Aaron Rodgers couldn’t sleep. It was getting late on Wednesday night, and while kickoff for his team’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the rival Minnesota Vikings was still almost 72 hours away, the Green Bay Packers quarterback was thinking about what was at stake.
With one Super Bowl championship, one Super Bowl MVP and one NFL MVP on his resume, Rodgers was thinking bigger. His 2012 regular season hadn’t been as numerically impressive as the prior year – although 39 touchdowns and eight interceptions is nothing to shake a statistical stick at – but in some ways, his performance had been better, given what defenses had thrown at him and the revolving door of injured pass-catchers the offense had dealt with.
He’d also felt the gnawing disappointment – no matter how quickly he’d said he got over it – of last year’s one-and-done postseason, as the offense had been uncharacteristically sloppy in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants.
And so, Rodgers found himself contemplating what lay ahead. A loss to the Vikings a few days earlier at the Metrodome had lengthened the road to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII, but it had only strengthened his resolve to duplicate the feeling he’d had after winning Super Bowl XLV.
“It’s such a long process,” Rodgers began. “We’re here in April and we put a lot of time in – in the meeting rooms, in the weight room, on the field, OTAs, training camp, preseason, a long 16-game, 17-week season … and then it’s one-and-done. You either win, or you go home. That’s the nature of our business.
“I think it’s important for us to call on some of the experience we have and what that run felt like in 2010 – when we were excited to get into the playoffs and knowing if we just got in, anything could happen. Much like I’m sure Minnesota last week was thinking. ‘If we just get in, anything can happen.’ That sense of urgency, that was slightly lacking last year.
“I really feel like you make your money during the season. You get paid to play and play real well, and you earn your paycheck during the season. And you create your legacy in the postseason. I was thinking about that actually when I was lying in bed – just how special that run is and just how you never know when you’re going to get these kind of opportunities again. You have a great team, great opportunity in front of you, and you just want to make the most of it and get back to the Super Bowl and have more of those moments.”
On Saturday night, the Packers created another of those moments – and set the stage for more. While the Vikings were pinning their hopes on the element of surprise with backup Joe Webb subbing for an injured Christian Ponder, the Packers got exactly what they’ve come to expect from the reigning NFL MVP. The result: An imperfect but effective 24-10 victory and an NFC Divisional Playoff Game date with the San Francisco 49ers next Saturday night in the City by the Bay.
While it left plenty of room for improvement – especially offensively, where the Packers seemed to shut things down after taking a three-touchdown lead one drive into the third quarter – it was a step toward the ultimate goal.
“We’re a long ways from being where we want to be. Today was a good initial game for us in these playoffs. But the ultimate goal, it’s going to take a lot more than tonight to pull it off,” said Packers safety Charles Woodson, who returned from a nine-game absence (broken collarbone) to give a lift to a defense that got it done against Webb (11 of 30, 180 yards, three sacks, one TD, one INT, 54.9 rating) and, most importantly, Adrian Peterson (22 carries, 99 yards).
“We’re moving in the right direction, we feel good about what we did today, but there’ll be things we can look at to get better and get ready for next week. Of course, it’s going to be a tougher opponent coming up next week, so we’ve got to be ready for that.
“Not to talk too much about last year, but last year’s team I just think there was a lot of uncertainty going into the playoffs. I don’t think there’s any uncertainty going into these playoffs. We know what we are, we know what we’re capable of, and we look forward to next week."
While the offense bemoaned the way it throttled down after taking a 24-3 lead in the third quarter – the Packers punted on each of their final six possessions, managing only one first down during the final 19 minutes of the game – the lead might as well have been 48-3 with the way Webb was overmatched and the way the defense had finally solved Peterson, who’d gutted the Packers for 409 yards in the teams’ first two meetings this season.
“I knew if we had the opportunity that we had it within us,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “We just had to prove it and show everybody that we could do it. Adrian is a great back; he still made some awesome runs today. But for the most part, we did a good job on him. We tried to keep him at the same level, (and) we did a good job of just staying on the same plane and making him run around in the backfield and guys tackling him.
“It was no secret. We all knew what the key to us winning this game was, particularly on defense. It was good to see us rise to the occasion.”
Webb, on the other hand, did not. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game after not throwing a single regular-season pass, and it showed.
The Vikings had decided Ponder was a no-go after he threw roughly 10 passes in pregame warm-ups and headed back inside the locker room, where coach Leslie Frazier told Webb he’d start. While Webb had taken most of the reps in practice during the week with Ponder was listed as questionable because of the bruised triceps he suffered when he banged his throwing arm on a Morgan Burnett blitz in last Sunday’s game, it didn’t appear Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave altered his offense to accentuate Webb’s strengths.
After putting the Packers on their heels early with a few read-option plays en route to an opening-drive field goal, Minnesota seemed to settle into its same offense, and Webb looked very much like the athletic 2010 sixth-round pick who’d been drafted out of Alabama-Birmingham to be catch passes, not throw them.
"We kind of prepared for a little bit of both (quarterbacks)," Frazier said. "As we were going through the week and realizing the possibility on a short week that Christian might not make it, so we better make sure we have something in the package in case it does become Joe. So, Bill and our offensive staff did a good job of including what we would call ‘Joe-type’ plays.
"We mixed some of those read-options along the way. But at some point, you'd like to be able to complete some passes. You're right -- early on, we did have them a little bit off-balance. But we had some opportunities in the passing game. We just couldn't connect."
No, they couldn’t. On their next four drives, the Vikings punted as Webb took two sacks, nearly threw an interception as he unloaded the ball while in the grasp and had completed only 3 of 12 passes for 22 yards at halftime – despite having taken the Packers by surprise with the quarterback change.
"We watched our game film, we had the mindset of thinking Christian Ponder was going to be the quarterback and that was all we knew of until a couple minutes before going out for pregame,” Burnett said. “It’s part of the game of football. You have to be prepared for whatever happens, and you can’t put too much thought into it. You just have to go out and play and execute.”
And that’s where the game was won, as Rodgers executed brilliantly when the game was in the balance. He played virtually mistake-free football. After spotting the Vikings a 3-0 lead and going three-and-out on their own opening possession, the Packers (12-5) marched methodically down the field on an 11-play, 82-yard drive – without a single pass completion to a wide receiver – en route to running back DuJuan Harris’ 9-yard touchdown run for a 7-3 lead. During the drive, Harris carried five times for 22 yards while also catching two passes for 28 yards.
“The big thing tonight was he took what they gave him – check the ball down early to the running backs, allow them to get first downs. He made some plays with his feet and he was just playing consistent football,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said.
Or, as coach Mike McCarthy put it, “Aaron’s very composed. We had some things go awry in the second half but I thought he played a typical Aaron Rodgers game. Very steady.”
The game was won on the Packers’ final possession of the first half and opening possession of the second. After settling for a field goal to make it 10-3 with 3:25 to go until halftime, the offense got it back after the defense forced a three-and-out punt, and Rodgers went to work. First, he threw a rocket to Nelson to pick up 22 yards to start the drive. On the next play, he threw a strike to Greg Jennings for another 14. And then, after a play-action fake to fullback John Kuhn, he whipped a 23-yard laser to Nelson down the right side while on the run, setting up first-and-goal from the Minnesota 3. Kuhn then barreled in from there on a shotgun draw and it was 17-3.
“A lot of times in those 2-minute drives, they're often keyed by a good first play of the drive and we had a completion to Jordy that kind of got things going for us,” said Rodgers, who finished the night having completed 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions (104.9 rating) to win, oddly enough, his first playoff game at Lambeau Field. “And then we just moved the ball from there. The first play is often the tell-tale play of what you're going to do on the drive. We had a good conversion there and just kept rolling."
Right through halftime, as it turned out. On the opening possession of the third quarter, Rodgers converted a third-and-2 with a 9-yard strike to James Jones, then picked up a third-and-4 by connecting with Jones again on a 19-yarder. Another checkdown to Harris gained 14 and got the Packers into the red zone, and after a fourth-down too-many-men-on-the-field penalty on the Vikings set up first-and-goal at the 9, Rodgers’ nifty footwork allowed a potentially problematic screen play to Kuhn wind up as a 9-yard TD.
“I’m always going to tell you, I think he’s the best player in the league,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “Adrian Peterson probably a close second. But Aaron’s a guy that really, no matter what situation you get in, he’s always able to make a big play for you. That’s just the type of player he is. No matter what the situation is, you never lose faith, never lose hope. Any second, he can make a big play. It’s a lot of fun playing with a guy like that.”
The game was essentially over after that. Webb was overmatched – only a garbage-time 50-yard touchdown to a wide open Michael Jenkins on a busted Packers coverage allowed for a slight cosmetic improvement in the score – and that allowed the Packers to coast home. While they’ll need to do more against the 49ers, it was enough on this night. If their offense and defense both can be “on” simultaneously, look out.
“For whatever reason there, the last 25 minutes of that game, we barely got any production. We’re going to have to find a way to finish better. Thankfully, our defense played lights-out today,” Lang said.
“As a team, you’ve got to feel good. It was a big win, especially after a tough loss to these guys last week. You’ve got to feel good as a team. I know our defense is probably feeling a lot better than the offense. Offensively, we just half the game played good and half the game we didn’t play up to our standard. We’ve got to gain some confidence back in practice. But as a team, big win for us today. Got us a little momentum back that we lost last week. The team morale is good; offensively, we understand we have to play better.”
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.