Perhaps it was because they’d both lived through the disappointing ending to last season, when they’d had so many impressive performances that did them no good when it mattered. Or perhaps they were flashing back to the 2010 run to Super Bowl XLV but didn’t want to draw the comparison and claim their team was indeed peaking at precisely the right time.
Either way, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews weren’t ready to call Sunday’s 55-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans a “statement game” for the Green Bay Packers. Neither the Packers star outside linebacker nor the reigning NFL MVP quarterback was putting too much stock in the team’s dominating victory – not with plenty still left to accomplish this year.
“I don't want to base things off one game. It was a good win for us,” Rodgers said after completing 27 of 38 passes for a season high-tying 342 yards and three touchdowns (125.1 rating) before giving way to backup Graham Harrell for most of the fourth quarter. “We had the home field advantage and the conditions to our favor, and we played better than they did.”
There’s an understatement. While the Packers offense was rolling up 460 yards of offense, converting six of seven red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, getting a whopping four rushing touchdowns – two from veteran Ryan Grant, one from DuJuan Harris and one from Rodgers – and not committing a turnover, the defense was holding the Titans to 180 net yards (second fewest by an opponent this season), forcing two turnovers, holding running back Chris Johnson to 28 yards on 11 carries and sacking quarterback Jake Locker a whopping seven times.
Even against the downtrodden Titans (5-10), it was impressive.
And yet, even the never camera-shy Matthews was measured in his analysis.
“It’s a step in the right direction. We feel good about it, we did some good things,” said Matthews, whose return to action has helped the defense hold its last two opponents to a combined 370 yards of offense, with the Chicago Bears managing just 190 last Sunday. “Obviously there’s room more improvement, which I see each and every week. But it’s definitely when you want to put your foot forward in this league.”
With the victory, the NFC North-champion Packers (11-4) clinched the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and, thanks to the Seattle Seahawks’ 42-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, now control their own destiny in the race for the NFC’s No. 2 seed and the first-round playoff bye that comes with it.
“You play the best you can. Everything happens for a reason,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We have 11 wins because of what we've put into it and we're going to take whatever opportunity is in front of us. We're going to play to win next week. I hope Seattle wins tonight. That'd be great. If it doesn't, that's fine, too.
“I don't get as caught up in what's seed's better (among) the one, two, three. I understand the history and what statistics and all that will tell you, but at the end of the day, you want to play your best football and for us to do that we need to go to Minnesota and win. That's really all we're worried about. But I would definitely prefer the 2 over the 3 seed, but the 3 seed's fine."
While the Atlanta Falcons (13-2) secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC with their victory on Saturday night, the Packers can clinch the No. 2 seed with a victory at Minnesota (9-6) next Sunday at the Metrodome, or another loss by the 49ers (10-4-1), who face Arizona in their regular-season finale. The Vikings need a victory to reach the playoffs as a wild card entry.
The Packers will be no worse than the No. 3 seed because the best the NFC East champion can do is 10-6. The Washington Redskins (9-6) and Dallas Cowboys (8-7) will play for that division’s title next Sunday night.
“Ultimately, this is all we’re in charge of – this team, and what happens in this locker room,” Matthews said, roughly four hours before 49ers-Seahawks kicked off in Seattle. “We went out and handled our business today, getting a victory. If it’s a loss by the 49ers, we’ll go out and try to get another victory next week. We’ll do everything we can, but we don’t dwell on the past around here, and we definitely have continued to move forward since our early-season struggles.”
Yes, the Packers have won nine of their last 10 – the lone loss being that 38-10 stinker at the New York Giants on Nov. 25 – and appear to be putting the pieces together.
“Frankly, what I talked about (Saturday) night in the team meeting was the importance of winning this game for a number of different reasons – but what’s most important was how we were going to win today,” McCarthy said. “It was important for us to go out and dominate the opponents late in the year. We have momentum going for us – particularly (with) what we’ve done over the last nine weeks, 10 weeks. So we wanted to take the next step as a football team. And I felt we were able to accomplish that today.
“This was an important momentum game for our football team. … I was proud of the fact that our guys locked in and played extremely well in all three phases.”
That hasn’t always been the case this season – the Packers seemed to sleepwalk through an Oct. 28 victory at home over Jacksonville, and they appeared to throttle down after building a 21-3 lead at Indianapolis on Oct. 7 – but there was no such complacency Sunday.
“That’s the way we want to look, that’s the way we want to play,” McCarthy continued. “We want to have the ability to hit all the different concepts, the different play types of offense as far as the way we throw the ball, the way we run the ball, and I thought we did a good job of that today.”
The Titans’ first three possessions went three-and-out, with the offense converting two of them into touchdowns: A 6-yard Rodgers run to cap a 56-yard drive, and a 20-yard Rodgers touchdown pass to Randall Cobb to make it 14-0 with 4 minutes, 28 seconds still left in the first quarter. When cornerback Sam Shields and linebacker Erik Walden intercepted Locker on back-to-back possessions, even settling for Mason Crosby’s 26-yard field goal at the start of the second quarter made it seem as if the game was over.
“Obviously we didn’t play very well at all today against a team that I thought we would play much better against,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I think it’s really hard to tell or say if anyone was quitting. I don’t think that at all. I never have and I never will.
“By no means did we play our best … but playing hard wasn’t the problem. It was more (an issue of) not playing smart and then letting frustration get the better of us.”
That, and the Packers got the better of them, too. Another Crosby field goal – a 48-yarder that he banked in off the right upright – made it 20-0 at the half, and in Munchak’s words, “the dam broke.” The flood began with a 31-yard Cobb catch that set up Harris’ 7-yard touchdown, followed by Grant’s 34-yard catch-and-run to set up a 1-yard Greg Jennings TD catch to make it 34-0. By the time James Jones pulled in his NFL-leading 13th TD reception on the second play of the fourth quarter to make it 41-0, the only question was whether the shutout would hold.
And even though it didn’t – a 39-yard Locker-to-Kenny Britt pass set up Britt’s 2-yard TD catch with 1:39 to play – it didn’t really matter.
“It’s a pretty simple formula, football – if you can find a way to put pressure on a quarterback, stop the run, jump off to a lead like we did today, it’s going to turn out usually in your favor,” said Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, who registered two of the Packers’ seven sacks.
Added inside linebacker Brad Jones: “Right now, we’re exactly where we want to be. Every game is playoff mentality, playoff football. Nothing changes, no mode changes.”
That will be the case next week in Minnesota as well. Unlike last year, when the 14-1 Packers had sewn up the No. 1 seed and had nothing to play for in the regular-season finale against Detroit, they’ll have ample motivation: Not only can they earn a bye week and No. 2 seed, they can also keep the Vikings out of the playoffs, depending on how other games play out. While it won’t be easy – Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who went off for 210 yards on Dec. 2 against the Packers, needs 208 to break the NFL single-season rushing record – the Packers have to like their chances given the way they’re playing.
“We're playing good right now. We’ve strung some wins together. This was a good team effort,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to be playing like this heading into playoffs. It’s nice to get a win like this, and now we’ve got a tough one in Minnesota next week.”
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.