GREEN BAY — A hush fell over the more than 77,000 at Lambeau Field as soon as Jordy Nelson hit the ground, quickly followed up by a collective sigh after realizing what had happened.
The sight of the Packers receiver doubled over in pain after absorbing a hit to his rib area from Giants safety Leon Hall sent shockwaves through the stadium and quickly social media.
Until that moment, Nelson had been unstoppable all season. A candidate for NFL comeback player of the year, Nelson showed few signs of rust from a lost 2015 season in leading the Packers in catches (97), receiving yards (1,257), and touchdowns (14).
Now, the offense was going to have to play the most important game of the Packers’ season without its most established playmaker.
Where the Packers struggled to filled Nelson’s void in 2015 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, it quickly responded with Davante Adams’ 31-yard catch with 3:45 remaining the first half. It proved to be the flame needed to ignite the offense.
After registering 29 total yards on the first five offensive drives, the Packers broke out after Adams’ catch for 38 points and 374 yards over the last 33 minutes, 45 seconds of the contest.
The contributions came from everywhere in the 38-13 victory. Adams caught a team-high eight passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Randall Cobb, in his first game back after dealing with an ankle injury, pulled down a 42-yard Hail Mary before halftime on his way to five catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns.
“The beauty is we’ve had a lot of different guys have big games for us,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Wednesday. “It hasn’t just been one guy all season, even with Jordy out there.”
That’s one reason the Packers aren’t slamming the panic button this week with their NFC Divisional matchup with the No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys on the horizon.
While the Packers aren’t ruling out Nelson, they’re also confident in the playmakers they have available if the Pro Bowl receiver isn’t cleared to play on Sunday.
The addition of tight end Jared Cook, and emergence of Adams, Ty Montgomery, and Geronimo Allison have given the offense more weapons than it had a year ago when Nelson was lost for the season.
A part of that is just good fortune. The 2015 regular season played out like a bad dream with Cobb, Adams and Montgomery also suffering significant injuries in the weeks after Nelson tore his ACL.
Montgomery eventually was placed on injured reserve, while the injuries to Cobb and Adams lingered for most of the season.
When they were starting to get healthy at the end of the year, Adams sustained a knee injury in the NFC Wild Card playoff game in Washington before Cobb exited the following week in Arizona with a punctured lung.
The Packers finished their NFC Divisional playoff game against the Cardinals with three healthy receivers.
“I would say we’re a different offense than we were a year ago, just the way we’ve been playing, as far as some of the schemes and where we are in the season,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously our production is a lot higher than we were a year ago. The development of a number of our younger players is higher than a year ago. I would say we’re definitely better prepared than we were a year ago.”
There’s no question Nelson has had an impact on a Green Bay offense that bounced back from 23rd to eighth in total yards and from tied for 25th in passing to seventh.
At the same time, a healthy Adams and Montgomery have made huge strides in their own games. Allison has emerged as an undrafted gem and Cook has been sharp since his return from an ankle injury that sidelined him for six games, including the first meeting with the Cowboys.
Cobb sat three games this year due to hamstring and ankle injuries but returned with vengeance in the playoff game against the Giants. While his Hail Mary made news reels, his three touchdown catches quietly tied an NFL postseason record.
“I’m sure he still wasn’t feeling amazing during that game, but it didn’t show in his play,” Adams said. “That’s what we need from him moving forward and we know that’s what we’re going to get. As long as he’s out there making plays, I feel like it’s going to put the defense in a bind whether they want to stack the box or whatever they want to do.”
The Packers are going to take the full week to determine Nelson’s availability for Sunday’s game. McCarthy and several receivers said he’s been in good spirits around the building this week, while he works in the rehab program.
Rodgers referred to Nelson as a “warrior,” who hasn’t missed a practice all year. Both the quarterback and his fellow receivers know how much this postseason appearance means to Nelson, especially after his lost season in 2015.
At the same time, the offense proved against the Giants that it can endure. If it has to press on without Nelson at AT&T Stadium, Rodgers has full confidence in the playmakers around him.
“We’ve played a lot of football together, and you realize how important these opportunities are and how they don’t come around every single year,” said Rodgers of Nelson.
“We feel great about our football team. Obviously we feel better with ‘87’ in the lineup, but he’s a classy guy, he’s a great teammate, I was with him last night, and the night before, talking with him. He’s staying positive and he’s hopeful, but we’re going to hopefully try and get this one and maybe get him back if he can’t play this week.”