Dougherty: For Packers, all systems are go

Pete Dougherty, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter as the Green Bay Packers host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, December 11, 2016, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY - It has been a long while — going back at least to last season — since the concourses of Lambeau Field have echoed with spontaneous “Go Pack Go” chants immediately after a Green Bay Packers game.

But there it was Sunday evening after the team’s 38-10 pasting of the Seattle Seahawks, and that’s as good a barometer as any for how drastically this team’s outlook has changed in only a few weeks’ time.

Three weeks ago, the Packers’ postseason prospects looked bleak after a blowout loss at Washington pushed their losing streak to four games and their record to 4-6. Now, only three weeks later, they’ve won three straight, and their season has potentially turned with what has to count as their best performance of the season.

Those “Go Pack Go” chants in the postgame concourses usually only break out early in the year, when all possibilities are alive, or when fans have reason to be upbeat late in the season. Dominating a legit NFC contender for a third straight win fulfills the latter.

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“This was an important win for us confidence-wise,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “and then I think it was a good statement to our fans as well (to), ‘Stick with us because there’s a lot of football left.’”

On a purely practical level, the Packers’ win as three-point home underdogs kept them on pace with Detroit (9-4) and Minnesota (7-6) in the NFC North race. They’re two games behind the Lions with three to play.

But there were two big injury developments that could profoundly affect that race, to Rodgers and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Rodgers injured his right calf on the game’s third play (a 66-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams). This is not the calf he injured down the stretch in 2014. And he’d already been playing the past few weeks with a tender left hamstring.

After the game, Rodgers was walking gingerly as he made his way up a couple steps to the podium in the media auditorium. He said it was too soon after the injury to know how its severity compared to 2014, and with how guarded NFL teams are with injury information, we probably won’t know until we see him playing at Soldier Field next week.

Things sound at least as bad for Stafford, who reportedly sustained torn ligaments when he dislocated the middle finger of his throwing hand. Reports said the top of his finger was bent downward at a 90-degree angle and that he had no control over it. He reportedly will have to play the rest of the season wearing a glove, and he presumably also will have some type of splint to protect the finger.

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Stafford is in the running for league MVP, and the degree to which the injury affects his throwing could make this big. He is the Lions’ offense. Their next two games are on the road against the New York Giants (9-4) and Dallas Cowboys (11-2), who squared off Sunday night. If the Packers win at Chicago and then at home against Minnesota, and Detroit loses either of the next two, then the Packers-Lions season finale in Detroit will be for the division title.

But the Packers are in the thick of the running for a wild-card spot, too. Their win Sunday leaves them tied for the eighth-best record in the NFC, and the top six teams — four division champs and two wild cards — make the postseason. There still are too many tiebreaker variables to be determined, but the Packers’ formerly flagging playoff chances just got a huge jolt.

“I’d say strong to quite strong,” was Rodgers’ assessment of the Packers’ playoff chances.

And Rodgers is one of the main reasons. He officially is on a roll now, and his MVP history shows he’s capable of playing at this level for weeks at a time. His passer rating over the last four games is 121.1, and Sunday he was almost flawless despite the limited mobility from his hamstring and calf injuries.

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Where early in the season he was occasionally missing throws, he more recently has been right on the money almost all the time. His 150.8 rating Sunday was just shy of the 158.3 maximum, and time after time he sat behind the great protection from his offensive line and threw strikes. His 66-yard bomb to Adams, for instance, hit the receiver perfectly in stride.

And this time, there were no caveats with the opponent. The Seahawks came into this game leading the league in fewest points allowed. Even without injured safety Earl Thomas, the Seahawks have the most star-studded defense in the league with Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman leading a strong supporting cast. Rodgers and the Packers made them look like chumps while hanging 38 points on them.

“That was very frustrating, you know, to just watch (Rodgers) to have so much ease and throwing and completing balls on us,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “This is such a rare occurrence for our team. We’ve been playing a lot of years and have not seen a game like this.”

To be sure, the 8-4-1 Seahawks are not the same team on the road as at home. They’ve been a lame offense on the road much of the season, including putting up only three points at Los Angeles, six at Arizona and five at Tampa Bay.

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But quarterback Russell Wilson was playing hurt in those games, too. He was back to full strength last week, yet a week after putting up 40 points against Carolina, he and his receivers had a miserable day at Lambeau.

Wilson missed two wide-open receivers for what would have been long touchdown passes early — in the first quarter he overshot Doug Baldwin on one and tight end Jimmy Graham on one the other. That cost them 11 points (they kicked a field goal on one of those drives) at a time when the game was close. And then two of Wilson’s five interceptions came on what should have been routine catches that simply caromed off the hands of his receivers — Baldwin on one, running back Troymaine Pope on the other.

Regardless, the Packers played their best game of the season Sunday, and they did it in December, when teams are hoping to be at their best. The question now is whether this will be the high point of their 2016, or whether it’s a sign that this is a different team than it was a month ago.

“A decisive victory versus an excellent football team,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “A big chunk of confidence comes with this, but it's one win, 7-6 and we're on to Chicago."

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