As Blair Walsh’s game-winning 29-yard field goal split the uprights as time expired, you could almost hear legendary baseball announcer Jack Buck. More than 20 years ago, as Kirby Puckett’s dramatic, 11th-inning, game-winning home run cleared the Metrodome wall in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, the late, great Buck uttered one of sport’s all-time greatest calls.
And we’ll see you … tomorrow night!
Well, not quite. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings won’t see each other tomorrow night – it’ll be Saturday night, in a rematch of Sunday’s knock-down, drag-out 37-34 Vikings victory in the regular-season finale for both teams, in the very same building where Buck made his signature call. And come to think of it, at some level, Buck’s other classic – I don’t believe what I just saw, after Kirk Gibson’s heroic home run in the 1988 World Series – probably applies as well.
Because by virtue of the Vikings’ victory, the Packers will host their NFC North rivals in a Wild Card playoff showdown at Lambeau Field six days from now. And if Sunday’s was any indication, it should be a classic.
“You seen Mike Tyson? It’s one of those. You get knocked down, you have to get right back up. They had the last punch, and they knocked us out,” said Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, a swollen-shut left eye adding to the effect of his words.
“They played big-time football. I didn’t expect it; that last drive. But they’re a playoff team, and we have to get ready for them. They’re not a pushover at all.”
At 11-5, the NFC North-champion Packers are the No. 3 seed in the NFC. A victory would have secured the No. 2 seed and first-round bye that instead went to the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1). At 10-6, the upstart Vikings are the No. 6 seed; a loss would have sent them home for the postseason and allowed the Chicago Bears (10-6) into the dance.
Hence, Saturday night fever at Lambeau Field, kicking off at 7 p.m. CST.
“Tough, tough loss today,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose team had its 13-game winning streak (including playoffs) against division opponents snapped and missed out on sweeping the division for the second straight year. “(But) the playoffs are upon us. That's basically the message to the football team. We have the opportunity to play the Vikings again back at Lambeau, so that's where we're shifting our mindset.
“We had an opportunity here to take care of business and have the bye week and that opportunity is passed. The playoffs have started for us now. It's official. We got a taste of the environment, what it's going to be like on the road. Playoff football's different. It is every year. Today's opportunity is something we can apply to this upcoming week."
Asked if he liked the idea of facing the Vikings again so quickly, McCarthy replied: “Absolutely. We'll play anybody in the playoffs. I think it'll be a great contest. It's an opponent we're very familiar with. They're familiar with us. Everybody has confidence going into the playoffs. Most importantly, we'll be at home. So we're excited to play these guys."
They can’t be excited about playing Adrian Peterson, however. Needing 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s 28-year-old single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards set in 1984, Peterson came up 8 yards short of Dickerson’s mark, finishing with 34 carries for 199 yards and a touchdown. (He also caught a 2-yard TD pass.) Coupled with his 210-yard effort on Dec. 2 at Lambeau Field, Peterson gained 409 of his 2,097 yards on the season against Green Bay.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling inside. The first thing that came to my mind when I heard that I was nine yards short (of breaking the record) was, ‘It is what it is. It wasn’t meant to happen,’” Peterson said. “Not to say it doesn’t hurt, because it does, (but) ultimately, we came in here tonight and accomplished the ultimate goal of getting a win and taking our team to the playoffs.
“I never knew (the yardage). I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t focused on it. I went out and played my game and accomplished what we wanted to. We’re in now. We’re in the playoffs. We get to fight another week.”
As brilliant as Peterson was, though – and he was phenomenal – the Packers lost because they couldn’t handle second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. In the teams’ first meeting, Ponder completed 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards with one touchdown and two backbreaking interceptions for a passer rating of 41.9 in a loss that dropped Minnesota to 6-6 on the season. Sunday, he was brilliant and mistake-free, completing 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 120.2 rating.
“Any offense will tell you that when you can open up the running game, it really opens the passing game up for the quarterback,” Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “He did a good job of hitting some guys downfield.”
And Ponder did that repeatedly. After the Vikings built leads of 13-0 and 20-7 while Green Bay went three-and-out on its first two offensive possessions, the Packers got a 51-yard Mason Crosby field goal as the half expired to reach the break only down 10. When Rodgers directed a 12-play, 42-yard drive to open the third quarter and capped it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, it was game on.
