MINNEAPOLIS - It’s a long ballgame. Aaron Jones clung to that reality, the chance to redeem himself, as he picked himself up from the turf inside U.S. Bank Stadium, shuffling over to the Green Bay Packers' sideline.
This game, the Packers’ biggest this season, couldn’t have started worse. Jones caught an Aaron Rodgers pass short of the marker on third down, but that wasn’t the problem. As Jones crossed the line of scrimmage, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr came sprinting from across the field. Barr caught Jones from the side, and when he wrapped his arms around the Packers running back, he got the football, too.
Eric Kendricks recovered, then rumbled. Inside the 20-yard line. Down to the 10. Jones slouched over on the sideline, stunned by the nightmare start, but not shaken.
“I was just thinking,” Jones said, “I had to make up for it.”
He did that … and then some.
This was the Aaron Jones show on Monday Night Football. A coming-out party in what’s become a coming-out season, the Packers running back snubbed from the Pro Bowl, but overtaking NFL leaders and making history anyway.
The Packers rode Jones’ career-high 154 yards on a career-high-tying 23 carries to a 23-10 win against the Vikings, a victory that put them in the driver’s seat for a top-two seed, a first-round bye and perhaps home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. They’re a win away — and a Seattle Seahawks victory at home next week against the San Francisco 49ers — from securing the NFC’s top playoff seed. Not bad for head coach Matt LaFleur’s first year.
Even more, the Packers unveiled the script for an extended playoff run. If they are going to reach the Super Bowl, this is how they’ll do it. Their blueprint is built on Aaron Jones, Aaron Jones and more Aaron Jones.
It was a meager beginning Monday night. Never mind Jones’ fumble on the game’s third play. He had just 15 yards on five carries in the first quarter. He was only up to 45 yards on 10 carries by halftime.
Occasionally this season, LaFleur has abandoned the running game before it had a chance to find rhythm. Not on this night.
Jones carried 13 times for 109 yards in the second half,
“That’s the run game in general,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Of course you like to, every time you call a play, you want to get an explosive gain. In these type of football games, it’s all about chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. Setting up different plays, going back, chipping away. Wearing them down, keep going. And then you let your playmaker, your slasher, he’s going to break one, have those explosive gains. He’s going to hit those moments.
“You just hope that we as an offense — all other 10 of us — are on the same page, and we’re doing our job the entire game. So when it does happen, you get those results.”
Jones gave the the Packers their first lead on a 12-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. In the fourth, he broke the game open with a 56-yard touchdown, beating the Vikings defense to the left perimeter, then outrunning defenders down the sideline.
“He’s electric,” LaFleur said. “Any time he touches the ball, he can go the distance. He’s got that next-level speed. When he gets to that second level, he can take it the distance.
“You know, he’s been so valuable, really in all three phases in terms of out of the backfield, as a receiver and in pass protection.”
Out of necessity, the Packers muted Jones’ value for most of this season. Silly to overwork an irreplaceable player like Jones — especially someone with his extensive injury history who plays a grueling position — in September, October and November. Better to keep him fresh for the stretch run, when the games matter most.
On Monday, LaFleur took advantage of having Jones healthy and fresh late in the season. Jones showed what happens when he gets a full slate of carries. He’s too good, too electric, to be shut out four quarters — even against one of the NFL’s best defenses, on its home turf.
The Vikings were a top-10 run defense entering Monday, allowing only 99 rushing yards per game. By the end, the Vikings' defense was broken, Jones gashing it almost at will.
“Greatness,” right guard Billy Turner said, describing what Jones gives the offense. “Greatness, man. He’s having a hell of a year. He’s a great player with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well as to have his vision and be able to run the ball downhill.
“It’s just greatness, man.”
Jones is putting himself in the company of greatness. He now leads the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns, two more than Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. He also leads the league with 19 total touchdowns.
With another touchdown, Jones would become only the fourth NFL player this decade to have 20 in a season, joining Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley (2018), Arizona’s David Johnson (2016) and Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (2011). He also finished Monday night just 16 yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the season, something he’s never done before.
Yes, Jones knew precisely how close he came from 1,000, but he’s not sweating it. Next week, there’s another long ballgame.
“It would’ve been nice to get it tonight,” Jones said, “but it’s going to happen eventually. Next week we’ll get it.”
And maybe so much more.