GREEN BAY – A national television audience was ready to change the channel when a critical moment in the Green Bay Packers' season started unfolding.
It was late. Almost garbage time in Washington. The Packers couldn’t make a stop in the nation’s capital. Eventually, they lost by 18 points.
But this, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, is where the Packers' offense found its long-lost rhythm. This is where confidence sprouted. The Packers opened their second half with three straight drives traveling at least 75 yards, including two more than 80.
In a game they would lose, in a game that ended with a pair of turnovers, a resurrection was taking place. A couple days later, Rodgers would share his belief that the Packers could run the table. It wasn’t quite a prediction, but that belief had to generate somewhere.
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Rodgers saw something in Washington.
“We started doing some good things on offense,” Rodgers said, “and it carried over into the five-game stretch.”
Now they are one win from their resurrection being complete. A peaking offense will travel to Detroit to start the new year with a NFC North title game showdown Sunday night against the Lions. The Packers' rise coincided with Rodgers’ recovery.
A month ago, Rodgers wasn’t a winning quarterback. The deepest slump of his career would tailspin into a four-game losing streak. His team plummeted to a 4-6 record. Outside the locker room, there was panic.
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Rodgers doesn’t want to dwell on how his eighth season as a starter began – would you? – but the Packers quarterback clearly is playing at a higher level than in September, and even October.
He has exceeded a 100 passer rating in six of his last seven games. Hasn’t thrown an interception in six weeks, with 14 touchdown passes in that stretch. Justified or not, there’s even MVP chatter for the newly minted NFC offensive player of the week.
Rodgers wouldn’t entertain a question about his MVP chances – “that’s the voters that take care of that stuff,” he said – but acknowledged he found a “mental zone” in his last game against the Minnesota Vikings.
“If you could totally understand it and use it every game,” Rodgers said, “you would. It’s part feeling, part comfort. Everything just comes together at the right time.”
Some of those pieces coming together are outside Rodgers’ control. In Detroit, the Packers could see a Lions secondary missing its top cornerback, or at least a top cornerback with less than optimum health.
Darius Slay, perhaps the NFC North’s best corner, missed Monday’s game in Dallas with a hamstring injury he aggravated Dec. 18 at the New York Giants. It was his second hamstring injury this season. He first injured the hamstring in a late-October game at Washington.
Hamstring injuries, like with any soft-muscle tissue, usually are more severe the second time. Slay was listed as a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice, his first in two weeks. A reporter spotted him dancing in the locker room, another sign his hamstring could be feeling better.
Receiver Jordy Nelson said he expects Slay to play Sunday. With the Lions able to win their first division championship since 1993, they could stretch arguably their most important defensive player.
It would be a major advantage if the Packers – and their sizzling quarterback – faced a Lions secondary without Slay.
“In my opinion,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “he's one of the top corners, clearly, in our division and in the league. When you lose your No. 1 corner, you do make adjustments.”
Rodgers foreshadowed taking “some chances and some shots” against the Lions' secondary if Slay were unavailable Sunday. Perhaps he’ll take some shots even if Slay plays.
If nothing else, the Packers could gather some early-game intel if they tested Slay’s hamstring.
As for Rodgers, his lingering calf and hamstring injuries appear to be in the past. Back was his normal mobility Saturday, with Rodgers even sprinting around Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen and juking cornerback Xavier Rhodes on his way to a 6-yard touchdown run.
“It’s nice to be feeling a lot better,” Rodgers said. “My injuries have definitely subsided. The rehab has continued, but I’m healing up at the right time.”
He’s also heating up at the right time. It’s the fourth straight year Rodgers will play in an NFC North title game, his second in three season against the Lions.
While his fourth-down touchdown to Randall Cobb that sealed a division title over Chicago in 2013 was the defining play, his best showing with the division on the line came against the Lions. Two years ago, Rodgers returned from aggravating his calf to complete 17 of 22 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 139.6 rating.
Perhaps he’ll add another chapter Sunday.
“It’s about challenging myself,” Rodgers said, “and rising to meet those challenges. I think that’s what every great player wishes that they can play at the level they know they’re capable of playing at. That’s why I enjoy the pressure being on me, and I enjoy being out there and saying the things that I say, knowing that it’s going to come back onto me.
“As a quarterback, the spotlight’s on you. The pressure’s on you. The expectations are on you. And those are the things that I’ve taken upon myself over the years, and look forward to those challenges every single week.”
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