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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Watching Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ offense put up 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime Sunday, it was hard not to wonder, where’s this been all season?

They hadn’t played like this since the second half of the regular-season opener, when Rodgers brought them back to beat the Chicago Bears while essentially playing on one leg.

It has been a long time since the Packers looked like they were playing on a field tilted in their favor. But that’s the way it looked in the final 23½ minutes of their come-from-behind, 44-38 overtime win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

Rodgers, too, admitted wondering where this has been.

“It’s frustrating. It’s hard to really figure that out,” he said. “I think the biggest thing you can point to is just the urgency level is so high. It’s hard to replicate that in the first quarter because you know you’ve got more opportunities and there will be more possessions. When you get in those situations, you know you’ve got to score. I don’t know what it is with the collective, but we all kind of raised our level of play. Yeah, of course, you wish you could harness that feeling (earlier), but it’s just not the same.”

That late-game urgency might explain a little of it, but the Packers have trailed in the fourth quarter in plenty of games this year and failed to come through. This was probably Rodgers’ best game of a highly disappointing year. He put up a 103.8 rating, threw for 442 yards, and most importantly led his team back after it twice fell behind by two touchdowns and a third time trailing by 15 points early in the fourth quarter.

Of course it’s too little, too late to rescue the season or produce a, as they say, galvanizing moment. The playoffs are out of reach for the Packers, so this win does nothing for them in any tangible sense. And it’s not like they beat a good team. The Jets are now in last place in the AFC East at 4-11.

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But this was exactly why the Packers were right to play Rodgers even though they’re out of the playoff hunt. They won’t carry any momentum over to next season, but even if there’s a lot of turnover on the roster, plenty of players will be back on this team next season, and they’ll have seen their quarterback not only strap it up in a game that didn’t mean anything in the standings, but also watched him play well with the game on the line. They hadn’t seen much of that this year, and that image can carry over to next season. Same for Rodgers, who also scrambled four times for 31 yards and a touchdown and scored another TD on a dicey one-yard sneak.

“What kind of leader would I be if, ‘Well, I could probably play but maybe I’ll shut it down until next year,’” Rodgers said. “That’s the type of competitor that I am. I like to put my body on the line for my teammates and let them know that I want to be out there, that it matters, that their presence on the field matters, as well. Hopefully, they saw that this week, they saw that today, they saw us battle. Maybe that sticks with them and means something down the line when we need it.”

Some Packers fans surely will lament that their team won and thus hurt its draft standing. Best as I can tell, the Packers will sit at No. 13 or No. 14 in the draft order with one week left in the season, depending on how Denver (6-8) does Monday night against Oakland. If the Packers had lost, they’d have been at about No. 10.

Of course the higher you pick in the draft the better. But the Packers have two first-round picks next year — their own and New Orleans’ — so if there’s a player general manager Brian Gutekunst truly covets in the top five, he should have the ammo to go get him even if the Packers move down another couple spots with a win over Detroit in next week’s finale.

More important is that the Packers get Rodgers playing great again, because if that doesn’t happen they’re not going anywhere next year anyway. And though it was a rocky road for much of the game Sunday, Rodgers came through several times in bringing his team back from 15 points down in the fourth quarter. That included getting them the lead with a touchdown drive in the final three minutes and audibling to Davante Adams for the game-winning, 16-yard touchdown pass in overtime.

“I thought (Rodgers) played exceptionally well today,” interim coach Joe Philbin said. “I mean, I thought he made great decisions, he handled the two-minute situations extremely really well. I thought he played a really fine football game.”

You don’t want to read too much into a win in a game between two teams who are already out of the playoffs. But by not capitulating, the players showed respect for Philbin. Going into the fourth quarter, they looked defeated, yet they kept playing hard and to win.

It’s very likely too little, too late for Philbin to get the job in the offseason — without knowing what CEO Mark Murphy really thinks, the best guess is he’ll look to start fresh with a coach who wasn’t on staff the last few years. Still, a win’s a win, and Philbin saved the franchise the embarrassment of going winless on the road for the first time since the worst season in team history, 1958 (1-10-1).

All that’s left now in finishing out the season against Detroit is to get a longer look at some young players for next year and see if Rodgers can finish his forgettable season on a promising note.

 

 

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