DETROIT - The play that will define this run-the-table dream ending, the play that broke the internet and the Detroit Lions' backs at the same time, was something Green Bay Packers receiver Geronimo Allison described as nothing more than “routine.”
That’s perhaps the best place to start when describing quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He is not just making the impossible a reality, the way he’s been known to do before.
Rodgers is making the impossible routine.
Like the third-and-9 early in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Rodgers is rolling to his left, buying time. He sets, finds nobody open. Lions defensive tackle Khyri Thornton – the former Packers draft pick – starts to close.
“I wanted to get all the way outside,” Rodgers said, “but I needed to kind of deke the defensive tackle there into thinking I was stopping.”
Rodgers wasn’t stopping.
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BOX SCORE: Packers 31, Lions 24
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He became a running back with a wicked juke. Then a cannon. Rodgers, eight seconds after the snap, five yards from the opposite sideline, rocketed a 10-yard touchdown pass that provided a comfortable cushion.
Rodgers wanted to target receiver Davante Adams on the play, but he was covered. So the game's greatest improviser cobbled more magic.
“I just saw Geronimo,” Rodgers said, “and tried to put it in a place where he could make a good catch. I didn’t see the catch. I was on my back. I just looked to the sideline – our sideline – and I could tell he caught it. So it must’ve been a good catch.”
Then Rodgers posed on the sideline. He wrapped that title belt around his waist, like he’s done many times. In the moment, Rodgers knew.
The Packers would soon be NFC North champions, thanks to their 31-24 win against the Lions before a hostile crowd at Ford Field.
If the MVP award was voted on in six-week segments, Rodgers would be unanimous. The Packers were left for dead around Thanksgiving. At 4-6, they were closer to cracking the draft’s top 10 than the NFC’s final six. A division title? A home game in the playoffs? Please.
The Packers couldn’t win a game.
Then their quarterback said those three words: “run the table.” Around him, players started to believe. They clung to those 11 letters – not unlike the Packers clung to those five letters two years ago: “R-E-L-A-X” – no matter how asinine it sounded for a sinking team.
“That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader,” Rodgers said. “You have to exude confidence, even in a situation where it seems to the outside world that confidence shouldn’t exist. That’s kind of what I did. I believed in myself and my abilities, but I also believed in this team. This wasn’t a shot in the dark. It was an optimistic belief in my teammates that we were going to start handling adversity better.
“I knew it had to start with the offense. We needed to play better, I needed to play better. But I felt like if we could do that, it would start to give the defense some confidence. And, ultimately, if we could just get one – if we could just get that first win – things could get rolling.”
They have six straight wins now. The Packers enter the playoffs as the NFC’s hottest team, with its longest win streak. Their quarterback makes them a team nobody wants to play.
Rodgers continued his late-season rampage against a Lions defense that hadn’t allowed 30 points at home all season. Shoot, they hadn’t given up 20 at home since the middle of October. Didn’t matter. Rodgers completed 27 of 39 passes for an even 300 yards, throwing four touchdowns with no interceptions, and had a 126 passer rating.
He was sublime, toying with unblocked blitzers, catching the Lions with 12 men on the field before a third-and-long.
“He bumped it up to a new level,” Adams said. “That’s what we expect from him, because that’s the type of guy he is. Future Hall of Fame-type guy. So we knew it was just a matter of time before he really kicked it into another gear.”
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That other gear looks like this: 18 touchdowns, no interceptions in his past seven games. Since revealing his belief the Packers could run the table, he has exceeded a 100 passer rating in every game except one.
Whether it’s enough to win his third MVP is unlikely. Rodgers had a forgettable start to his season, but that makes his turnaround all the more impressive. For only the second time in his career – the other came in 2011 – Rodgers finished with 40 touchdowns. He led the league in touchdown passes for the first time.
Adams said Rodgers’ level of play leaves teammates no choice. It forces everyone else to play better, making a run-the-table streak possible.
“The great thing about this team and leadership,” Rodgers said, “is Mike stayed the path. When the storm was upon us – on him about his job and job security, about myself and my leadership, and about our teammates and the way we were going to respond to the four-game losing streak – we stuck together. I think that says a lot about the kind of people we have in the organization, and the kind of people we have in that locker room.”
After it was over, they snaked back to their locker room. Before grabbing his fifth NFC North champions hat, Rodgers gave a sweaty hug to one Packers staffer.
“NFC North champs, baby!” he said.
All because they did what nobody expected. Run the table from 4-6? Impossible.
The Packers made it look routine.
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