“It took us a little while to adjust to the crowd noise and get going. That usually happens up here,” McCarthy said. “This is a tough place to play, no doubt. We anticipate this being the loudest environment of the year. They pumped it in here pretty good today. It was very loud. I thought once we got going, and the mechanics of the no huddle were in order, I thought Aaron played very well.”
Said Rodgers: “This is a tough place to play. They have some great sports fans who were loud and got into it. You have to absorb the first surge from the crowd and from their team and we did that. We got some points at the end of the first half, scored on the first possession of the second half. It just really came down to turnovers. We didn’t create any and we had one turnover that turned into seven points for them. If you look at the final margin, you see a three-point loss and that’s the difference."
After Jennings’ touchdown, the Packers defense forced a punt, but on a third-and-7 play from midfield, Rodgers didn’t see Vikings defensive end Brian Robison coming from behind and fumbled, with Jared Allen recovering. While their drive the other direction was momentarily detoured by what was initially ruled a Peterson fumble but reversed on replay review, Peterson’s 28-yard run and a third-down holding call on Jerron McMillian on a third-and-goal incompletion to Kyle Rudolph set up Peterson’s 2-yard TD catch to make it 27-17.
But things were just getting interesting.
Rodgers answered with a 73-yard strike to Jordy Nelson down the middle of the field, and that set up what would turn out to be an 8-yard James Jones’ TD catch. Of course, it only became that after initially being ruled a fumble that was recovered by the Vikings – and the replay being initiated before referee Mike Carey’s crew realized McCarthy had thrown his red challenge flag. According to Carey, had McCarthy’s flag come out before the replay official had begun his review, it would have wiped out the review.
Instead, Nelson picked up the flag, the call went the Packers’ way – not because of Nelson’s stealthiness – and when Crosby drilled a 40-yarder with 12:25 left in regulation, it was 27-27.
But on the very next play, Minnesota’s Jarius Wright sprinted past Packers cornerback Sam Shields to reel in a 65-yard pass from Ponder, stealing the momentum back. After a penalty, the Vikings faced third-and-goal from the Green Bay 12-yard line, but when fullback Toby Gerhart was stopped short of the first down, the Vikings got an automatic first down on a 5-yard illegal use of hands penalty on Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams for hitting Jerome Simpson. On third-and-goal from the 3, safety M.D. Jennings couldn’t knock down Ponder’s TD pass to Mike Jenkins for a 34-27 lead.
“He was just pushing off the whole damn time. The referees just act like they don’t see anything,” Williams said of the call. “You’ve got to bring some fight sometimes and this is the time of year you can bring it out, but you’ve got to be more composed.
“We’ve got to find a better way to get them into situations to where they need try to make those plays and force plays. Obviously, they’ve got a great back in the backfield and they’re going to try to feed him as much as possible, but we definitely have to step up and make some plays.”
And in the final 7:54, although the offense did, the defense did not. Rodgers and the offense got the Packers back to even with an 11-play, 78-yard drive on which the Packers converted a fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 43 (with a 7-yard catch by Jarrett Boykin) and a third-and-4 from the Minnesota 44 (with a 14-yard catch by Jennings). After Nelson’s 2-yard TD catch, the Packers had 2:57 to get a stop, get the ball back and secure the first-round bye.
Instead, after the 2-minute warning, the Vikings had third-and-11 at their own 27 – and converted it when Casey Hayward, Shields and Morgan Burnett lost track of Jenkins on the left sideline for a 25-yard gain. Five plays and a 26-yard run by Peterson later, Walsh trotted out and coolly nailed the 29-yarder – twice, after McCarthy tried to ice him with a timeout – to set up next Saturday night’s rematch.
“As players, we wanted that 2 seed. We wanted that bye,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “But you have to move on very fast from that. You can’t dwell on that, you can’t let that carry over into this week of preparation. You have let it go. You still realize we’re division champs, we’ve still got a home game next week, and we know they’re a tough opponent. You don’t really have time to dwell on the losing. You have to make some adjustments and get ready to prepare for them.”
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.