GREEN BAY - The minute Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy approved the decision to play quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, all the caveats that come with playing hurt flew up into the beautiful blue sky above Lambeau Field.
As soon as McCarthy, the medical staff and Rodgers himself decided the Packers had a better chance to beat the Vikings with him than without him, it didn’t matter whether he was 70 percent, 80 percent or 99 percent.
All understood that it was his game to win, just like it always is.
Excusing Rodgers for fumbling a keeper in overtime because his knee was sore would be like excusing a delivery truck from making its rounds because the bumper had a dent in it. Those kinds of afflictions are known to occur when you work in a high-collision arena and they can be mitigated.
Just as the knee was not the reason he dropped the ball on a play in which he eschewed the handoff in favor of running around end, it was not responsible for him taking a sack on the following play that made a game-winning field goal try impractical.
As great as Rodgers was a week ago in leading the Packers to a 21-point second-half rally with the same bum knee, his effort fell short when the game was on the line in a 29-29 tie with the Vikings.
“I’m disappointed about those last two plays,” Rodgers said. “We fought hard, we had some plays go our way; some plays didn’t.”
According to Rodgers, there was never any doubt he was going to play despite not practicing Wednesday and Thursday and spending most of Friday rehabbing an injury that he refuses to describe with any more detail than “a sprained knee.”
On Saturday, Rodgers took almost all of the snaps in the non-contact workout the team holds in the morning, mostly to show to McCarthy and the medical staff that he could move around with an offensive lineman-style brace on his left knee.
“(We) really just evaluated him today when he came in,” McCarthy said after the game. “So, he’d been working with the brace and the other components and getting ready to play throughout the week and as you can see, he went out and played a heckuva football game under those circumstances. That was the process.”
From the very start, Rodgers looked far more mobile than anyone expected, even taking off on a third-down scramble up the middle in which he dove head first for the first down. Though he was forced to take all his snaps from the shotgun or pistol formations, he was able to slide around in the pocket and buy himself time against arguably the best defense in the NFL.
On the first series, the Vikings sacked him and caused a punt and on the second one, the running game carried a big part of the load. On the final two plays, however, he hit receiver Davante Adams for a 13-yard gain and a 9-yard touchdown pass that gave the Packers a 14-7 lead.
The rest of the half was a struggle as the Vikings threw various pressures and disguised coverages at Rodgers, twice forcing the Packers to punt from within their own 20-yard line. Not even the late second-quarter scoring drive led anyone to believe the offense was nearing a breakout.
The longest gain of the five-play, 43-yard drive was a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.
“You know I think the offense, we’ve got some things going, we got Jimmy (Graham) involved a little bit better,” Rodgers said. “But we didn’t catch the ball as well as we did last week. I didn’t throw it as well as I did last week in the second half.
“I’ve said to you guys (reporters) we’re a work in progress and I thought today we’d take a bigger step.”
The biggest problem in the second half was that Rodgers couldn’t finish off drives. He completed 30 of 42 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown, but kicker Mason Crosby kicked five field goals, and a sixth attempt, from 52 yards, went wide left at the end of regulation.
The best chance to put the game away came with 2 minutes, 4 seconds to go in regulation. The defense had just come up with an interception and the offense needed to go just 13 yards to make it a two-score game and practically ensure victory.
But to show how much confidence McCarthy had in Rodgers, rather than call a running play to keep the clock moving and force the Vikings to burn one of their two remaining timeouts, he called a roll out for Rodgers on second and 10. Rodgers got outside easily but he tried to fit the ball between two defenders to Davante Adams.
The ball got there, but in the process of Adams falling into the end zone, the ball got jarred loose. The Packers thought it was a touchdown and were waiting for instant replay to review it, but the call never came.
They waited so long, they received a delay of game penalty.
They got the ball back with 31 seconds to go and Rodgers got them to the Minnesota 34 with a 27-yard completion to Graham and a 3-yard completion to Adams. But Crosby missed and the game went to overtime.
“I had a chance to Davante at the end of the second last drive there of regulation to put the game away, two scores, didn’t get it,” Rodgers said. “And then we put something together there in the last 31 seconds to give ourselves (a chance to win).
“So disappointing because we had a lot of chances to win that game.”
The possession in overtime will cause Rodgers a sleepless night.
On second and 1 at the Minnesota 37, the play called for him to hand off to running back Jamaal Williams to the left. If he saw an opening to the right, he could pull it back and keep it.
He chose the latter and when he finished pulling the ball out of Williams’ gut, it slipped out of his hands. He jumped on it on the 40-yard line.
“Jamaal didn’t know I was pulling it,” Rodgers said. “He was trying to grab for it a little bit. But if I’d just been a little stronger pulling it, both the end and (safety) Harrison (Smith) were flying over the top.
“It’s second and a couple, I’m definitely getting a first down and we’re inside 50-yard field goal range.”
On the following play the Vikings blitzed cornerback MacKenzie Alexander off the left side. Rodgers had a play called to the left in which he could dump it off to receiver Randall Cobb and let him fight for a first down.
He pulled off of Cobb and tried to go for more. Alexander sacked him.
“The third-down play, probably should have just stayed with it to the left. They had a good disguise on the delay, but I should have stayed with it to the left, hit Randall. Who knows if he gets a first down or not, but either way we had a more manageable field goal there.”
Rodgers and the Packers avoided their first loss when Vikings kicker Daniel Carlson missed a 35-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. Rodgers was admittedly very sore after the game and didn’t know what his practice schedule would be like during the upcoming week, but he said he intended to play at Washington.
McCarthy will make the final decision.
Then it will be in Rodgers’ hands. Just like it was Sunday.