GREEN BAY – If it’s third and 11 at his own 36-yard line with 31 seconds left, you can bet that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is going to be looking for Jordy Nelson.
And if he’s covered, he’ll look for Davante Adams or Randall Cobb or Jared Cook.
When playoff elimination is on the line, it’s the guys who have performed in Super Bowls or conference championships or elimination games who are the most likely to produce an unforgettable moment.
Rodgers and Nelson did it at the end of the Chicago Bears game in Week 15 with their 60-yard hook-up that set up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 32-yard field goal. Three years prior, Rodgers and Cobb connected on a similar big play on that same Soldier Field, this one for a 48-yard game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds left.
But one of the things coach Mike McCarthy has stressed this week as the Packers prepare for a winner-take-all game with the Detroit Lions for the NFC North title, is that somewhere along the way someone not named Rodgers or Nelson or Clay Matthews is going to have an impact in the game Sunday night at Ford Field.
Some rookie or part-time player or marginal starter probably will be involved in a play that might determine the outcome.
“That was a topic on my PowerPoint in the team meeting,” McCarthy said Wednesday, days after the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings to improve to 9-6. “You look at your veteran players, the ones that played the bigger roles in that game and you look at the production that they had.
“What we will improve on – and we’ll make sure of it this week – the role players, particularly the guys that had a limited number of snaps need to do a better job. We had too many guys that played six, seven, eight, nine plays and had a mental error and a penalty. We can’t have that, especially this late in the season.”
McCarthy has seen both sides of how big games are decided in part because a role player did or didn’t make a play.
The most famous in the McCarthy era is the onside kick tight end Brandon Bostick flubbed in the 2015 NFC championship game. Bostick, a backup playing on the hands team, went after the ball instead of letting Nelson field it and had it bounce off his hands and onto the ground where the Seattle Seahawks recovered.
The Packers wound up losing, 28-22.
In the game right after Cobb’s miracle reception lifted the Packers to the NFC North title, the San Francisco 49ers drove 65 yards in 14 plays in the freezing cold for a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.
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Twice during that drive, the Packers could have stopped them and possibly won the game.
On second and 10 at the San Francisco 31, quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t see rookie Micah Hyde and threw the ball right at him. But the ball bounced off Hyde’s hands. Five plays later, on third and 8 at the Packers 38, backup safety Jarrett Bush was unblocked as he blitzed Kaepernick, but he left his feet while trying to block a pass and Kaepernick pulled it down and ran for a first down.
“That opportunity comes, you have to go and make it,” said Hyde, now in his fourth season. “I think these guys understand. They know how big the game is. We’ve had our backs against the wall the last couple of weeks. It’s nothing new.”
There are examples of role players being the difference, too.
Everyone remembers Cobb’s touchdown against the Bears, but earlier in the game, backup receiver Jarrett Boykin picked up what appeared to be a dead ball after a sack and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. That score made it possible for the Packers to win at the end.
In the NFC North-clinching victory over Detroit at Lambeau Field in Week 17 of the 2014 season, Hyde had a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Packers control early on.
This past week, Nelson was the star with nine catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns, but rookie Geronimo Allison had four catches for 66 yards, playing for an injured Cobb, including a clutch 32-yarder that helped the Packers expand their lead to 28-13 just before halftime.
“You never really know what you’re going to be presented and how the game is being played,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “Everybody has got to be ready to go. I think (with) successful teams it’s able to be multiple people answering the bell when those opportunities come.”
The Packers suffered immense growing pains during the season, the result of having to play rookie backups, especially on defense. But at the same time, that has given some role players valuable experience and exposed them to a little bit of what it takes to be a starter in the NFL.
Second-round pick Jason Spriggs was one of those players who got thrust into a starting position with almost no warning and basically had to sink or swim. Having played mostly at tackle, Spriggs had to start at right guard against Washington when Don Barclay, subbing for injured T.J. Lang, hurt his shoulder in warm-ups.
McCarthy makes it known to all his rookies that there will be opportunities to play during the year and they need to be ready for it, but Spriggs said it isn’t as much a warning as a reality check.
“They make it known that people get hurt and things happen,” Spriggs said. “They’re not promising that you’ll play, they’re promising that you’re going to need to be ready. It’s about preparing the way you need to in case you do have to get in there.”
Nelson said that his advice to all of his teammates is to be themselves and not try to make the situation bigger than it is. Yes, it’s a must-win game and the energy is going to be high, but they’ve been trained all season what to do when they’re on the field.
Rookie safety Kentrell Brice said the message he’s picked up on is preparation, making sure he understands exactly what the coaches want. He said he dreams of being a big-game hero but that’s not what he’s chasing.
“We all know it’s a big game, we all know the implications that it has,” he said. “So you go into a game, not trying to make the game too big, not trying to make the game too small. You just have to go out and execute the game plan and do what we do.
“At the end of the day, it just comes down to me beating him or him beating me. I try to make it to the goal where I don’t get beat.”