Afterward, the place to be was the equipment room. As T-Bone and Red and Bryan and their colleagues went about their work, Aaron Rodgers was sitting atop a table, Mike McCarthy was off to the side. And by the time Sidney Rice had caught Russell Wilson’s game-winning touchdown pass in Chicago, it was standing room only.
The Green Bay Packers had taken care of their business, winning another grinder, a 23-14 come-from behind triumph over the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. Like many of their victories this season, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing effort, and in continuing their hard-luck theme, they incurred two more injuries to starters – right tackle T.J. Lang (ankle) and wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring). One could also have argued that if the Vikings had a quarterback half as good as Rodgers, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.
Nevertheless, the Packers had improved to 8-4 on the season, and thanks to Wilson and Rice hooking up in overtime to give the Seattle Seahawks a 23-17 victory at Soldier Field, moved into a first-place tie with the archrival Chicago Bears atop the NFC North standings.
“I can’t say there are many Seahawks fans in the locker room,” Rodgers said with a wry smile, “but we appreciate the help."
A little while later, the end of the Indianapolis Colts-Detroit Lions game was on the very same TV. And when Andrew Luck’s game-winning TD to Donnie Avery beat the yet another of the Packers’ NFC North rivals – dropping the Lions, the Packers’ opponent next Sunday night, to 4-8 – there again arose such a clatter. And at some point, the St. Louis Rams had delivered some help of their own, with Greg Zuerlein beating the San Francisco 49ers with a 53-yard game-winning overtime field goal in St. Louis.
All of which left the Packers this: Despite being outplayed by the 49ers in the regular-season opener, despite having a victory Stolen in Seattle by the replacement officials, despite squandering a 21-3 lead in an Oct. 7 loss to Luck and the Colts, and despite an embarrassingly lackluster loss to the New York Giants on national television, they are front-and-center in the NFC playoff picture with four games to play.
While NFC South-leading Atlanta (10-1) appears destined for the No. 1 seed, the Packers (8-4) and Bears (8-4) are a half-game out of the conference’s No. 2 spot currently held by the 49ers (8-3-1). While the NFC East-leading Giants (7-4) play Monday night against Washington (5-6), and plenty can change in the season’s final month, the Packers have the scenario they want: They control their own destiny and can accomplish all of their goals in a season that at 2-3 looked bleak.
“Everything's right in front of us, regardless of the Bears outcome today,” said Rodgers, who was able to catch the endings of both the Bears’ and Lions’ losses before his post-game press briefing. “We still have the Bears at Chicago (on Dec. 16) and the division very well could come down to that meeting. We have Detroit next week. They just lost the game at the end, so they're 4-8, but it'll be a tough opponent for us. Any time you're playing that team and that defense on Sunday night football, everything's right in front of us. We've got to go win our home games and get a couple wins on the road."
McCarthy, meanwhile, has always followed what he calls ‘The 10 Win Rule:” You don’t start talking about the standings or the playoffs until you get to 10 wins. And at present, his team needs two more to get there.
“Yes, I’m aware the Bears lost. That’s good, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me. I don’t start counting right now,” McCarthy said, arriving at the podium moments after the Seahawks’ victory. “We were in first place for how many days (before losing to the Giants)? We need to beat the Lions. That’s where I’m at.
“I’m glad we won today. I thought our preparation throughout the week was OK. We talked about it as a team last night: We needed to win this game. We needed to go about it the right way. We still have things that we need to clean up. We were able to overcome injuries. I think it speaks volumes to the character of the players in our locker room. It’s a good group of men. I enjoy coaching them. We need to improve.”
There’s no denying that.
On offense, Rodgers celebrated his 29th birthday by completing 27 of 35 passes for 286 yards with one touchdown and one interception (98.0 rating), the running game had its second-most productive game of the year (a combined 27 carries for 124 yards and a touchdown from James Starks and Alex Green), and the unit got Mason Crosby in position for four field-goal attempts, three of which the beleaguered kicker made.
