What were we all worried about anyway?
Just like Aaron Rodgers said they would, the Packers ran the table and made the playoffs for the eighth straight year, despite a midseason swoon that suggested the team’s won of success might finally come to an end. And they did so Sunday night in familiar fashion, beating the heretofore division-leading Lions to clinch the NFC North with a 31-24 win in Detroit.
Green Bay went undefeated after their star quarterback made his confident pronouncement in November, winning six consecutive games to finish 10-6 and capture the division for the fifth time in six years. Rodgers was as flawless as his team, throwing 15 touchdown passes with no interceptions during the streak, including four scores against the Lions.
"I believe in myself and my abilities, but I also believe in this team," Rodgers said after the game. "This wasn't just a shot in the dark. It was an optimistic belief in my teammates that we were going to start handling adversity better."
Despite all the angst a couple months ago, when the Packers were 4-6 after losing four straight contests, they are right back where they expected to be, entering the postseason healthy and with as much momentum as any team in the league.
"We have bigger aspirations," head coach Mike McCarthy said afterward. "This is the first step."
After trailing, 14-10, at halftime, Rodgers threw three second-half touchdowns, including a go-ahead score to wide receiver Davante Adams in the third quarter and a fourth-quarter pass to the emerging Geronimo Allison to secure the victory. Green Bay’s offensive line protected Rodgers well, allowing just one sack, and the team was once again turnover-free; the Packers outgained the Lions, 448 total yards to 408, and possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes in the game.
It was a vintage Rodgers-era Packers performance, outclassing the Lions, who still made the playoffs as the NFC’s sixth seed because of Washington’s loss earlier in the day. Green Bay, which earned the conference’s fourth seed, will host the New York Giants in an NFC Wildcard Round game on Sunday.
NFL coaches and players talk often about the nebulous idea of momentum and the importance of getting hot late in the season going into the playoffs, and the Packers certainly seem to be playing their best football right now. Despite a couple (more) injuries sustained at cornerback on Sunday, Green Bay is as healthy as it’s been all season, dominating offensively and making enough plays on defense. According to ESPN, more bets have been placed on the Packers to win the Super Bowl than any other team at multiple Vegas sportsbooks.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that some misguided news outlets were writing obituaries for the Packers’ playoff run. And now? Back in the postseason, once again, as usual. So how did we get to this point? Here's everything you need to know, or just forgot, plus all kinds of other wacky whatnots, from the Packers' Week 17 win over the Lions.
Rodgers. The Packers’ quarterback looked just like his two-time MVP self on Sunday, completing 27 of 39 throws (69.2 percent) for four touchdowns with no turnovers and a 126.0 passer rating. He was also effective with his legs, running a team-best 10 times – several of which were designed rushing plays – for 42 yards, his third-highest total of the year. He gained 13 yards on a third-and-1 bootleg run and also scrambled around to avoid sacks and buy time for his receivers to get open.
Rodgers capped a season that, in October, had him discussed as perhaps being past his prime, finishing 2016 with 4,428 yards, 40 touchdowns – the second-most of his career – and just seven interceptions, good for a 104.2 rating that ranked fourth in the NFL.
"The momentum of winning, it is contagious," Rodgers said. "You have that feeling now when you get into a game, that you don’t have during a losing streak, where you expect to win. You expect to win when you take the field. That’s an energy you can feel in the locker room, on the field in pre-game."
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Green Bay’s pass defense again was cause for concern. The pass rush barely flustered Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford, who was sacked just twice, and the beleaguered secondary allowed 347 yards and two touchdowns. Linebacker Clay Matthews missed an easy opportunity for an interception that probably could have been returned for a touchdown. Next week against Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and the Giants, another poor showing in the defensive backfield may not be so easily overcome.
Going into this game – or even going into this season – likely no one would have thought undrafted rookie receiver Geronimo Allison and second-year fullback Aaron Ripkowski would have important roles to play in Green Bay’s most significant game. But both were vital on Sunday, with Allison catching four passes for a team-high 91 yards, Ripkowski rushing 11 times for a career-high 76 yards and both players catching a touchdown pass from Rodgers.
The Packers talk often about the team’s "next man up" philosophy of players stepping up when they’re needed, and Allison and Ripkowski exemplified that notion in Detroit. "It’s one of the most exciting things to watch," said Jordy Nelson, who had six catches for 66 yards. "We tell the young guys when we start the season … you’re going to help win games for us, especially down the stretch. We know injuries become a factor in the playoffs."
(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role last year, but he does try his best. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)
It’s hard to nitpick much of anything here this week. Despite a scoreless first quarter that raised eyebrows about Green Bay’s preparation, McCarthy’s team executed his game plan the rest of night, outplaying Detroit in every aspect of the game, especially in several key areas. The Packers were 7 of 13 on third down, a perfect 4 of 4 in the red zone and held a time-of-possession edge of 34:09 to 25:51. Eight heads.
"That was a fun win there. I just want to tell you how proud I am of my football team. I think today was a great picture inside of what it’s been like all year. Resiliency, time and time again," McCarthy said. "This team has an energy, has an edge, has a confidence that was evident very early in our preseason, and I've always believed in that and they believe in that. So maybe that's why we're not doing cartwheels right now because we have, like I said, our plan's to try to win it all. We're one of six that gets to go battle it out in the NFC and we'll tighten our focus to the Giants. But we never lost sight of where we wanted to go."
"I don't know if in 2010 we had all the pieces. I just think we got hot and no one wanted to play us then. Hopefully that's the case this year. You need to be playing well toward the latter part of the season, and that's exactly what we're doing. I feel like we're capable of getting back to where we want to go, and that's the Super Bowl. So hopefully that's the case." – Clay Matthews
Often overlooked during this six-game winning streak has been the consistent play of the Packers’ special teams. Though kicker Mason Crosby missed an extra point, he made a 53-yard field goal, and the kickoff coverage was outstanding, limiting Andre Roberts to 72 yards on three returns. Jacob Schum was again stellar, punting five times for 186 yards and putting three inside the 20-yard line.
Already battered and depleted, the secondary lost two more players against the Lions. Cornerbacks Quinten Rollins (neck) and Makinton Dorleant were carted off the field in the third quarter, and fellow cornerback Damarious Randall also left with an injury in the second half. On an otherwise relatively healthy team – receiver Randall Cobb, running back James Starks and center JC Tretter were inactive – that was bad news for a struggling group that needs all the help it can get.
After being on the outside of the playoff picture for much of the season, the Packers are in the tournament. On Sunday at 3:40 p.m. (FOX), Green Bay will host the Giants at Lambeau Field, where it beat New York, 23-16, in Week 5. The Packers are currently four-point favorites and playing with all the confidence of a team that its leader said would run the table, and thus far has done just that.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.