Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in Monday night's game at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
So this is what it looks like when the 2011 Green Bay Packers play a complete game.
A special-teams touchdown, another ho-hum outing for quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ juggernaut of an offense and the struggling Packers defense’s best performance of the season made for a 45-7 win over the overwhelmed Minnesota Vikings on Monday night at Lambeau Field.
“We needed a significant win,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the 38-point margin of victory. “We talked on Saturday morning in a team meeting about last year’s 10 victories, five of them were significant wins. I thought we accomplished that tonight.”
The blowout win keeps the unbeaten Packers atop the NFC at 9-0, one game ahead of the 8-1 San Francisco 49ers in the race for best record in the NFC and three games ahead of Detroit and Chicago, both 6-3, in the NFC North Division race.
The Packers hit the 2-7 Vikings from all directions, starting with rookie Randall Cobb’s 80-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave Green Bay an early lead.
Rodgers then had what’s becoming for him a routine outing — an ultra-efficient passer rating of 140.3 points, his third straight of 140 points or better, that included four touchdown passes, a 76.7 completion rate and no interceptions.
But what jumped out on this night was the Packers’ defense, which came into the game ranked in the middle of the NFL in points allowed at No. 17, and had been giving up a troubling amount of yardage all season (No. 30 in the league in yards allowed and No. 31 in passing yards allowed).
On Monday night, though, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ defense shut down the game’s best halfback, Adrian Peterson (14 carries for 51 yards), and put rookie quarterback Christian Ponder through a miserable night, harassing him on most of his drop backs with a barrage of blitzes.
The Vikings’ 266 yards were the second fewest the Packers have allowed this season, and the seven points also were the second fewest. The Vikings’ lone touchdown came on a short 14-yard field after Cobb muffed a punt in the third quarter.
Just last week, this same defense gave up 38 points in a narrow win at San Diego.
“It’s huge,” cornerback Charles Woodson said of the defense’s play after its struggles the first half of the season. “That’s the way we know we can play. We haven’t been playing up to the level we feel we can play this season, so we needed a game like that just to show ourselves what we’re capable of doing.”
The Packers had maybe their best pass rush of the season — jumping out to an early 17-0 lead surely helped there — and Capers blitzed at least as much as the 48 percent rate he did last week at San Diego, if not more.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had only three sacks coming into the game, sacked Ponder twice.
And Woodson, who blitzed from all angles as much as he had all season, led the team with eight tackles, including dropping Peterson for a six-yard loss, and hurried Ponder on several occasions as well as landing one hit on the young quarterback.
“I thought Clay and Charles really stood out tonight,” McCarthy said, “just as far as the negative plays, the big plays, pressure on the quarterback. We did a very good job on Adrian Peterson. Adrian is a dynamic player, he was our focus, (receiver) Percy Harvin was a focus of ours, and also Christian Ponder. Those are the three players we felt we had to take out of tonight’s game, and I thought our defense accomplished that.”
Ponder, who showed poise and playmaking ability outside the pocket in the Packers’ 33-27 win at the Metrodome in the team’s first meeting three weeks ago, finished with a 52.3 passer rating that reflected his difficulties against the constant pressure. He again showed he can move (two rushes for 17 yards) and if not for his mobility probably would have been sacked more than the three times the Packers got him. That said, he also was harried into 16-for-34 passing for only 190 yards, one interception and no touchdowns.
“We expect to play well,” Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “Has it happened? No, but that’s football. I feel like we’re getting back to our old ways. We’re undefeated, moving in the right direction. I feel like the sky’s the limit for us.”
Cobb, in the meantime, showed again he’s brings a dynamic dimension that the Packers’ return game has lacked for several years. Besides the early touchdown, he also had a 55-yard kickoff return that set up a second-half touchdown.
The touchdown was Cobb’s second on a return this season — the other was a 108-yarder on a kickoff against New Orleans — though he also has three fumbles on returns.
“Randall two big returns, he’s a dynamic young player and he’s only going to get better,” McCarthy said. “But he knows as well as anybody, he has three fumbles in nine games, and that’s not cutting it. We have to erase that from our performance. I’m sure he’ll learn from what happened tonight. But he’s a young player that’s going to continue to get better. He brings a lot to the table.
The blowout was so complete that after Rodgers led the Packers to scores on five out of his seven possessions, including touchdowns on the first three series of the second half, McCarthy turned to backup quarterback Matt Flynn with 10½ minutes to play in the game. Flynn took the Packers on a 66-yard touchdown drive that he finished with a 3-yard scramble for the score that provided the final margin, 45-7.
Cobb gave the Packers’ defense a head start with his 80-yard punt return before Rodgers even had taken a snap. Cobb broke open the play when he started to his right and then cut back hard against Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford, who slipped as he tried to change direction. Cobb went untouched for the score.
When Rodgers finally got his first chance, later in the first quarter, he guided a no-huddle offense to 10 points in his first two possessions to open a comfortable lead. On the two drives, Rodgers completed nine of 11 passes for 127 yards and took advantage of the Vikings’ poor coverage at safety.