GREEN BAY - Steadily falling snow and treacherous footing once meant base personnel, a muscle back steamrolling through the opposition and another dominating victory for the Green Bay Packers.
That wasn’t the picture Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, but at this point in the season little matters beyond the final score.
Ever resourceful, Mike McCarthy, Dom Capers and Aaron Rodgers made adjustment after adjustment and, in the end, repulsed the equally determined Houston Texans, 21-13, in a game that was vital for both teams.
“This is our time of year now,” said McCarthy. “December football. Obviously, we know what our record is, too. These games are the hardest of the year.”
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Both sides schlepped out of the snowy stadium carrying .500 records and with similar hopes of catching fire over the last quarter of the season to forge a berth in the post-season.
After a third straight defeat, the Texans sunk into a tie with idle Tennessee atop the AFC South Division.
“Very hard-fought game,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “Give a lot of credit to Green Bay. They just did a little bit more than we did.”
Meanwhile, the Packers failed to gain ground in the NFC North when Detroit, a 6 ½-point underdog, beat the Saints in New Orleans, 28-13, for one of its biggest victories in years.
The Lions (8-4) remained two games ahead of Minnesota and Green Bay, both at 6-6. However, the Packers did gain ground in the wild-card race when the New York Giants (8-4), Atlanta (7-5) and Washington (6-5-1) all lost.
“Obviously, we were hoping they weren’t going to win,” kicker Mason Crosby said, referring to the Lions. “It’s tough going down there to New Orleans.
“They’re playing well right now. Finding ways to win games. Obviously, with all the close games, some of that is building confidence in them.”
In the next breath, Crosby expressed confidence in the manner in which the Packers, a 4-6 mess seven days ago following a fourth straight setback, disposed of Philadelphia on the road and a division leader at home.
“We are where we are, but we’re doing the right things these last two weeks,” said Crosby, whose 10 years of seniority rank second on the roster to Rodgers. “In any adverse situations we just bounced back and made plays the last two weeks. That’s really been prevalent in this team.
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“All three phases are making some plays. We’ve committed to doing a little bit more. It’s showing.”
For much of McCarthy’s first decade on the sidelines he had a bruising back to saddle through the snow, slush and slipperiness of Lambeau.
There was Ahman Green for that first season in 2006, Ryan Grant for three and Eddie Lacy for three. When the Packers won the Super Bowl six years ago, James Starks hammered people in the playoffs.
The Texans took a major hit Saturday when it was announced that Jadeveon Clowney, a disruptive edge-setter and penetrator against the run, wouldn’t make the trip because of an elbow injury. They already were missing the great J.J. Watt from their front seven.
Given those absences, McCarthy surely would have made this an Eddie Lacy kind of day because the snowfall (about 2 inches by game’s end) presumably would make fancy football problematic.
“It (footing) was terrible,” Texans tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz said. “There was a lot of snow on the field. It was bad.”
McCarthy tried Starks for the first two series, but when he danced and came close to fumbling for minus-3 on third and 1, he was pulled and ex-Seahawk Christine Michael entered.
The score was tied, 7-7, midway through the third quarter when McCarthy sent out Aaron Ripkowski as the lone setback on fourth and 2. Short-yardage had held back the Packers all day, and it did again when the Texans stacked up the fullback a foot short.
Houston gained one first down before, at a critical juncture in the game, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins dropped what would have been a 10-yard pass for a first down near the Green Bay 25.
“He (Capers) does a great job of mixing it up defensively,” said tackle Duane Brown, a nine-year veteran and the Texans’ best offensive lineman. “Different looks, blitzing from all over. He takes advantage of the (personnel) that he has.
“You’ve got to really communicate. We did a good job, for the most part. The plays we didn’t, they definitely capitalized off them.”
When Shane Lechler’s punt was downed at the 2, McCarthy inserted Ty Montgomery in the backfield. That generally was the look as the Packers followed a remarkable 98-yard touchdown drive with another measuring 89.
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“We’re trying to find what personnel group is going to give us that jolt,” said Rodgers. “It turned out to be our three-receiver set with Ty that gave us that jolt. Every game is different.”
Some older fans in the crowd of 77,867 might have found it hard to identify with the Packers’ wide-open style of offense in the winter weather. About 80% of their plays started with a shotgun snap from Corey Linsley, and the vast majority featured three and four receivers arrayed wide.
“When other teams come here they think we can’t do it, but they (the Packers) know they can,” said defensive lineman Antonio Smith, a 12-year veteran. “They get snow games here every year. They’ve been here so many times, they know the right footing.
“He (Rodgers) knows he can still spread it out. He’s good enough to do that in snow.”
Rodgers didn’t play well in the first half, fumbling away a center exchange at the Houston 2 in the first quarter and making a pair of inaccurate throws on third downs near midfield in the second quarter.
But, with the game begging to be won, Rodgers carved the Texans up in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously, you have a Hall of Fame quarterback, that’ll always give them a chance,” said Brown.
Rodgers threw a sideline strike through the snow to Jared Cook for 10 on third and 8, zipped another pass outside to Davante Adams for 17 and, despite being somewhat limited by a balky hamstring, scrambled for 11.
After that, it was the Jordy Nelson show. He raced by a fallen Charles James, substituting for injured Johnathan Joseph (rib), for a 32-yard touchdown.
When Micah Hyde’s superb deflection on third and 7 forced the Texans to punt, Nelson hung on to a Cover-2 beater in front of O’Brien for 21 before making a contested catch behind nickel back Kareem Jackson for 28.
That set up Ripkowski’s 3-yard touchdown plunge, and rendered academic the Texans’ late 78-yard touchdown drive.
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“It’s no different from the last game we just played with Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates,” Smith said. “When you’ve been throwing passes to somebody for a period of years you know everything about each other. They’ve just got that connection.”
Nelson’s big day (8-118) gave him 42 receptions for 551 yards (13.1) in Games 7-12 compared to 27 for 321 (11.9) in Games 1-6.
“I think everyone would agree that Jordy is back,” said McCarthy.
Now the question becomes, is the Pack back?
Well, they’re back to .500, in the company of the Bills, Titans, Texans and Vikings.
“They’ve got the potential to be good,” said Smith, a hard-working interior pass rusher who earned a Super Bowl ring with Denver in February. “It’s always kind of the circumstances of games they were seeing before.
“With the NFC having the powerhouses they’ve got, I don’t know how they’re going to match up. Dallas, they’re rolling. The Falcons are rolling. Seattle, rolling. It’s tough, but they (the Packers) are still a good team.”
The Packers have climbed back to respectability. They’d become a viable contender in a week with a victory over Seattle.