Pete, Wes and Ryan break down the Packers' 20-3 victory over the Buccaneers, which clinched a playoff berth for Green Bay. (Dec. 21, 2014)
TAMPA, Fla. -- First came the illness. Then came the twinge. Neither could stop Aaron Rodgers.
The Green Bay Packers' quarterback, already besieged by the flu bug, was slowed early in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay after straining the calf muscle on the second offensive series. It still wasn't enough for the lethargic Buccaneers offense to catch up.
Rodgers was efficient and made plays when his offense needed them. Mixed with a near-historic performance from their defense, the Packers cruised to a 20-3 win in front of 64,247 at Raymond James Stadium to clinch an NFC playoff berth for the sixth consecutive season.
Mainly confined to the pocket, Rodgers leaned heavily on his two perimeter weapons, Jordy Nelson (113 receiving yards) and Randall Cobb (131 yards), and running back Eddie Lacy (99 rushing yards) to navigate the same Cover-2 defense he saw a dozen times during Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith's previous stint in Chicago.
Coming off the worst statistical performance of his career in last week's 21-13 loss to Buffalo, Rodgers bounced back by completing 31-of-40 passes for 318 yards with a touchdown. With the exception of one lost fumble, there was no real cause for alarm against the Buccaneers, who fell to 2-13.
"Really, the last couple of days, you see the kind of warrior he is," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's battled flu — whatever illness he's had — the last couple days and then goes out and strains his calf on the first or second series. He didn't want to come out. I was probably more affected by it than anybody with some of the play calls. Really, really a gritty performance by Aaron."
Packers players Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb and Morgan Burnett talk about the team's victory Sunday in Tampa. (Dec. 21, 2014)
Rodgers said he strained the muscle on the fifth offensive play. He first showed noticeable signs of pain following a short pass to tight end Richard Rodgers on second-and-10, a play after being hit by Tampa Bay defensive lineman Michael Johnson on an incomplete pass to James Starks.
Johnson sacked Rodgers three plays later and forced a fumble that Tampa Bay recovered upon review. Backup Matt Flynn wore his helmet and continued to stretch on the sideline for the rest of the half, but Rodgers never left the field.
The training staff cut some heel pads to help the strain and monitored Rodgers' status throughout.
"I battled the flu the last couple of days pretty bad and that's why I was surprised I hurt my calf because I hydrated like no other," Rodgers said. "I had a great hydration test this week and was drinking a ton of water before the game. Unfortunately the calf kind of gave up on me there."
When Rodgers first pulled up, it looked like the Packers might be headed for a repeat of what happened in October's 44-23 loss to New Orleans when Rodgers strained his hamstring in the second half and everything fell apart.
This time, however, the Packers pulled together. Smith's defense was sufficient at containing explosive opportunities, but his offense was nonexistent. The Packers sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown seven times and held the Buccaneers to 109 total yards of offense for the day.
Their run game managed a paltry 16 yards, the fourth-fewest by an NFL team this season. While the Packers' offense recalibrated after Rodgers' injury, the defense forced the Buccaneers into five consecutive three-and-outs.
The only success McCown found was resorting to deep throws off go routes late in the first half. He hit on one of his four lobs, a 40-yarder to 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson, to set up Tampa Bay's only score — a 43-yard Patrick Murray field goal before halftime.
Otherwise, the Packers' defense didn't surrender much ground.
"They played extremely good," receiver Jordy Nelson said of the defense. "I don't know how many sacks they ended up with, but they were hitting him all day. We stopped the run. They happened to give up a couple big plays where they kind of — to me it looked like they were chucking it up and hopefully something good happened."
The Packers didn't score until their fourth series, but controlled the momentum thanks to the early defensive stops and Lacy turning a broken tackle at the line of scrimmage into a 44-yard touchdown run with 49 seconds left in the first quarter.
Lacy, who left early in the fourth quarter with leg cramps, rushed for 84 of his 99 yards in the first half to power the offense and surpass 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season.
Rodgers started to gain some steam in the second quarter. Although Mason Crosby missed a 48-yarder with 10:05 left in the first half, the offense marched down the field on the next series to set up a 42-yard attempt to take a 10-0 lead.
Inside the huddle, most offensive players said they still had no idea what Rodgers was dealing with until halftime, but the supporting cast stepped up. McCarthy switched to more pistol formations to adjust for Rodgers' injury and the offensive line barely allowed its quarterback to be touched after the second series.
"The game plan that we had for it, we were able to stay with the majority of it," McCarthy said. "Frankly, I probably struggled with it more than anybody and probably should have just cut him loose."
The production in the red zone was off. McCarthy took responsibility for the offense failing on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line in the third quarter. After calling three straight running plays, he waited until the final down to put the ball in Rodgers' hands.
The offense drove 58 yards on the next series before stalling and settling for a 25-yard Crosby field goal that gave Green Bay a 13-3 lead with 10:23 remaining. They eventually scored with 2:51 left when Rodgers hit Nelson on a 1-yard slant for the touchdown.
Rodgers was limping noticeably throughout the game and even as he stepped to the podium for his postgame news conference. Teammates admit it was a scare, but there also wasn't any doubt he'd find a way to respond.
When asked if there was any talk of sitting, Rodgers replied with a smile: "Not from me."
"He's a competitor," Cobb said. "That's what I love about him. He's going to go out and he's going to give his best no matter what. He's going to play through pain, he's going to play through sickness. It's just great to see a teammate going out there and putting his body on the line every down for you."
The win sets up another winner-take-all finale in the NFC North when the Packers (11-4) host the Detroit Lions (11-4) on Sunday. It's been 23 years since the Lions last won at Lambeau Field, but they were dominant in a 19-7 win over Green Bay in Week 3 at Ford Field.
Everyone cashing a Packers' paycheck knows the stakes: a win would result in a first-round bye. Calf injuries can be difficult to shake, but Rodgers said he plans to be available just like he was last year when he returned from a broken collarbone to beat Chicago.
"It's too early to give a 100 percent guarantee," Rodgers said, "but it would definitely take a lot to hold me out of that game."