Packers 30, Lions 20: 2-minute drill

Packers 30, Lions 20: 2-minute drill

Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 30-20 victory over the Detroit Lions Sunday at Lambeau Field, as the Packers finished the regular season 12-4 and earned their fourth consecutive NFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs:

Thumbs up:  In Aaron Rodgers’ risk-assessing mind, the possibility of a first-round playoff bye was certainly part of the equation. That his team earned that bye was the best thing that happened Sunday.

As the Packers quarterback argued with team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie about going back into Sunday’s game after reinjuring his left calf during the second quarter, here’s what he was thinking:

Win, and I get an extra week to heal. Lose, and we’re off to Dallas next weekend, and I probably won’t be 100 percent by then.

For Rodgers, the reward outweighed the risk. And as a result, his injured calf will have two weeks of treatment, rehabilitation and convalescing before the Packers have to play another game.

“As bad as it felt, I thought if I can go out there and be able to do some things and we win, I get another week to rehab it. That was definitely in my mind,” Rodgers confessed after returning to the game midway through the third quarter to finish the game 17 of 22 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 139.6. “Obviously that doesn’t hinge on the minds of the medical staff, they’re thinking about what’s in the best interests of the player.”

One thing everyone could agree on was that the bye is in the best interest of all the Packers’ players. Having had their bye at the midpoint of the season, after an Oct. 26 loss at New Orleans, the Packers are ready for some recovery time.

“It’s huge,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You look at these eight weeks in which we’ve played coming off of the bye week; we’ve played some good ball. But at the same time … getting some downtime to rest, I think, is much needed. We’ll take it.”

Or, as left guard Josh Sitton put it, “I’ll take that week off. I’ve been banging my body for 23 weeks. You need time to heal.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose team lost its 2012 regular-season finale at Minnesota with a first-round bye on the line, called the bye “critical” to Rodgers’ recovery.

“I think the two weeks is huge for us,” McCarthy said. Asked about the importance of playing their next game at home, McCarthy replied, “We prefer to play here. But this is playoff football now. Everything changes once we get going in two weeks. Playing at home doesn’t guarantee you anything and there are no guarantees, but this is definitely where we prefer to play.”

Thumbs down:  What an embarrassment the Packers’ kick protection has been this season. While Micah Hyde’s punt return was huge, the special teams left with another black eye as kicker Mason Crosby’s potentially crucial 52-yard field-goal attempt was blocked early in the fourth quarter. The Packers’ lead was only 21-14 at the time.

It was the alarming seventh blocked kick – three field goals, two extra points, two punts – allowed by the Packers this season.

“The field-goal protection has been an issue,” McCarthy acknowledged. “There’s no excuse for it. It’s an emphasis. It’s obviously an emphasis of our opponent, the way they’re coming after us. We have to do a much better job there. That’s not cutting it.”

On the play, Detroit’s Isa Abdul-Quddus knifed in from Crosby’s left to block the kick, but he wasn’t the only Lions player to break through. It appeared to be a total protection breakdown.

“I had to just move on because there’s still a lot of game left, but I felt like I put a good strike on it,” Crosby said. “I felt like the guy kind of hit the ball before it even had a chance to get up. We’ll take a look at it, and we’ve got to correct it for the playoffs here.”

Player of the game:  On Tuesday, Rodgers spoke on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com about some of the most memorable moments of his career – and as he walked back onto the field during the third quarter, intent on returning to the game, two of those moments flashed in his mind: The 2008 regular-season finale against the Lions, when Rodgers walked off the field after his first post-Brett Favre year as the starter to a kind ovation from the remaining Lambeau Field fans, and his walk back onto the field in a hoodie and sweatpants last year after fracturing his collarbone – an injury that would cost him essentially eight games.

“That was one of the top-5 moments of my career,” Rodgers said of the cheers he received after that 2008 game, a victory that left the Packers at 6-10 on the year. “Not even the game – just that feeling, walking off the field. I would put it up there with obviously the Super Bowl and the playoff run; the Atlanta game (in the 2010 NFC Divisional Playoffs); the game at USC in college, even though we lost (in 2004, when Rodgers completed his first 23 passes) and the feeling of being ‘in the zone;’ winning the big game (against Stanford) my last year at Cal; and then walking back on the field after I broke my collarbone. That ovation s right up there with the ovation after the Detroit game.

“I mean, we were a 6-10 football team. And I remember walking off, proud about what had just happened, winning the game, but obviously disappointed that that was the last game of the year.

“The ovation meant a lot to me because it had been a long year – starting with Brett’s retirement, me being named the starter, then they drafted a cople guys and Brett was thinking about coming back and all that stuff happened. And then to have the ups and downs of the season, where we started off and won a couple, then had a losing streak in November and December. Just that moment gave me an excitement about the future and really gave me the beginning of a really strong connection that I felt between the fans and myself where there was just an overflow of love coming from them to me, and then me in my mind giving it right back.

“So that’s always going to be a really special moment to me, and definitely one of my top 5 moments of my career.”

Sunday, he added another, as he returned to the field to chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” and then was able to deliver the victory his team needed.

“It’s special,” Rodgers said in his post-game press conference. “[It] brought back some memories of two occasions. One, when we beat Detroit back in ‘08, we were 6-10 and the ovation I got. Then the ovation when I returned to the field after breaking my collarbone. Those are special moments for me, moments I’ll never forget. That kind of gave me another jolt too, that, ‘I’ve got to get back out there.’ With our fans, if it can give them a jolt, it’ll give the guys a jolt too.”

