GREEN BAY – It’s on to Detroit.
Five weeks ago, all the Packers could have wanted for Christmas was a chance to go to Ford Field in Week 17 with a chance to still win the NFC North.
Five victories later, the fifth coming 38-25 over Minnesota, that’s exactly the position Green Bay is in as a remarkable turnaround from 4-6 continued for the Packers on Saturday at Lambeau Field.
“It feels like the best thing we could have hoped for,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers after a tour-de-force performance against one of the NFL’s top defenses.
Looking fully healed from his calf injury, Rodgers threw for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth in posting a sparkling 136.6 passer rating (28-of-38 for 347 yards) to throw himself squarely in the league MVP conversation, should the Packers finish this regular-season run victoriously next week.
Green Bay’s defense gave up two early field goals and a 71-yard scoring bomb to Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (12 catches, 202 yards, two TDs), but the rest of Minnesota’s production came with the game well in hand.
The Vikings’ playoff hopes were extinguished as the Packers capitalized on two turnovers to stay in control. A botched Vikings snap led to a 2-yard TD pass to Jordy Nelson, and a sack-fumble caused by Clay Matthews and recovered by Mike Daniels preceded a 6-yard Rodgers scramble for a score just before halftime.
That put the Packers up, 28-13, and they never looked back.
“The turnovers to me were the key to the game,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy, as his team is now plus-13 in that category during the winning streak to get to plus-7 on the season.
“Clay came up big for us today.”
So did Nelson, whose superb chemistry with Rodgers led to a nine-catch, 154-yard, two-TD day that moved the quarterback-receiver duo into first place in franchise history with 59 touchdowns together (surpassing the 57 of Brett Favre and Antonio Freeman).
“Anytime you can stand in front of your team and acknowledge a player or two players and the words ‘the best in the history of the Green Bay Packers …,’ that’s a huge statement,” McCarthy said. “No disrespect to the other NFL franchises, but we all recognize the great players and great teams that have come through these doors.”
Rodgers and Nelson made plays over the middle, along the boundaries, and on scramble drills as Nelson surpassed 90 receptions for the second time in his career, closed in on 1,200 receiving yards for the season, and is just one TD away from his career high of 15 set back in 2011.
“It’s special,” McCarthy said of the connection between his two most veteran offensive players. “You can see the trust.
“You can see particularly when Aaron releases the ball, especially when you’re watching film, he releases the ball much earlier to Jordy. That itself speaks volumes of their relationship, as far as number of reps, the trust, the timing. They’re a unique combination.”
As Rodgers and Matthews looked back to their old selves in the health department, the Packers took a couple more injury hits as cornerback LaDarius Gunter (elbow) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (shoulder) left the game.
McCarthy credited second-year pro Damarious Randall – who was almost a game-time scratch due to a shoulder injury – for stepping in for Gunter, while the early word is Bulaga will be OK.
All that’s left now is to win the NFC North for the fifth time in the last six years, a prospect that seemed unlikely after the Packers lost their fourth straight right before Thanksgiving.
Navigating a slew of injuries to go with the on-field adversity, the Packers have been searching for an identity all season long, and Rodgers thinks they’ve finally found it.
“Over the last five weeks we’ve shown a lot of mental toughness and a lot of grit, guys sticking together when there could have been some fracturing,” Rodgers said. “That’s the identity of this football team. We’re going to push it right to the very end, stick together and believe in each other.”
The mission now couldn’t have more focus.
“We plan on going to Detroit and winning the division,” McCarthy said.
Added Rodgers: “It’s gonna be a fun one.”
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