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DETROIT – Aaron Rodgers had just sent 66,000 or so once-hopeful, now-hoarse Detroiters home to their forever frustration. A small cadre of Green Bay fans, many wearing foam cheese blocks on their heads, gathered behind the Packers’ bench to celebrate and delivered a chant that echoed throughout cavernous Ford Field.
The Packers had won the game, 31-24, won the NFC North, won their sixth consecutive contest and won the right to host the New York Giants at 4:40 p.m. ET next Sunday. Whether Rodgers wins his third MVP remains to be seen, but he and his team are a long way from late November and a four-game losing streak that imperiled everything.
Rodgers wasn’t the only reason for this victory or the five that preceded it. He was just the most important.
It wasn’t merely for his 300 yards passing and four touchdowns in this game. It was also for sticking with his familiar R-E-L-A-X mindset six weeks back when the Pack hit rock bottom courtesy of a shellacking at Washington. There were grumbles that coach Mike McCarthy should be let go and Rodgers himself might be too deep in a decline to ever again merit consideration as the league’s best player.
Now they enter the playoffs white hot with a game set for the frozen (forecast of 7 degrees) tundra.
“The goal is to win the Super Bowl,” Rodgers said as Sunday bled into Monday here.
“The plan is to win it all,” McCarthy agreed.
This isn’t the revealing of a state secret – what other plan would there be? It was something bordering on fantasy in November, though.
Rodgers claims he saw the potential all along, just not the consistent confidence. So he supplied it, boldly trying to get everyone to stick together. It was his finest scramble save of the season.
After nine years as the starter, those two MVPs, a Super Bowl title and all those State Farm commercials, the young guys in the locker room tend to defer to him. The belief being that maybe the 33-year-old they grew up watching knows what he’s talking about.
So when Rodgers started chirping about how the Packers’ 4-6 team just needed to win to get in and started pointing toward a schedule with lots of cold, outdoor games and favorable opponents, his teammates went along with it.
“You have to exude confidence at times when to the outside world there is no reason to believe confidence should exist,” Rodgers said. “That is what I did. I believed in myself, but I also believed in this team. I had confidence in my teammates that we would handle adversity better.
“If we just got that first win, things would get rolling.”
That included Rodgers, too. After the Washington loss he was sitting at a 63.2 completion percentage and 25 touchdowns against seven picks. He wasn’t his old self. Since then, he’s completed 71 percent of his passes and tossed 15 touchdowns without an interception.
With no margin for error, he stopped making mistakes. Green Bay wound up 10-6.
Most notably, he said, he and the offense began delivering on the critical plays that determine games, such as his epic nearly nine-second scramble and touchdown throw to Geronimo Allison early in the fourth quarter.
“That’s about as fine of a play extension …” McCarthy said. “I won’t say it’s his best ever but it has to be up there.”
“We just couldn’t get him down,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
“Momentum,” Rodgers said, “it’s contagious. You get that feeling that you don’t have during a losing streak where you expect to win. That is an exciting energy that you can feel in the locker room and on the field.
“During the losing streak … we weren’t making those plays. We weren’t getting stops when we needed them. We weren’t getting third downs. The plays when you really need them, when adversity hit, when the crowd was getting back in it, we made them.”
The Packers are a club that fears no one. They beat the Giants earlier this season, and Sunday promises to be brutally cold. If they can win, a matchup at Dallas potentially looms. A trip to Dallas would just mean extra pressure on the young Cowboys defensive backs who haven’t been in the playoffs yet.
“This team has energy,” McCarthy said. “It has an edge. It has a confidence … maybe that’s why we’re not doing cartwheels right now.”
Even subdued celebration is better than the Lions, who gamely played their role as the hapless loser in this ancient soap opera. The Packers have now defeated Detroit 100 times, the most one team has beaten another in NFL history. (The Lions have 68 victories. There have been seven ties since they first met in 1930).
This one sends Detroit falling backward into the playoffs, on a three-game losing streak and gagging away a division crown in classic fashion.
The Packers could only shrug and enjoy the chants of their fans. This is what Green Bay does. And that is what Detroit does.
It’s not a coincidence which one has Aaron Rodgers, playing as well as ever, feeling pretty good about who he has around him and where they are capable of going.
“Anything can happen when you get in the playoffs,” Rodgers said with a smile.
Maybe once that was a false front to save a season, MVP-level posturing to keep his teammates together so they could change the course of the season.
Now, it is just reality. January’s here and the Packers are coming on strong again.
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