Two years ago, Aaron Rodgers had his famous “r-e-l-a-x” moment. This season, he sounded a similar positive note after the Packers fell to 4-6: “I feel like we can run the table,” Rodgers said. “I really do.”
He is one Sunday game from being right. He might be one win from the MVP, too.
The Packers ripped off their fifth straight win Saturday, 38-25 over the Vikings, turning next week’s trip to Detroit—regardless of what the Lions do in Dallas two nights from now—into a winner-take-all battle for the NFC North. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone betting against Green Bay.
Rodgers put a scare into the Lambeau Field crowd Saturday when he stayed down an extra few seconds following a crunching sack by Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks. Otherwise, he looked as healthy as he has in weeks, escaping the pocket on numerous occasions to keep plays alive.
One such play resulted in a vintage TD connection with Jordy Nelson. Rodgers danced behind the line of scrimmage to keep a play alive, just long enough for Nelson to shake coverage in the back of the end zone. That marked one of Nelson’s two scores during a 154-yard day. Rodgers totaled 347 yards passing and four touchdowns.
There are few connections in the league as potent as the Rodgers-Nelson combo, and there arguably is not a better duo when it comes to creating outside the designed construct of a play. When Rodgers gets in trouble, he looks for Nelson; more often than not, Nelson has enough space to make a catch.
Regardless of whether Rodgers takes home the MVP award (and he has to be right up there with Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott now), Nelson has to be the leader in the clubhouse for Comeback Player of the Year.
Nelson, though, has been doing this all season, from the moment he stepped back on the field following last year’s ACL injury. He may be more comfortable now than he was in, say, Week 1, but he came out of the gate with five TDs over Green Bay’s first four games. Even when the Packers’ offense was reeling, Rodgers knew he could turn to Nelson.
What’s really different over the past month-plus is the result of a blessing in disguise in the backfield. Almost out of necessity brought on by injuries to Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Don Jackson, the Packers shifted Ty Montgomery from receiver to starting running back.
Montgomery has not always been a high-usage contributor—he had just one carry in Week 12 with Starks back in the lineup, and Christine Michael has swiped some opportunities of late—but his mere presence helped open up the Packers’ playbook. No longer are they a one-note team merely asking their receivers to win isolation routes all day. Now, with Montgomery coming out of the backfield, the Packers are much harder to handle.
The results have been apparent in recent weeks, with Rodgers settling into one of his prototypical hot streaks. He’s throwing on rhythm, manipulating the pocket when necessary and giving his receivers chances on contested throws. All the things the star QB does when he is at his best.
Gone, at least for the time being, are the moments from last season or early 2016 when Rodgers appeared as hesitant as he has really at any point in his career. These past five weeks have been return to the Rodgers of yore.
And so, Green Bay will head into the Motor City next weekend riding a wave of confidence. The Packers actually could lose that game and still sneak into the playoffs as a dangerous wild card (Washington and Tampa Bay each have to lose in that scenario), but their sights clearly are set on the division title.
There is no question they have been the best team in the NFC North since late November. Only the Lions’ knack for dramatic finishes plus the Packers’ sluggish start to ’16 kept Detroit atop the division this long.
The standings could change next Sunday, at the last possible moment. The Packers, led by their MVP candidate at QB, are one victory away from erasing the memory of all that once ailed them.