THE BIG PICTURE
The unpredictable Packers did it again, bouncing back from a stunning home loss to an NFC North rival by scoring a final-play, miracle road win in the last of four straight games against division foes. Their 27-23 victory Thursday at Detroit was every bit as big as their upset win at Minnesota two weeks ago, which came on the heels of a shocking loss to the Lions at Lambeau Field. At 8-4, the Packers are only a half-game behind the Vikings (8-3) for the division lead and would own the tiebreaker if they beat Minnesota in the season finale. The Packers could use some help from the Seahawks (6-5), who visit the Vikings on Sunday (but a Seattle loss could aid Green Bay in the wild-card race).
A facemask penalty on Lions defensive end Devin Taylor gave the Packers one final play, and Aaron Rodgers delivered. From the Packers 39 with no time left on the clock, Rodgers heaved a Hail Mary and tight end Richard Rodgers came down with it in the end zone for an amazing 27-23 victory in a game they once trailed 20-0. Suddenly, a season that seemed to be lost looks promising again.
Aaron Rodgers entered Thursday with a dismal 80.7 passing rating over his previous five games, well below his career average of 105.1, and getting the 2014 NFL MVP back on track as Green Bay’s top priority. But Rodgers was running for his life early and often as Detroit took advantage of the Packers’ injury-ravaged line. Rodgers hit on only 10 of 16 first-half passes for 62 yards and threw an interception that set up the Lions’ second touchdown. But he heated up in the third quarter, finding Davante Adams for an eight-yard scoring pass after Julius Peppers forced a fumble that was recovered by Jake Ryan. Later, he scrambled into the end zone for a 17-yard score that brought the Packers to within 23-21. And at the end, when everything was on the line, he delivered another incredible victory.
The Packers were forced to rely on a patch-work offensive line with right tackle BryanBulaga and right guard T.J. Lang both inactive due to injuries. Don Barclay stepped in for Bulaga and Lane Taylor was forced into service for Lang, and it wasn’t pretty. Barclay was beaten by Detroit’s Devin Taylor for sacks of Rodgers on back-to-back third-down plays early in the second quarter. When center Corey Linsley aggravated a sprained ankle in that same quarter and was replaced by JC Tretter, the Packers’ offensive line was down three starters. When left tackle David Bakhtiari went out briefly early in the fourth quarter, his replacement Josh Walker was beaten for a key third-down sack by Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah. The offense spun its wheels most of the night as a result, but the line held up when it mattered most at the end, enabling Rodgers to throw a game-winning bomb.
RANTS AND RAVES
RANT: With Eddie Lacy entering the game fresh off two consecutive 100-yard rushing games, the Packers were determined to establish their ground game in Detroit, something they failed to do in their first meeting with the Lions. Surprisingly, James Starks got the start, but it didn’t matter: Neither he nor Lacy could find any running room behind the makeshift offensive line (the Packers gained a mere 16 yards on 15 first-half carries). In desperation, the Packers opened the second half with rookie John Crockett, who was signed off the practice squad earlier in the day. Crockett injected energy into the ground game, gaining 22 yards on five carries. But in the end, it was up to Rodgers to save the day.
RANT: The Packers’ wide receivers deserve most of the blame for the Packers’ poor passing offense this season, with Adams and James Jones both coming off horrendous showings in the Thanksgiving loss to the Bears. On this night, it got worse before it got better. Jones was briefly benched early after missing a high but catchable Rodgers pass that was intercepted by the Lions’ Glover Quin. Randall Cobb made a momentum-changing play when he recovered a Starks fumble in the end zone for Green Bay’s first touchdown. Then Adams finally notched his first TD of the season, hauling in a pretty third-down pass from Rodgers for an eight-yard score. Cobb and Randall each finished with four catches.
RAVE: Shades of Jermichael Finley! The Packers actually got game-changing production from a tight end, with Richard Rodgers making eight catches for 146 yards (his first 100-plus-yard game), including the game-winning 61-yard Hail Mary catch at the end.
RANT: Green Bay’s pass defense figured to have its hands full against a revitalized Lions offense featuring quarterback Matthew Stafford and star receiver Calvin Johnson, particularly without the injured Damarious Randall. A potent pass rush was essential, as the Packers came in with a 7-0 record when recording two or more sacks in a game. Stafford burned the Packers early, hitting wide-open tight end Eric Ebron for a TD pass on a play in which Green Bay’s defense was so befuddled that coach Mike McCarthy unsuccessfully tried to call a timeout. But the defense settled down after allowing 17 quick points, with Julius Peppers forcing a fumble on a strip sack that set up Green Bay’s second touchdown, Peppers was guilty of lining up offside on a key third-down play that kept a fourth-quarter drive alive and resulted in a field goal. The Packers ended up with three sacks and that formula again resulted in a victory.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• The Packers finished 2-2 in their stretch of four straight NFC North games and are 43-15-1 (.737) against division opponents under coach Mike McCarthy. They improved to 6-3 against NFC teams this season and are 15-6 (.714) against the NFC since the start of the 2014 season. Under McCarthy, the Packers are 79-37-1 (.679) against NFC opponents.
• Randall Cobb extended his streak of regular-season games with at least one reception to 52 with a second-quarter catch for two yards. That moved him past Greg Jennings (2009-12) for fifth-longest in team history.
• The Packers failed to score in the first half, snapping an NFL-best 56-game streak. They failed to score a first-quarter touchdown for the fourth time in their last six games (their streak of 22 straight games with a first-quarter touchdown ended Nov. 1 at Denver).
• Aaron Rodgers failed to record a 100-plus passer rating for the sixth straight game and eighth in 12 games this season. He came close with a 96.2 ratiing and still leads the NFL with 66 since taking over as the Packers’ starter in 2008 (the Chargers’ Philip Rivers is second with 63).
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt