HOUSTON – Tom Crabtree got an inkling of what might happen during the week. James Jones had more than a feeling – he knew what was going to happen, from the moment he looked across the pregame huddle and saw the look on Aaron Rodgers' face.
There aren't many guys in the Green Bay Packers locker room who know their quarterback better than Crabtree and Jones, two of the NFL MVP's pass-catching targets who've seen Rodgers go to bat for them on multiple occasions. And so, even though both knew that the team's offensive inconsistency wasn't solely the result of Rodgers playing at less than superhuman levels, they weren't the least bit surprised by what they witnessed during Sunday night's 49-24 annihilation of the previously undefeated Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.
"I ain't never seen him that focused. He was extremely focused today. You could see it in his eyes. You could see it when he talked to us," Jones said after watching Rodgers completed 24 of 37 passes for 338 yards with a franchise record-tying six touchdowns (two of which Jones caught) and no interceptions (133.8 passer rating) in a performance that had basically been the norm last season.
"You know, he calls us up before every game, and he was just like, ‘I'm going to be the lead dog. Follow me. I'm going to make some plays. I haven't been playing that well. I'm going to make some plays.' I think he was just extremely focused tonight, and it showed up out there on the field.
"Everybody's telling him he's been playing bad, and he actually hasn't been playing that bad. But when you're losing, the finger has to go to somebody. And I felt like because he's the quarterback, all of us were leaning on him. I think he just wanted to come out here and put together a complete game and be the Aaron Rodgers that everybody knows he can be. And he did that tonight."
That it did. After a five-game run during which he'd simply been good (10 touchdowns, four interceptions, 97.0 rating), Rodgers was brilliant against one of the NFL's best defenses. But the seeds of the performance had been sown during the week, while Rodgers was taking criticism from various precincts outside – and, based on several some reports, inside – the locker room.
"You know, throughout the week, he just talked to us as an offense," said Crabtree, who caught a 48-yard touchdown from Rodgers that sealed the deal – something the Packers had failed to do at Indianapolis seven days prior. "He put it on his shoulders this week. He talked about his game and how he needs to step up, which is fine. It's good for him to feel that way, but as an offense, I think we all felt like we all needed to step up. It was every man."
Perhaps it was. After all, the Packers (3-3) climbed back to .500 thanks to tour de force pass-catching performances from Jordy Nelson (nine receptions, 121 yards, three touchdowns), Randall Cobb (seven catches, 102 yards) and Jones (only three receptions for 33 yards, but two for TDs) with Greg Jennings out; solid complementary showings from fill-ins like running back Alex Green (22 carries, 65 yards in place of an injured Cedric Benson), dime back Casey Hayward (two interceptions) and defensive ends Jerel Worthy and C.J. Wilson (one sack each with B.J. Raji sidelined); and an impressive protection racket from the much-maligned offensive line, which allowed only two J.J. Watt sacks – both of which Rodgers took the blame for.
Even the defense, which was coming off back-to-back troubling performances, came together, holding running back Arian Foster (17 carries, 29 yards) in check without Raji and getting after quarterback Matt Schaub, who came into the game having been intercepted twice and sacked three times in five games – and was intercepted twice and sacked three times on Sunday night alone.
"The criticism, it's (been) warranted," veteran safety Charles Woodson said. "We played some bad football in stretches. We had opportunities to win games and came up short. Today, we were able to get on top of a team and stay on top of a team."
But it was Rodgers who'd endured the greatest scrutiny during the week, from both frequent national critics and some locals, before CBS Sports' Shannon Sharpe took it to an even higher level during the network's pregame show Sunday morning. Not only did Sharpe suggest Rodgers' receivers don't like him, he said Rodgers does "a lot of finger-pointing" and went so far as to say that "just because you're a great quarterback and an MVP quarterback, that doesn't make you a great person."
Rodgers didn't specifically address any of the criticism but acknowledged he was aware of it.
"Of course, I heard it," Rodgers said. "It wasn't like I paid a lot of attention to it, but people, whether it's good stuff or bad stuff, friends of mine, they like to tell me what's being said out there. I'm not somebody that watches a ton of TV or puts a whole lot of worth into some of those comments, but I feel like I've always played with a chip on my shoulder. It helps when people give me a reason to have that chip."
He clearly had that chip on Sunday night, and it benefitted the Packers big-time.
"He's jumped over a lot bigger hurdles than this week," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's for sure."
True, but it had also been a long time since Rodgers or the Packers had faced such a critical regular-season game. And after too many uneven performances to start the year, they answered the bell.
