MINNEAPOLIS - The Green Bay Packers clinched their first NFC North championship since 2016 on Monday night, and they did it in about the sweetest fashion they could imagine.
Now they can set their sights on something bigger.
A 23-10 victory over rival Minnesota Vikings improved the Packers’ record to 12-3. Green Bay needs only to beat lowly Detroit next Sunday in its regular-season finale to clinch at least the No. 2 seed, and with it a first-round bye in the playoffs.
If the Packers win next week and the Seattle Seahawks (11-4) beat the visiting San Francisco 49ers (12-3), the Packers would be the NFC’s top seed. That would mean home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
What once seemed like an unreachable dream — the road to the Super Bowl going through Green Bay — now is very much attainable. It’s all thanks to an upset win on the road at U.S. Bank Stadium, a place where the Packers had never won.
"Wow, that was a heck of a football game right there," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. "Can't say enough about these guys. To turn the ball over like that in the first half and be down 3-0 in the turnover battle and only be down a point (10-9 at halftime), I have to give it up to our defense. They really performed at an extremely high level."
As for being NFC North champs, LaFleur said, "That was one of our goals, to win the division. But I think there's more out there for this football team and now it's time to reassess those goals and move forward."
Here are five observations:
Surviving a rough start
The first half couldn’t have gone much worse for the Packers. It wasn't just that the Packers lost the turnover battle 3-0, but also the tough positions in which the offense continually placed its defense. Aaron Jones’ fumble to start the game gave the Vikings possession at the Packers’ 10-yard line. Aaron Rodgers’ interception gave the Vikings possession at the Packers’ 26. Late in the first half, Davante Adams’ fumble gave the Vikings possession at the Packers’ 48. That the Packers only trailed 10-9 at halftime despite all that really was the story of the game.
No more rest
The restrictions are off dynamic running back Jones. After keeping him on a pitch count much of this season, the Packers rode their best playmaker to victory Monday night. It started slowly — see: Jones’ early fumble — but by the second half Jones had worn down the Vikings’ fierce defense. That was never more apparent than on his 56-yard touchdown run that broke open the game, when Jones simply had more juice in his legs than Vikings defenders, hitting the corner first. Jones finished the night tying a career high with 23 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns, and he’s 16 yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the first time in his career. He also leads the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns and 19 total touchdowns. Just a remarkable breakout year for the former fifth-round pick.
Za’Darius Smith showcase
Za’Darius Smith shrugged off his Pro Bowl snub last week. His play Monday night was quite a bit louder. Smith took over against the Vikings, not unlike he’s done much of this season. He had three and a half sacks — extending his career high to 13.5 this season — while finishing with five quarterback hits and five tackles for loss. If this is a preview of things to come in January, Smith’s dominance could go a long way toward sparking a Packers playoff run in a wide-open NFC. Smith is now sixth in the NFL in sacks, one more than Aaron Donald. He showcased the versatility that’s become his calling card this season. His first sack came when he stunned Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff, then beat him with a speed move outside. His second came with an interior swim move against guard Pat Elflein. Whether Smith was inside or out, the Vikings couldn’t block him.
All hands on deck
During their third-quarter touchdown drive, six Packers skill players touched the football. Jones was the star of the drive, capping it with a 12-yard touchdown, but Jamaal Williams started with a pair of inside runs. In between, Rodgers had completions to Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. For MVS, a 6-yard reception was his first in almost exactly one month, since a 7-yard reception Nov. 24 at San Francisco. Finally, the drive ended with Geronimo Allison sliding to catch a 2-point conversion in the middle of the end zone, giving the Packers a touchdown lead they carried into the fourth quarter. For an offense that’s lacked a true identity this season, perhaps using a large variety of players will be beneficial going forward.
LaFleur showing good feel
A month ago, LaFleur opted to go for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, and the Packers were stuffed. He trusted his defense when facing the same situation Monday night. This time, LaFleur elected to kick a field goal as the clock expired, pulling the Packers within 10-9. Given how the Packers' defense had bottled up the Vikings' offense, which was without star running back Dalvin Cook, the safe call was the wise call. It proved to be that way in the second half.