Packers get miraculous reprieve

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reacts after throwing a Hail Mary to win the game against the Detroit Lions  at Ford Field in Detroit.

DETROIT – The Green Bay Packers just might have saved their season, and at the last possible moment.

They were one play away from disaster. One play away from a 7-5 record and a season possibly spinning out of their control.

Then Aaron Rodgers took advantage of a controversial facemask penalty that gave the Packers a final play with no time left. He threw a Hail Mary pass for the ages, Richard Rodgers went above the crowd to snag the catch for a touchdown, and suddenly, almost miraculously, the Packers are back among the living, at least for now.

The 61-yard prayer that gave the Packers a 27-23 win over the Detroit Lions doesn’t erase the offensive issues still plaguing this team, just as their impressive win at Minnesota two weeks didn’t. But who knows what this stunning comeback might do for their psyche?

Their unabashed, delirious celebration in the end zone spoke volumes of the joy and, maybe more than anything, relief that the victory brought this struggling team that had lost four of its last five games coming into Thursday night and had played as bad a half off offensive football as it has in years in the first 30 minutes of this game.

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So did the jubilation of the Packers’ front office members in the press box. General manager Ted Thompson, CEO Mark Murphy, vice president Russ Ball and personnel executives Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith exploded out of their seats after Richard Rodgers’ catch, hugging and high-fiving and simply beaming at the stunning outcome.

So did the crowd of Packers fans who stuck around at Ford Field after the game, gathered around the NFL Network’s post-game show shot from a temporary set along the sidelines. Their chants, which echoed through the otherwise empty Ford Field, alternated from their traditional “Go Pack Go” to the sing-songy “Rich-ard Rod-gers.” They no doubt had sensed the trouble this team was in as it went more than 60 minutes – the second half last week against Chicago and the first half Thursday night against the Lions – without a point and in danger of losing for the fifth time in their last six games.

"It feels like more (than one win), and I think we all feel that way," coach Mike McCarthy said.

So now the Packers are sitting at 8-4, half-a-game behind the NFC North Division-leading Minnesota Vikings and with a weekend off for the players to re-group, heal some injuries and take stock of their good fortune. At worst they’ll have a one-game lead for the first wild-card in the NFC, and depending on what happens with Seattle at Minnesota on Sunday, the Packers could be tied for first in the division.

The Packers also now know what it’s like to be on the other side of this kind of game, where the euphoria and devastation are magnified a thousand times over because the late turn was so improbable. Of course their famous, or infamous, loss at Seattle on a Monday night on a disputed Hail Mary in September 2012 springs to mind immediately.

But so does the Packers’ four-minute meltdown last season against that same Seahawks team in the NFC championship game. This game wasn’t quite as miraculous – the Packers didn’t need an onside kick to keep their chances alive – but they were down 23-14 with 7:06 left, and even when they got the ball back for a final time down 23-21, their chances looked bleak with no timeouts, the ball at their own 21 and only 23 seconds to play.

The question now is, what do they do from here?

They caught a break on the facemask call after the clock had run out – replays were unclear whether defensive end Devin Taylor's thumb merely hit Aaron Rodgers' facemask, which isn't a penalty, or caught in it, which is a penalty,as Rodgers' helmet turned. The Packers then made the stunning play because Aaron Rodgers had the arm strength to hang up a pass that traveled close to 70 yards in the air like it was a punt, and Richard Rodgers carved out space and went above the crowd of 10 players for the catch. A lot of luck there, no doubt, but ability was a factor too.

But for this to become a springboard, the Packers still have to resuscitate their offense, which has been shockingly inept for much of the last six games. On Thursday night, McCarthy and play caller Tom Clements mixed up personnel more than they had all year to get things going. The results weren’t much.

They worked Jeff Janis into the receiver rotation a little, and mixed in Jared Abbrederis, just back from a chest and rib injury, a lot. They promoted undrafted rookie running back John Crockett from the practice squad Thursday afternoon, then gave him five carries (for 22 yards) Thursday night.

Not that it seemed to make much of a difference. The Packers finished with 313 total yards, but that number is deceiving because 153 of them came in their two desperation possessions in the final seven minutes, with the Lions playing a soft defense. The Packers’ first-half total of 78 yards and no points was mind-boggling.

But if there was any sign of life, it was from Richard Rodgers, who had been mostly invisible as their tight end for most of this season. He broke out with eight catches on eight targets for 146 yards, and even minus the Hail Mary he was seven catches for 85 yards, including two for 37 yards in the final five minutes.

But where was halfback Eddie Lacy, who surely will have to be a big part of things if this team is going anywhere in January? Though he had two 100-yard rushing games the last two weeks, Lacy was not in the starting lineup – James Starks played the first two series – and had only five carries for four yards. He was not on the injury report, and there was no indication what happened last week to land him in McCarthy’s dog house for this game.

So the Packers still have problems to solve and an offense to find. Once the joy of victory wears off, McCarthy has to look hard at the offseason changes he made with his offensive coaching staff that included handing over the play calling to Clements. He again has to think hard about taking back those duties and primary game-planning responsibilities that go with it, because victory or not, this offense even with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback isn’t functioning anywhere near a level that will get the Packers to the Super Bowl.

But McCarthy, Thompson and their team got a reprieve Thursday night. It came in the most stunning way. And now it’s their job to make it mean something more than another mark in the win column.

"This one, obviously, ranks up there as one of the greatest joys on the field that we've had together as a team and personally," Aaron Rodgers said. "But the beauty about this sport is we get a little break now, then we have to get right back out there next Sunday and play another game."

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