On defense, the Packers survived largely because the Vikings (6-6) watched second-year quarterback Christian Ponder make a couple of back-breaking mistakes – two interceptions to safety Morgan Burnett – and because superstar running back Adrian Peterson’s Herculean effort (21 carries for 210 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown) wasn’t enough.
“As we came into the tunnel (after the game), (defensive end) Everson Griffen was there behind me, talking,” Peterson said. “He was saying, ‘Why do I feel like we won, but we're leaving here with a loss?’ That's just what type of feel it was. We know that there were things that cost us the game.
“It’s very disappointing, especially the way we ran the ball today. And now, you can look at it and say it was all for nothing.”
The Packers took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in eight plays, with Rodgers finding James Jones for a 32-yard touchdown on which Jones made a spectacular catch over Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson. And when the Packers defense held Peterson to 2- and 3-yard gains before Ponder’s third-down incompletion to force a punt, they pushed the lead to 10-0 on a 30-yard Crosby field goal that doinked off the left upright but made it through.
The Vikings pulled within 10-7 when Ponder hit tight end Kyle Rudolph on a 7-yard touchdown pass with 12 minutes 18 seconds left in the first half. Little did the Vikings know that their second-year QB wouldn’t complete another pass until hitting Rudolph for a 21-yard gain with 3:32 to remained inthe game – an astonishing 38 minutes 46 seconds between completions.
“We definitely want to improve our passing game. That is something that we will keep working to improve,” said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier before emphatically stating that Ponder would remain the team’s starter. “You want to create a little bit of balance for sure, especially as well as we were running the ball.”
Indeed, Peterson was spectacular. On a third-and-1 play from the Minnesota 18-yard line, he exploded off right end, shed would-be tackles by Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Mike Neal and Tramon Williams and was off to the races on an 82-yard touchdown that gave Minnesota a 14-10 lead with 5:08 left in the half.
Then, on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Peterson broke loose again, taking off on a 48-yard run down to the Green Bay 12. But two plays after that Ponder rolled to his right and threw back across the middle in the general direction of wide receiver Michael Jenkins – and into the hands of Burnett. Rather than taking a 21-10 lead, the Vikings watched the Packers drive 51 yards in the other direction for a 47-yard Crosby field goal that trimmed the lead to a single point (and earned Crosby a standing ovation from the Lambeau Field crowd of 70,567.
“I thought Morgan Burnett’s interception in the end zone was the biggest play of the game,” McCarthy said. “I thought our whole sideline changed after that.”
After two Vikings punts sandwiched around a failed trick play that started with a Randall Cobb lateral back to Rodgers and ended in Rodgers’ eighth interception of the season, the Packers took the lead for good with 2:12 to go in the third quarter. After 11- and 7-yard runs by Green to start the drive, Starks took off around right end on a 22-yard touchdown run that made it 20-14.
“We ran ball more effectively than we had all season. Good combination of James Starks and Alex Green running the football, doing a nice job,” Rodgers said. (Green and Starks combined for 28 carries for 114 yards against Arizona on Nov. 4). “That gave us good balance. Obviously, the key drive of the game was after Morgan's second pick."
Indeed, on the ensuing Vikings possession, Peterson had another explosive run – this one for 23 yards, to the Green Bay 40 – and a debatable personal foul penalty on Tramon Williams gave Minnesota a first-and-10 at the Green Bay 25. But Ponder promptly was picked by a diving Burnett, who sliced in front of Rudolph on the final play of the third quarter.
The offense then embarked on its longest drive of the season – an 18-play, 11-minute march that ended in Crosby’s third field goal of the day, from 31 yards – to make it a two-score game at 23-14. From there, it was over.
“This is a big win for us, to bounce back from last week, pull off a division win like this – especially when the back runs for 200 yards, and we still find a way to win this game,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “It says a lot about us.
“We’re still improving. We’re still trying to get better. I think we’re going to do that. I think we’re going to continue to get better through this last stretch of the season.”
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.