Play of the day:  While running back Eddie Lacy’s production was vital (26 carries, 100 yards) against the league’s No. 1 run defense, and Hyde’s punt return was a huge early lift, the play that seemingly reassured everyone in the building that Rodgers was indeed going to be able to be himself upon his return came on his first throw after he emerged from the locker room.

After two runs by Lacy and one by Starks had the Packers facing first-and-10 from the Detroit 48, Rodgers unleashed a laser throw to wide receiver Randall Cobb across the middle. Cobb snared the fastball at the Detroit 35-yard line and gained another 16 yards thereafter, and the 29-yard gain set up Cobb’s 13-yard TD catch from Rodgers three plays later.

“It was dramatic, but it was great. It was definitely great to have him back,” Cobb said. “Just to have him back on the field, just him, his presence, it’s huge for us as a team. Obviously, I think everybody responded really well to him coming back on the field.

“He was hurtin’ out there, and you could see it on his face, and for him to come back out and play the way he did is huge.

Inside slant:  Because Rodgers’ dramatic return got so much of the attention, one of the more impressive individual statistical accomplishments in recent memory flew under the radar Sunday. But that didn’t make what Jordy Nelson did this season any less impressive.

With six catches for 86 yards, Nelson finished the season with 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year – breaking Robert Brooks’ franchise record for receiving yards, set in 1995. Nelson’s 98 catches were the fourth-most in franchise history.

“Jordy Nelson’s had an amazing year, obviously. As a coach, it’s what you’re looking for,” McCarthy said. “He’s the example. He’s what a Green Bay Packer, what you want every young guy to come in and take a look at, just the way he goes about his business, the way he approaches work every single day, he’s the same person every day, and just the way he works his craft. I couldn’t be happier for him as a person. He’s as fine a young man that we’ve had here. I’m just really proud of what Jordy accomplished today.”

Rodgers was equally thrilled for his friend, who joined the team as a second-round pick in 2008, the year Rodgers ascended to the starting job.

“[Nelson] probably had one of the quieter 1,500-yard seasons that the league has seen,” Rodgers said. “He’s a guy you can really count on to bring it every single week. He goes up against top corners and makes a lot of plays. He’s incredibly intelligent. He just does it all. He blocks for his teammates, he’s a great leader for us.

“I said it this last week: I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the league. There’s a lot of great receivers in this league, but he’s the guy I want lining up for me.”

By the numbers:

The most productive receiving seasons in Packers history …

Most receiving yards, season:

1,519 – Jordy Nelson, 2014

1,497 – Robert Brooks, 1995

1,461 – Sterling Sharpe, 1992

1,424 – Antonio Freeman, 1998

1,423 – Sterling Sharpe, 1989

1,382 – Javon Walker, 2004

1,361 – James Lofton, 1984

1,314 – Jordy Nelson, 2013

1,300 – James Lofton, 1983

1,295 – Donald Driver, 2006

1,294 – James Lofton, 1981

1,292 – Greg Jennings, 2008

1,287 – Randall Cobb, 2014

Most receptions, season:

112 – Sterling Sharpe, 1993

108 – Sterling Sharpe, 1992

102 – Robert Brooks, 1995

98 – Jordy Nelson, 2014

94 – Sterling Sharpe, 1994

92 – Donald Driver, 2006

90 – Sterling Sharpe, 1989

Looking ahead to 2015: The Packers’ 2015 opponents are set. In addition to their home-and-home series with NFC North rivals Detroit (11-5), Minnesota (7-9) and Chicago (5-11), all but two of their 2015 games were set before kickoff Sunday. At home, the NFL scheduling formula has the Packers facing the NFC West’s St. Louis (6-10) and Seattle (12-4) and the AFC West’s Kansas City (9-7) and San Diego (9-7). On the road, the formula has the Packers playing at the AFC West’s Oakland (3-13) and Denver (12-4) and at the NFC West’s San Francisco (8-8) and Arizona (11-5).

The two games that were decided by the Packers’ victory and resulting first-place division finish were a home game against Dallas (12-4), which won the NFC East, and a road game at Carolina (7-8-1), which won the NFC South.

The NFL releases its full schedule in the springtime.

Quote, unquote:  “I don’t know. This is a championship football team. I don’t have a statistic to validate my opinion.” – McCarthy, replying when asked if this is the most physical team he’s had.

Injury report:  Rodgers’ calf injury was the only injury announced by the team. The only player inactive due to injury for the Packers was cornerback Davon House (shoulder). The other inactives were running back DuJuan Harris, linebacker Carl Bradford, center Garth Gerhart, tight end Justin Perillo, wide receiver Jeff Janis and defensive lineman Bruce Gaston.

Up next:  The Packers secured a first-round bye and are off this week. They’ll play next on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 12:05 CST at Lambeau Field against the fifth-seeded Arizona Cardinals, fourth-seeded Carolina Panthers or third-seeded Dallas Cowboys. As the No. 2 seed, the Packers will face the highest remaining seed after next weekend’s games – likely Dallas – while the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks would face the lowest. If Dallas loses to the sixth-seeded Lions, Detroit goes to Seattle and Green Bay gets the Arizona-Carolina winner.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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