GREEN BAY—They didn’t expect him to come back. Then again, they sort of did.
Most of Aaron Rodgers’ teammates were preparing mentally to play the second half on Sunday with Matt Flynn as their quarterback.
To see Rodgers come back out of the tunnel in the third quarter to return from the calf injury that left him writhing in pain on the Lambeau Field turf just before halftime was uplifting, surprising and par for the course all rolled into one.
“If there’s a word higher than respect for respect, that’s what I’ve got for Aaron, man,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said following the 30-20 NFC North-clinching victory over Detroit. “He’s a warrior. He laid it all out on the line for his teammates.
“To be the best in the league and still want to continue to solidify himself as one of the greatest, I’m glad he’s in my locker room.”
Rodgers didn’t just lay it on the line. He posted a 139.6 passer rating to get the Packers a first-round playoff bye, starting the game on a bum leg that became nearly useless.
“We all knew what was at stake,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We wanted the week off badly. He wanted it badly. I think that’s why he came back. He understood what it could do for his situation, and everybody else.”
Rodgers completed 11 of 13 passes for 129 yards in the second half and even called his own number for a QB sneak to score the game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“This guy is hurt. He was hurting out there. You could see it on his face,” said receiver Randall Cobb, who caught the TD pass in the second quarter on which Rodgers went down and then added a second TD grab after Rodgers returned. “For him to come back out and play the way he did is huge. He’s hands down the MVP.”
That was the overwhelming sentiment in the locker room, some sarcasm notwithstanding.
“I’m not impressed,” joked linebacker Clay Matthews before turning a tad more serious. “We needed him, and he’s obviously the MVP for a reason. If this doesn’t solidify it today, I don’t know what would.”
Rodgers’ teammates weren’t exactly thrilled about seeing their QB’s leg get stepped on by Detroit defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh late in the game. Many claimed they didn’t see what happened, which for some may have been a way to avoid saying anything they might later regret.
“I gotta believe what Aaron says,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “I didn’t see it, but there’s some history there. Aaron said he stepped on him and didn’t really appreciate it.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers certainly appreciated the support he received from the offense’s running game. Against the league’s No. 1 run defense that was giving up just 64 yards per game on the ground, Green Bay pounded out 152 rushing yards.
Only one team had rushed for more than 100 yards against the Lions all season, and that was back in Week 4. No single running back had reached 100, but that’s the number Eddie Lacy hit right on the button with 26 hard-nosed carries.
“This offensive line has kind of come together and we’ve been playing some good ball, having some good games in big situations,” Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton said. “I think today we had maybe our biggest. We played well. Eddie ran his (rear end) off, man.”
The running game established itself right away, as Lacy ran for 22, 5 and 8 yards on the Packers’ first three offensive snaps. James Starks then broke off a 21-yard run on the fourth snap. That was 56 yards before five minutes had expired on the game clock, compared to the 76 the Packers rushed for the entire game in Detroit in Week 3.
Even though that first drive ended with a goal-line stand by the Lions, a tone had been set.
“It’s something we talked about all week,” Lang said. “If we wanted to beat these guys, we were going to have to run the ball. They had to respect the run.”
Even a fumble by Lacy at the end of an 8-yard run early in the second quarter didn’t deter the Packers. Lacy was right back out there on the offense’s next series, running for 11 more yards on the first snap.
“It shows how confident they are in me and my abilities,” said Lacy, who finished his second season with 1,139 rushing yards, just shy of the 1,178 from his rookie year. “It was an effort play, trying to get the extra yards, but it happens. It’s the sport.”
This game will be remembered for Rodgers’ toughness, but Lacy’s season-high 26 carries against Detroit’s defensive front shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
“Sore, that’s how I feel,” Lacy said. “They’re a physical team. It’s tough to run the ball on them.
“It’s all about mindset, and our offensive line came out with that mindset.”
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