"I was very pleased with the way we came out. When we came out of the tunnel, I thought that the energy was excellent – from the first snap to the conclusion of the game," McCarthy said. "I thought we took a step as a team tonight. I was pleased with the way we played."
The Packers took a 7-0 lead by getting their first opening-drive points of the season – after leading the NFL in first-possession scoring last season with 59 points (eight touchdowns, one field goal) – with a little help from the Texans.
After a three-and-out by the Packers defense and a nice third-down conversion on a Rodgers-to-Nelson 9-yard completion, the drive stalled at the Texans' 46-yard line, forcing a punt. But Houston's DeVier Posey was flagged for being offsides on the punt, and the Packers were given a first down and new life.
On the very next play, Rodgers – after missing Jones down the left sideline on third-and-3 – was right on the money to Nelson down the right side, delivering a 41-yard touchdown for the 7-0 lead.
Green Bay then pushed the lead to 14-0 two drives later, without the Texans cooperation. On the first play of the series, Rodgers Houdini'ed his way out of a sure sack by Connor Barwin and found Randall Cobb for a 24-yard gain. Rodgers followed that with a 9-yard completion to Jones before another jaw-dropper: Eluding an unblocked Brooks Reed, Rodgers backhanded the ball to Crabtree for a 14-yard gain that ended with Crabtree running over linebacker Bradie James.
On the next play, Rodgers hit Jones, who made a diving, sliding, fully extended catch for a 6-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
The Texans answered with a drive of their own, during which the Packers lost rookie first-round pick Nick Perry to a knee injury. A third-down Matt Schaub-to-Kevin Walter completion that went for 16 yards got things going, and when Schaub hit tight end Owen Daniels for another 15 yards and hard-luck cornerback Sam Shields was flagged for yet another questionable pass interference penalty (for 26 yards), the Texans were in business. Two plays later, Arian Foster scored from 1 yard out to make it 14-7.
But the Packers came right back with a touchdown drive of their own. Rodgers picked up a third-and-1 with a QB sneak, then converted the next third-down play with a 10-yard completion to Nelson. The Packers then got a pass interference call of their own on Houston's Kareem Jackson, setting up Rodgers' 21-yard scoring strike to Nelson to make it 21-7. The Texans then got a field goal with 2:15 left in the half to make it 21-10 at the break.
The Packers then took the opening kickoff and bled nearly seven minutes of clock, again with the help of Texans penalties. After drops by Nelson and Jermichael Finley left them with fourth-and-20 at the Houston 21-yard line and brought kicker Mason Crosby out for a 39-yard field goal, Barwin was flagged for leaping on the attempted block – climbing up the back of J.J. Watt – to keep the drive going.
And when Cobb was stopped short on a third-and-14 completion at the Houston 4, the Texans again obliged, with safety Danieal Manning being flagged for punching left tackle Marshall Newhouse while Newhouse was laying on top of him, the Packers had first-and-goal at the 2. Two plays later, Rodgers hit Nelson for a 1-yard TD and it was 28-10.
Although the Texans didn't quit – a 27-yard Daniels catch-and-run jump-started the ensuing drive, which ended in another Foster 1-yard TD plunge – the Packers applied the knockout punch thereafter. A 46-yard Cobb kickoff return was followed by Rodgers' fifth touchdown pass of the night: A 48-yarder to a wide-open Crabtree while absorbing a crushing, legal hit from linebacker Brooks Reed. Two plays later, Sam Shields picked off Schaub, setting up Rodgers' sixth TD strike, an 18-yarder on which Jones made a ridiculous one-handed catch.
From there, it looked like a preseason game. Rodgers took a seat on the bench, backup Graham Harrell took over the job of handing off and the Packers had silenced their critics – at least for this week.
Rodgers, meanwhile, was already looking ahead. While he playfully told the NBC Sunday Night Football crew his message to critics ("Shhhhh") and also served notice ("We haven't gone anywhere"), he also made it clear that the victory has to be a building block that leads to another triumph next week at St. Louis – and beyond.
"I think so, I really do," Rodgers said when asked if the victory would be a turning point. "We talked about this week getting some momentum against a very good football team that was undefeated who's been probably at the top on most people's rankings as far as best team in the NFL — that's what kind of the talk's been. To win in their place was big for us. Now we've got to keep this momentum going.
"This was an important game for us. We've had a couple not go our way, games we should have won, and 2-4 would have been very difficult. We've got a tough stretch still to play. Another road game next week before we get to come home. A lot of very good teams on our schedule left, five division games. You can't add up too many losses early in the season.
"I said it this week: There's not any quit in that locker room. It's almost better when people are doubting us a little bit, I think, and we kind of band together. People tried to pull us apart this week and we stuck together and found our motivation within."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.