and before I knew it, I had three guys, and I saw the end zone. One thing is, if I’m there, it’s going to be hard to deny me, and I was able to get in.”
Driver sidestepped safety Reggie Smith, crashed through a tackle attempt by safety Dashon Goldson as tight end Andrew Quarless ran some interference, and then stiff-armed cornerback Nate Clements. Eventually Goldson, Clementsand linebacker Ahmad Brooks caught up to him, but Driver got to the pylon for the score despite all the hangers-on.
That made it 21-13 and from there the Packers were never really threatened. On the next possession, the defense got its third big stop of the 49ers when they were in scoring range, limiting them to a third field goal, and the offense added a touchdown and two field goals on its next three drives.
Rodgers maintained his own run of impressively efficient play, completing 21-of-30 for 298 yards with three TDs and no interceptions for a 135.1 rating. It was his fourth straight game with a rating above 110 and his fifth straight without an interception.
“We’ve been doing some good things offensively,” said Rodgers, who surpassed 3,000 yards passing on the season and ran his interception-free streak to a career-best 177 passes, second all-time in franchise history. “Personally I’ve just been trying to take care of the football. Limit my turnovers. I’ve been pretty efficient throwing the ball, but I think that’s a direct correlation between the way the offensive line is playing for the most part and getting Greg involved.”
Greg of course is Greg Jennings, who turned in another stellar game with six catches for 122 yards and two TDs. Jennings erased the early 6-0 deficit with a 57-yard touchdown grab on a free play, as the 49ers jumped offsides on third-and-1 and Rodgers took a shot deep. Jennings hauled it in against one-on-one coverage and gave the Packers their first lead.
“You’ve got to have some big plays in the game,” Jennings said. “That’s what happened. We had some big plays. We got them on my touchdown and ‘Drive’ got them on his. Game-changing plays. You get the defense back on their toes now and you’ve got them where you want them.”
Jennings and the offense weren’t done. In the third quarter, he added a 48-yard catch to set up his own 1-yard TD when he got his man to whiff on the jam at the line of scrimmage. He was so wide open in the end zone that Rodgers “couldn’t get the ball out of my hand quick enough.”
That score made it 28-16 as Jennings pushed his season total to 11 touchdowns, one shy of his career high set in 2007. He’s also closing in on his third straight 1,000-yard season, with 944 yards thus far, and he’s continuing a dynamic stretch in which he has caught 43 passes for 761 yards with eight TDs over the last seven games. That’s an average of six catches for 109 yards and a score every contest.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunities,” said Jennings, who has three straight 100-yard games for the second time in his career. “Like I said, the opportunities have increased, and we’ve been able to get into a rhythm. The game starts to slow down a lot more, and when the quarterback is depending on you to make a play, have to make a play, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The Packers were also trying to control the clock and find a late-season running game, and they made some strides in that area. Rookie running back James Starks made his NFL debut and carried 18 times for 73 yards, including nine times for 35 yards on a time-consuming, 17-play drive for a field goal that provided the final points.
Leading 31-16 after a 43-yard Crosby field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Packers then killed 8 minutes, 35 seconds with the long, 74-yard march that ended in a 24-yard field goal and a three-score lead.
“That’s exactly what you want to do,” McCarthy said. “That was a big backbreaker I am sure for the 49ers.”
But give credit to the Green Bay defense as well, which was put in some difficult spots field-position wise and also faced two goal-to-go situations that it stopped. Davis had four catches for 126 yards for San Francisco, but otherwise the 49ers didn’t have much going for them, as quarterback Troy Smith completed only 40 percent of his passes, was sacked four times and posted just a 64.4 rating (10-of-25, 194 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT).
San Francisco managed just 95 yards of offense in the second half as the Packers pulled away.
“Other than (Davis’ long TD), we did a good job of eliminating those big plays, held them to field goals when they got down there in our red zone,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “That’s the kind of thing you’ve got to do. You’re going to take some shots, but you take it and move on, and we did that today.”
Now it’s time to move on to the next game, which for the Packers is in Detroit, where the Lions took the Bears to the wire on Sunday in a 24-20 decision. The Packers will watch plenty of that film this week, to be sure, but just like Sunday, they’ll put more energy into their own game heading into these final four weeks with so much at stake.
“This is December football,” McCarthy said. “We’re playing good football right now. But good isn’t good enough, as we know. We want to be playing our best football. That will be our challenge, that will be our emphasis and that will be the way we approach Detroit.”